An elephant dies at Coney Island

No one denied that Topsy was one temperamental elephant.

A resident of Luna Park, one of the spectacular Coney Island amusement parks of the early 1900s, the 28-year-old pachyderm had already killed three trainers.

[Well, one did kind of ask for it by trying to feed her a lit cigarette.]

Luna Park’s boss wanted her put to sleep. This being Coney Island, he made a show of it.

More than a thousand people came to an arena to watch Topsy eat cyanide-laced carrots.

She didn’t die though. After considering hanging, Luna Park officials decided to electrocute her. Enter Thomas Edison, who sought a venue to prove that his direct current was safer than alternating current.

Luna Park gave Edison the go-ahead. On January 5, 1903, more than 1,500 people watched three-ton Topsy take 10 seconds of alternating current. Her grisly end was soundless and instant.

Edison filmed Topsy’s death and called the footage “Electrocuting an Elephant.”

Elephants have a long history entertaining New Yorkers. Read more about it here and here.

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18 Responses to “An elephant dies at Coney Island”

  1. Josie Says:

    Ten seconds? That’s a very long time when red hot irons, so to speak, are applied to every inch of your entire nervous system. She didn’t die instantly or painlessly.

    Probably the most disgraceful thing EVER to happen to Coney Island. One of the most egregious example of the mistreatment of animals.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    You are right–I should have said she “reportedly” died instantly. Accounts at the time also said she died soundlessly but I’m sure her body made a pretty gruesome thud when it hit the ground.

  3. JP Says:

    anyone able to update wikipedia?

  4. JungleMan Says:

    Actually, by 1903 standards, 10 seconds WAS considered “instant.”
    Nothing else at that time was that fast. They didn’t have nanoseconds and cyberspace back then, remember. We need to be careful of judging past history by current standards. What we consider cruel and unusual punishment today, would have been unthinkable and unachievable back then. And what was seen as modern and humane then would be unthinkable today.

    • John Gammon Says:

      I can’t quite agree with JungleMan’s argument. Yes, we do have to beware of judging past history by our standards, but the reason we judge today that some punishments are cruel is because some people back in 1903 must have troubled by what was going on and wanted to have the situation changed. You can see this from the fact that the killing of the elephant is glossed over in past mythology about Edison, so by the time Hollywood had Spencer Tracy play him he had been truly sanitised. A number of prominent thinkers wee discussing the rights of animals through history, and animal protection laws in the US go back to the 17th Century. We can’t assume that everyone who watched the elephant electrocuted in Coney Island and who watched the film when it appeared in cinemas felt fine about it afterwards. A number of them must have felt sick about what they’d witnessed. Eventually this became enough people. Otherwise we’d still have the same standards of behaviour as 1903.

  5. wildnewyork Says:

    Good perspective, thank you.

  6. Randy109 Says:

    I have seen the electrocution footage and it
    was instant death: she just fell over, that was it.
    No gruesome thud, no drama….she fell over
    exactly like a person fainting.

    This stuff about the trainer feeding the
    elephant a lit cigarette is way out there in right field.
    That’s like calling a cop a potential bank
    robber right after he walks out of the academy.

    I’ve read more than once that
    it was a man pretending to feed her.
    The s.o.b. was killed for it, and that’s
    exactly what he deserved
    they should have given that poor
    elephant a ride back to Africa.

  7. John Gammon Says:

    Randy 101 needs to see the Edison film again. Having seen it myself for the first time this evening (it features in Errol Morris’s documentary about Fred A Leuchter), I have to say that it’s just as horrific as it probably was when it was first shown in 1903. It shows the current run through the poor animal, she collapses to the ground in terrifying clouds of smoke, her torso tensed up. Then – presumably the current is switched off at this point – her body relaxes, but her head moves several times. Whether the film is incomplete I have no idea, I’ve watched three versions, and in all three the film appears to cut off before the animal is shown dead. Alas history doesn’t appear to tell us why Topsy killed the first two handlers, but clearly she was abused by the third. Practically every elephant in the US at that time would have been in a zoo or a circus – no wonder that every now and then one would become angry. Watching the film I felt ashamed for the human race. Incidentally, the most humane and standard way of killing a rogue elephant was to shoot it (see George Orwell’s account), though elephant killers must have decided to try other methods (see the disgusting photograph of Mary the Elephant in Tennessee, a dozen or so years later). I suspect in this case the method was used to test electrocution on a dumb animal. In the case of both Topsy and Mary, the owners managed to get a big crowd for their terrifying show. Topsy, and Mary, RIP.

    • Dawn Says:

      John Gammon I agree. I have viewed the film also and this huge beautiful animal did not die immediately and it was not painless….beside the fact that Topsy had already been fed poisonous carrots, so no one knows how that felt physically. It had to have made Topsy sick, no matter what. It was terribly horrific! Topsy did not die immediately or even in a couple of seconds. Watch carefully the film if you do not believe it.

      One can see Topsy had no problem and seemed to enjoy the last walk (poor thing had no idea ‘humans’ were going to hurt her to death). Obviously Topsy had no fear and seemed to even trust the one walking with her.(even with such a crowd). That is what hurts my heart and makes it even more sad. So often we have ignorant humans that think animals (forgetting we humans are considered such also) have no thoughts, feelings, emotions, intelligence, etc. [of course mass gassing of animals to dispose of them in government animal control areas is also Horrific (and sad) and should be stopped ~ if one does not believe this, go on YouTube and watch if you think you can handle it ~ again humans placed on earth and given charge to care for the lesser animals have failed]

      I too “felt ashamed of the human race” watching it. It seriously made me sick.

      Yes it was done this way for two reasons $$$$ and Edison wanted to prove that his way was better than other ways in the use of electric current. It had no part in really what Topsy was or what Topsy had done. They were just able to get by with it because Topsy had been known to have killed 3 persons (whether they had abused Topsy in any way didn’t matter~was ignored). This fact made it easier to give a reason to destroy Topsy. This all was probably decided after closed talks about the fact everyone could make money on this one and convince the world that it was best to get rid of a ‘killer’ Topsy. If Topsy was so dangerous, why did they take such a chance to move Topsy to the location they were going to do the electrocution at with so many persons surrounding the elephant while making that last walk. Of course, I am talking about ignorant humans too.

      I pray for all.

      • Dawn Says:

        I forgot to add, it is know that Edison had already before Topsy been doing electrocution on other animals. He killed many animals by electrocution. (One sure will not read that in our books of education, as well as other hidden facts of many of those in our books we teach from.

  8. Topsy the Elephant - History - Animals Famous People Inventors United States - History By Zim Says:

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  9. John Gammon Says:

    Incidentally, there’s an excellent documentary that HBO have made about the subject called An Apology to Elephants (2013). It’s very timely where I come from in England, as Parliament has recently been discussing relaxing rules on some animals being used in circuses, such as zebras. Animals were banned years ago from British circuses, with the result that if you go to one you’re liable to see a vastly better show. For some reason a group of MPs have been muddying the waters.

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    […] elephant, a temperamental creature brought to Luna Park so park-goers could ride on her back, was put to death by electrocution there in 1903 under the direction of Thomas Edison, who wanted to test his new direct […]

  13. Blakeney Says:

    Rest in Peace, Topsy.

  14. Renata Zednicek Says:

    “Temperamental”??? She was deprived of her freedom, spent her life in chains, beaten, fed burning cigarettes, prodded, jeered at, had zero control over her life and knew not an ounce of love, and when she finally snapped (likely out of fear, grief, or panic) she was painfully executed for entertainment. “Died instantly???” Untrue. Is that supposed to make it better? Disgusting acts by disgusting Barbarians who should have been sentenced as criminals. Ban circuses. Ban zoos. Today is no better. No matter how supposedly “humanely” they are now treated, there is nothing humane about enslavement.

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