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Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison by Michael Daly

December 1, 2013


This is a story of late-19th-century American optimism, ambition and capitalism. It is about greed, ambition, charlatanism, and a changing country, told through the true, peculiar conflux of the circus (specifically the importation and treatment of elephants) and the competition between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over which form of electricity (AC or DC) would power America’s rapidly growing cities and towns.

As one might imagine, the elephants do not fare well in this story. The book details how they were captured in Africa and shipped to the U.S. (and elsewhere in the world), where they eventually became the centerpiece of the circuses. The ever-colorful P.T. Barnum plays prominently in this story, and perhaps the most enjoyable part of it are the early days when he and his rivals would claim basically anything to get people into their shows. Barnum often published anonymous, antagonistic letters about his own shows in local papers to drum up controversy (and interest). The “freakshow” hit its peak in popularity at this point, complete with miniature people, mermaids and bearded ladies. And the “rare albino elephant,” appeared—nothing more than an elephant painted white.

Unfortunately, the elephants had little to laugh about.  The predominant method of training an elephant was through brutality. Even well into the 20th century, there were only a few trainers who believed in more gentle ways of working with elephants. Thus, it wasn’t uncommon for an elephant to revolt and kill its trainer in a fit of rage. Violent elephants were often killed, typically by strangulation, and the execution of elephants became a particularly barbaric public spectacle.

Switch gears, then, to Edison and Westinghouse. There was a fortune and quite a bit of pride at stake in the battle over whether AC or DC current would electrify the world. Therefore, it was in the interest of both men to not only prove the advantages of their chosen form but also prove the drawbacks of their competitor’s. To that end, Edison constantly tried to prove that AC current was deadly. Part of his strategy was to suggest that it be used for electrocutions (including the electrocution of the first man in 1890—ultimately a grotesque fiasco). Edison eventually suggested electrocution by AC current as the technique for which to execute unruly elephants. And even after the AC/DC debate was settled (with Edison on the losing end), he remained obsessed with electrocuting an elephant. Topsy would be the unfortunate victim.

This book is full of interesting trivia. At times the stories seem a little off topic, unless one considers that this book is less about an elephant and an inventor and more about the unrealized promises of the Guilded Age. With the World’s Fairs, the World Expos, the construction of Luna Park and Madison Square Garden, it was the age of great displays of wealth and promise for the future. But underlying that all was the sordid underbelly of humanity: brutal, ignorant and greedy, proving time and again that those promises were no more real than an albino elephant. In one symbolic event at one of the Expos, a crowd tore down the exhibit displaying the technological potential of the future, angry at the government’s failure to deal with their current poverty.

But the greatest letdown was the electrocution of Topsy on January 4, 1903. The crowd of 1,500 people gathered to see a giant, murderous beast meet justice. What they witnessed instead was a docile, kind-looking creature who stood without reaction. Topsy was led to a platform where he silently withstood the 6,600 volts of electricity that coursed through his body until he finally toppled forward and died. Edison, who conducted the event, used it as an opportunity to also put to use his motion picture camera. The short film is a good companion to a book that fills the brain with stories but empties the heart of hope.


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