In 1903, on Coney Island, an elephant named Topsy was electrocuted, and ever since this bizarre execution has reverberated through popular culture with the whiff of urban legend. But it really happened, and many historical forces conspired to bring Topsy, Thomas Edison, and those 6,600 volts of alternating current together. In Topsy, Michael Daly weaves them together into a fascinating popular history.
The first elephant arrived in America in 1796, but it wasn’t until after the Civil War that the circus entered its golden age, thanks especially to P. T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh (or 4-Paw). It was their War of the Elephants—with declarations of whose pachyderms were younger, bigger, or more “sacred”— that brought Topsy to America, fraudulently billed as the first native-born. With fantastic detail, Daly brings this world to life; caravans, crooks, and sideshows. And he captures the life of the animals, both the cruelties they suffered and, when treated with kindness, their remarkable feats. The War of the Currents—which pitted Edison against George Westinghouse— would also play a major role in the life of Topsy. Edison, hoping to have “westinghoused” enter the lexicon, maneuvered to have New York’s executions switched to electrocution. Daly expertly guides the reader through this peculiar and enduring story, as well as the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, and the development of Coney Island.
Rich in period Americana, and full of larger than life characters— both human and elephant—Topsy is a touching, entertaining read.