Not just elephants…

In an effort to showcase the dangers of alternating current (AC) and discredit Nicola Tesla, Thomas Edison held public demonstrations in which he electrocuted animals—dogs, cats, horses, and even an elephant—in front of an audience.

The bitter rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla is now the stuff of legend, and it all came to a head during the War of the Currents. On the one side, Edison felt that direct current (DC) was the wave of the future. On the other side, Tesla believed that alternating current (AC) was more efficient for transmitting power over longer distances. Edison launched a massive public campaign to discredit AC, while Tesla partnered with financial mogul George Westinghouse in an attempt to convince power companies to switch over to AC using Tesla’s patented AC induction motor.

By this point, the two inventors were old acquaintances, although there was nothing friendly about their relationship. When Tesla moved from France to New York in 1884, the penniless immigrant got a job at the Edison Machine Works as an engineer. Within a year, he was already solving technical problems for the company, and Edison approached him with the task of redesigning the DC generators for the entire company. He famously offered Tesla $50,000 if he could make the generators more efficient, and a few months later, Tesla came back with an improved design. But when he asked for his money, Edison laughed and said, “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke.” Since Tesla had redesigned the generators while working for Edison, he had no claim to the patent, and essentially got nothing out of the agreement (although Edison offered him a raise of $10 per week. Tesla resigned on the spot).

A few years later, Tesla built his AC induction motor, and the War of the Currents began. Edison’s main campaign strategy was to prove that AC, which used much higher voltages than DC, was simply too dangerous to use in homes. And to prove that, he went to ruthless extremes. Most famously, he organized demonstrations executing stray dogs and cats, and later cows and horses. One of the first demonstrations took place in 1888, with the electrocution of a large dog named Dash. Edison first sent 1,000 volts of DC through the dog to prove that he would be—if not unharmed—still alive. Then, he hooked the dog up to 300 volts of AC and smoked the pup into oblivion.

And he was just getting warmed up. In 1903, Edison created his largest demonstration yet: He sent 6,600 volts of AC through a circus elephant named Topsy while 1,500 people stood by and watched. The execution was filmed and later released under the name Electrocuting an Elephant.

The real test came in 1890 though, and it was no ordinary animal: The victim was a convicted murderer named William Kemmler. Edison campaigned for the opportunity to create a “more humane” method of capital punishment and, still in the midst of the War of the Currents, he opted to create the electric chair with AC. After all, what better way to prove the dangers of AC than by killing a man with it? And he couldn’t have asked for a more visceral demonstration: The first charge burned through Kemmler’s insides for a whole 17 seconds, after which he was still gasping for breath. The second charge lasted four minutes, and Kemmler burst into flame before finally dying.

Topsy the Elephant – a Roadside Attraction

Topsy the Elephant

Brooklyn, New York

Died 1903

Pet Cemetery.

As the 19th century turned into the 20th, one of the biggest attractions at Coney Island’s “Luna Park” was its private herd of elephants, which roamed freely. A favorite was Topsy, a three-ton tusker whose great strength had been put to use building the attractions that made Coney Island so much fun.

But Topsy had a temper. She killed three men in three years, the last a drunk trainer who had fed her a lit cigarette. Topsy had to go. But how? The authorities fed her carrots laced with cyanide. She wolfed them down without effect. Topsy was one tough elephant.

The execution.
The execution.

Thompson & Dundy, who owned Luna Park, decided to turn Topsy into a moral issue — and to make a profit at the same time. They announced that man-killer Topsy would be publicly hanged for her crimes. The ASPCA protested: Hanging was cruel and inhuman punishment. After all, hadn’t New York State just replaced the gallows with a modern electric chair?

All right, said Thompson and Dundy. Coney Island has a powerful electrical plant — we’ll FRY Topsy! But to pull it off, they needed top-shelf technical support. And that’s where Thomas Edison came in.

Edison at the time was engaged in his own free-for-all, battling Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse for control of America’s electric infrastructure. Edison had declared that his direct current system was safe, but that Tesla and Westinghouse’s alternating current was a deadly menace. To prove it, Edison had been publicly electrocuting dogs and cats for years. And it was Edison who had convinced New York to use Tesla and Westinghouse’s “deadly” AC for its electric chair.

Topsy offered an opportunity that Edison couldn’t resist. What better way to demonstrate the horrible consequences of alternating current than to roast a full-grown elephant?

Edison sent over a crack team of technicians — and a film crew. Topsy was led to a special platform, the cameras were set rolling, the switch was thrown. It took only ten seconds. Edison later showed the film to audiences across the country to prove his point.

In the end, it made no difference. AC beat out DC, but both Edison and Westinghouse prospered (Tesla did not). In fact, Westinghouse was awarded the Edison Medal for “meritorious achievements in the development of the alternating current system.”

That wasn’t much consolation to Topsy, who was dead, nor to Luna Park, which was eventually destroyed in a horrible fire. Today, nothing remains of either except for Edison’s film. If you ask the folks at the Coney Island Museum, they’ll show it to you.

Topsy the Elephant

Coney Island Museum

1208 Surf Ave., Brooklyn, NY
At the Coney Island Museum.
Sa-Su 12 noon – 5 pm. (Call to verify)
99 cents, plus 1 cent to operate Edison’s film.

I debated including this…

In 1903, Thomas Edison attached electrodes to Topsy the elephant and executed her via DC power.  Part of this scientific process was filming this to prove that DC power was “more humane” and “less dangerous” than AC power.

The film still exists and is available on YouTube.  Instead of adding the video right to the post, as I normally do, I’m only going to add a link to the video.  That way you can choose to watch it, or not.  There are certain things you can’t “unsee”, so if you are a hardcore animal lover, I’d suggest not clicking the link.  If you are curious, by all means, go watch it.

Here’s a summary of what you’ll see if you are having a hard time making up your mind.

“The scene opens with keeper leading Topsy to the place of execution. After copper plates or electrodes were fastened to her feet, 6,600 volts of electricity were turned on. The elephant is seen to become rigid, throwing her trunk in the air, and then is completely enveloped in smoke from the burning electrodes. The current is cut off and she falls forward to the ground dead.” (

America’s debt to Topsy

An elephant who gave her life that others might die

NOT for her a mute inglorious posterity. A century after her death, her legacy to science, and to America, has received the recognition it deserves. A memorial to Topsy the elephant has been erected near the site of her execution.

In these more enlightened times, she might well have got off on grounds of provocation. Topsy was a ten-foot-high, twenty-foot-long Indian elephant. She had been employed by a circus, but ended up helping with the construction of the theme park at Coney Island. She was said to have killed three men, but her last victim, at least, brought on his demise by feeding her a lighted cigarette. Nevertheless, Topsy was condemned to death. The idea of an elephantine hanging was opposed by animal-rights activists (though another homicidal elephant, Murderous Mary, was indeed hung in Erwin, Tennessee, in 1916).

Enter Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb. Edison was determined to prove that the alternating-current electrical system developed by George Westinghouse, his rival, was fatally dangerous. To that end, he had been electrocuting farm and domestic animals for years. The opportunity to fry an elephant was a godsend.

Around 1,500 spectators turned up on a cold January morning, lured by the novel combination of death, an elephant and electricity. Mercifully, Topsy died extremely quickly, and without a trumpet, which may have had something to do with the carrots laced with cyanide that she had been fed.

“It is a bit of a shameful moment in Coney Island’s history”, says Gavin Heck, the brains behind the memorial, unveiled last week among the antique bumper cars and distortion mirrors in the Coney Island Museum. Mr Heck has also commemorated Topsy at Coney Island parades, most recently with a float depicting her resurrection.

But that is not the end of her legacy. As part of Edison’s campaign to debunk his rival, he had lobbied New York to introduce electrocution—by alternating current—for human executions. In 1903, debate still raged whether the chair constituted cruel and unusual punishment, early uses of it having produced messy results. Big Topsy’s quick death helped to settle the argument. Electrocuting elephants is now considered inhumane; but it’s fine for humans in ten states.

Meet Topsy belonged to the Forepaugh Circus and spent the last years of her life at Coney Island’s Luna Park. Throughout her life she had been tormented by several people, multiple trainers and several audience members. Louis Dodero, a resident of Poughkeepsie, New York, was present during the unloading of Topsy from a train while traveling Forepaugh Circus. Dodero used a stick in his hand to “tickle” Topsy behind the ear. Topsy then seized Dodero around the waist with her trunk, hoisted him high in the air and just held him there. She proceeded to throw him down and was raising her right foot in apparent preparation for killing him when trainer, William Emery came running over and stopped her. Only after years of mistreatment, Topsy killed one trainer, James Fielding Blount, who burnt the extremely sensitive tip of her trunk with a lit cigar, and subsequently became aggressive towards two other keepers who had struck her with a pitchfork. Topsy was deemed a threat to people by her owners and killed by electrocution on January 4, 1903 at the age of 36. Inventor Thomas Edison oversaw and conducted the electrocution, and he captured the event on film. He would release it later that year under the title Electrocuting an Elephant.

Initially Topsy was supposed to be hanged, but other ways were considered when the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals protested. Edison then suggested electrocution with alternating current, which had been used for the execution of humans since 1890. Luna Park’s owners, Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy, were planning to collect twenty-five cents a head, but the event had received enough press attention that a squad of special agents from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrived. They announced they would not allow the elephant’s death to be made into a public spectacle and the event no longer collected money, but spectators were still allowed to watch. Topsy’s one trainer, Frederick Ault, “Whitey,” was upset over the impending execution despite the many times he had abused Topsy, and he declined an offer of $25 to coax her to death. He said he would “not for $1000”. Before the electrocution, Topsy was fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide before the current from a 6,600-volt AC source was sent through her body. In Edison’s film, she obeys the men’s orders to raise her feet and kneeling, topples to the ground and is seen to move for several seconds. According to at least one contemporary account, she died “without a trumpet or a groan”. The event was witnessed by an estimated 1,500 people and Edison’s film of the event was seen by audiences throughout the United States.

On July 20, 2003, a memorial for Topsy was erected at the Coney Island Museum.

Shameless self-promotion

Final Logo I’m sure I’ve mentioned that the library is hosting a year-long remembrance of WWI.  I’ve coordinated the program with the Evanston History Center, and we are super excited about it.  Dark Invasion is actually one of the first programs in the series and I want to thank you all for being my guinea pigs.  Also, there is a “community blog” dedicated to the program.  By community, I mean it includes voices from ALL the employees at both institutions (not just me).  You can find it at  I think there is a lot of information on there that directly relates to our book this month, and it is interesting overall if you don’t know that much about the Great War.  

So I invite you to check out the blog, in addition to the program as a whole.  Thanks and I hope to maybe see you at some programs. 

- Kim


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