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.