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Topsy was a female Asian elephant, forcefully ripped from her family and her wild home to spend a life being brutalised and tortured in the circus industry in the USA, and killed by electrocution on Coney Island, New York on January 4th 1903

In February 1877, a young elephant was unloaded off a ship in New York, she had likely been born in her forest home a couple of years earlier into a family of wild elephants where she would have been cared for and protected by her mum and a herd of related females. Protected that is until one fateful day when her family were hunted and she was poached from the wild.

She has subsequently been ‘purchased’ by the circus showman Adam Forepaugh and although she was wild caught, Forepaugh tried to pass her off as the first captive born elephant in the USA in a quest to outdo his rival PT Barnum and his herd of captured elephants as they both toured america with their rival circus shows.

She subsequently spent some 26 years being hauled across the united states, abused into performing tricks that only her human captors could understand, and becoming known as Crooked-Tail Topsy after a particularly harsh beating that broke her tail.

As if being removed from all she had known and all she had evolved to understand to spend 26 years in brutal servitude was not enough, she was killed by public electrocution  after the Luna Park Zoo at Coney Island labelled her more as a liability due to her attacks on keepers that had abused her, than an economic asset.

The electrocution was one of a number staged as part of a public feud by Thomas Edison, an inventor, to show the dangers of the newly developed ‘alternating current’, a new form of electricity that was upstaging his ‘direct current’ electricity supply. His plan was to show that the ‘alternating current’ was so dangerous it could kill an elephant, in a bid for businesses not to invest in the new form of electricity.

Edison had established direct current at the standard for electricity distribution and was living off the patent royalties, royalties he was in no mood to lose when George Westinghouse and Nicola Tesla developed the alternating current.

Topsy sadly became a porn in this ‘war of the currents’, with the whole macabre electrocution being captured on film. 

Topsy was reportedly restrained using a ship's hawser fastened on one end to a donkey engine and on the other to a post. Wooden sandals with copper electrodes were attached to her feet and a copper wire ran to Edison's electric light plant, where his technicians awaited the go-ahead. In order to make sure that Topsy emerged from this spectacle more than just singed and angry, she was fed cyanide-laced carrots moments before a 6,600-volt AC charge slammed through her body. Officials needn't have worried. Topsy was killed instantly and Edison, in his mind anyway, had proved his point.

On this Topsy remembrance day, spare a thought for how she was so cruelly treated from the moment she was taken from her family to the moment she was publicly executed, and spare a thought too for all of the other Topsy’s that are still out there being forced into performing circus tricks for our entertainment, and use her name, her appalling treatment and death to appeal to others to help end their suffering.

Given a choice Topsy would have stayed with her mum and her family and not lived a life of service to our entertainment needs. It is time that we gave all elephants the choice they deserve.

For more details of Topsy and many other elephants brutalised within the US circus industry during the Forepaugh v Barnum rivalry and the war of the currents see Michael Daly’s novel ‘Topsy’

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