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  • Writer's pictureCat Dorman & Steff Boulton

Topsy: Her Life, Death and Legacy

In 1875 a female elephant was secretly imported to the U.S. from Southeast Asia to perform in the circus. Over the next 25 years, she would pass to different owners, while developing a reputation as a ‘difficult’ elephant. In retrospect, circuses of the time have become notorious for their abhorrent treatment of animals, so of course under horrible conditions and persistent abuse including from a frequently drunk handler, Topsy acted out; who wouldn’t?

And so after killing three men in a three month period, Topsy, who had never really known a life beyond the bleak confines of the circus, was sentenced to death. On January 4, 1903, Topsy was electrocuted at Coney Island in a spectacle that was captured by newspapers around the country. She likely would have been quickly forgotten as just another casualty of the mistreatment of animals in entertainment, had she not become posthumously associated with Thomas Edison and the legacy of the “Battle of the Currents,” in which Edison and fellow inventor Nikola Tesla fought to see whose current would dominate the streets (Tesla’s alternating current (AC) won).

For 70 years, no one paid Topsy any mind, until a film reel of her execution was re-discovered and a new narrative shaped around it. Thomas Edison’s film company, Edison Studios, sent a crew to record the execution. Over the last 50 years, she has become a symbol of Thomas Edison’s quest to dominate the technology of the day at any cost. And it’s no wonder that narrative has persisted, we see the figure of the arrogant, privileged inventor who will assert his brilliance and ability to shape the world as he sees fit regardless of the impact on those around him (like a certain billionaire’s recent space flight, for example, or literally anything another billionaire with a company named after the aforementioned winner of the War of the Currents does).

In this particular case of hubris, however, the facts exonerate Edison. He was not, in fact, involved at all in the electrocution of the elephant. Her death was not a botched show of the superiority of his DC current (although the Bob’s Burger’s episode that furthers this narrative is an absolute delight), and in fact the battle had already been lost several years before Topsy’s death. Rather, the means of her death - a combination of cyanide, strangulation and electrocution- was actually chosen as the most humane way to kill the elephant by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The original plan had been to create a spectacle through a public hanging, but fortunately this was deemed too cruel, and as gruesome as the alternative sounds, they hoped it would offer her the swiftest death.

Across the board, Topsy’s story is a sad one. She was brought into a life of exploitation and captivity, mistreated for 25 years and then put to death. Unfortunately, for over 100 years the mistreatment of elephants and other circus animals has continued across the U.S. In the last decade it seems that a real shift in popular taste has finally occurred as interest in the circus and watching circus animals, in particular, has dwindled. In 2015 one of the largest circuses, Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey, announced that they would no longer use elephants in their act by 2018. However, the entire circus shut down permanently in 2017 due to a decrease in sales and popularity.

In 2003, 100 years after her death, a memorial to Topsy was erected at the Coney Island Museum. The process for creating the memorial began in 1999 when when Gavin Heck, an artist from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, along with a group of friends, created a Topsy float out of chicken wire, plastic pipe and a lot of pink fabric for the annual Mermaid Parade at Coney Island.''It looked like a snake with an elephant head,'' Mr. Heck recalled, ''but to us it was the most beautiful thing in the world.'' A Topsy triptych was created for the parade. The first: a float featuring Mr Heck positioned inside an elephant's head while his 5-year-old son shook a pole bearing a mock lightning bolt. The second: a New Orleans-style setting for the beloved elephant. Third: the resurrection of Topsy.

But the parade was of course not a permanent memorial, so the gang turned to Lee Deigaard, a New Orleans artist, to create a lasting legacy for Topsy in Coney Island. Ms. Deigaard's work, which is rife with symbolism and larger suggestions about the relationship between humans and animals, involves a coin-operated, hand-cranked mutoscope (a turn-of-the-century viewing medium) through which viewers can view images of the execution. Chains and cables are used to suggest the elephant's confinement, and viewers will stand, as the elephant did, on copper plates.

''In memorializing Topsy and making a mutoscope reel from Edison's notorious film, I have first sought that her individual reckoning be itself witnessed by individuals, each of us in single file. She walked alone to her fate. The memorial is for Topsy, and it is for her witnesses.''

Instead of standing as a symbol of Thomas Edison’s hubris, perhaps Topsy should be remembered instead as a symbol of the cruelty of the circus and of forcing wild animals to perform for our benefit. Her story and that of many other circus elephants doesn’t have a happy ending, but her notoriety likely added to the discussion that has ultimately led to conversations around the treatment of elephants.

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