Jan 4, 2017

January 4: Topsy the Elephant is Executed for Amusement (But No One Was Amused)

On January 4th, in 1903, Topsy the Elephant was executed at Luna Park in Coney Island New York, by a combination of poison, electrocution, and strangulation.

After an incident involving Topsy's handler William "Whitey" Alt with police officers for public intoxication, Alt rode Topsy into the police station in an angry rage. The Station was severely damaged and officers lives were put at risk so Alt was arrested. As Topsy was following her handler's instruction and not in a rage herself, she was returned to the park. But left with no handler, the owners of Topsy tried to sell her but couldn't find anyone to even take her for free. They decided to execute her at the end of the year and sell tickets for the public spectacle. Gallows were built and covered in advertisements. The event was eventually made private due to do protests by The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) but was filmed by the Edison Manufacturing Movie Company and released in coin-operated kinetoscopes under the title 'Electrocuting an Elephant'. The film proved to be one of the company's least popular releases.

A renewed interest in Topsy more than 100 years later is due in part by the animated Television show Bob's Burgers, which had an episode (Season 3, Episode 16) entitled 'Topsy' and featured a song with the line "they'll be saying 'ahh Topsy' at my autopsy". For the Centennial of Topsy's Execution  the Coney Island USA museum unveiled a memorial sculpture created by New Orleans artist Lee Deigaard as well as a screening of the Edison film 'Executing an Elephant.'

Editor's Note: It is interesting to note the similarities of Topsy's execution to that of Mary the Elephant's execution in Erwin Tennessee 13 years later. Both were scheduled as public spectacles; although Topsy's was made private due to public outrage, Mary's drew a crowd of over 2,500. But while Mary's was due to her trampling her handler to death, Topsy's was merely for profit and entertainment.  But both were later reviled, and both had centennial celebrations. It is also a coincidence that both elephant handlers had nicknames relating to color (Whitey and Red). Read more about Mary's execution here

Photo Credit: Public Domain photo of Topsy's Execution