topsy elephant electrocution coney island


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Samuel Hawley is a writer. His books are highly eclectic. He has written about 16th-century East Asian history, 19th-century Korean-American relations, Olympic sprinting and land speed racing and a circus elephant named Topsy who was electrocuted in 1903. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.


forepaugh white elephant light of asia
In 1883, as part of his ongoing rivalry with Adam Forepaugh, P.T. Barnum obtained a young elephant with white patches on its face and trunk and exhibited it as Toung Taloung, "Gem of the Sky," a sacred white elephant he supposedly purchased in Burma for $200,000. To counter this move, Adam Forepaugh came out with his own white elephant, "The Light of Asia," a five-year-old Asian male weighing about a ton who wasn't just patchy-white in  places like Barnum's creature, but white (actually a pale cigar-ash grey) all over. It was of course a fake, the effect achieved by multiple applications of whitewash. This illustration depicts the offloading in New York of the crate containing Forepaugh's "sacred elephant." Over the following months, a "White Elephant War" was waged between Forepaugh and Burnam, each accusing the other of fakery and all sorts of nepharious conduct. It ended when Barnum's "Gem of the Sky" persished in a fire and Forepaugh announced that his "Light of Asia" had died over the winter from a chill.

adam forepaugh white elephant
A lithograph, based on a photo, of Forepaugh's white elephant "The Light of Asia." The poor fellow looks unhappy under all that whitewash.

forepaugh elephant john l. sullivan
Adam Forepaugh's "white elephant" actually didn't die of a chill or anything else. He was simply washed clean of the whitewash and reintroduced the following season under a different name. Henceforth he would be the boxing elephant John L. Sullivan, named after the most famous pugilist of the day. John did the act first with Eph Thompson and later with Patsy Meagher.

forepaugh boxing elephant
Here is another illustration of the elephant John L. Sullivan doing his boxing act. Although a male, John remained mild-mannered all his life and never caused his keepers any trouble.

eph thompson boxing elephant
A poster showing the elephant "Tom" doing the boxing act with Eph Thompson. It is not clear whether "Tom" was a different elephant or just another name for John L. Sullivan.

adam forepaugh circus advertisement
This is a Forepaugh Circus newspaper advertisement from 1885. The illustration shows the elephant John L. Sullivan doing his bicycle-riding act.

forepaugh elephant john sullivan
A close-up of the elephant John L. Sullivan riding a bicycle (actually a tricycle), using his forefeet to work the pedals.

forepaugh elephant topsy
Various types of races around the hippodrome track encircling the ring were a popular feature of  the Forepaugh show. These included elephant races, sometimes billed as "India Races," in which Topsy was a regular contestant. Here, in the Forepaugh Route Book for 1893, we read that Topsy stumbled and fell in her race in St. Louis, Missouri, "actually standing on her head." It was reportedly the first such fall in the elephant races...but not the last.

forepaugh elephant topsy
Several pages further along in the same Forepaugh Route Book, under the entry for August 30, we read that Topsy stumbled and fell again in the elephant race.

forepaugh elephants parade
An undated photo showing the Forepaugh elephants parading through the streets of a town.

forepaugh elephant basil
An Adam Forepaugh Circus poster from the early 1890s depicts long-time elephant herd member Basil with one of the succession of baby elephants that passed through the show. The young ones often didn't survive for more than one season.

elephant bolivar
After Adam Forepaugh and P.T. Barnum exhausted themselves trying to outdo one another as having the most elephants, they began culling their herds. The troublesme males, who could be extremely dangerous when in musth, were the first to do. Forepaugh donated his giant, Bolivar, to the Philadelphia Zoo in 1888. In his new home at the zoo, Bolivar was deemed too dangerous to be allowed any freedom and so was left chained in the elephant house, as shown here. He remained on the same spot, scuffing back and forth, until his death in 1908.

forepaugh elephant tip
Tip (full name Tippoo Sultan) was the next big male elephant Adam Forepaugh got rid of. After Tip killed keeper William McCamant in 1888, Forepaugh donated him to New York's Central Park Zoo. As with Bolivar, Tip was deemed too dangerous to be allowed any freedom at the zoo and so was kept under close restraints in the elephant house, as shown here.

elephant tip execution
A newspaper illustration depicting the euthanizing of Tip at New York's Central Park Zoo in 1894. Poison was used.

forepaugh circus route
A page from the Forepaugh Circus Route Book for 1889, showing the touring schedule. This gives a sense of the grueling travel that the animals and people with the circus had to endure, visiting a new town almost every day. It was common for the circus to log over 10,000 miles in a season.

forepaugh elephants bathing
A photo from the Forepaugh-Sells Circus Route Book for 1898 showing the elephants bathing in a river. Dips in whatever river was handy was always a big treat for the elephants and never failed to attract a large crowd of onlookers, as shown here.

louise montague
The actress Louise Montague, billed by Adam Forepaugh as his "$10,000 Beauty." Forepaugh ran a contest to find the most beautiful woman in America,offering as a prize $10,000. The prize was an advertising gimmick; Forepaugh had no intention to actually pay it. After being declared the winner and not receiving the money, Montague took Forepaugh to court in an effort to obtain the prize.

adam forepaugh elephants train
Some of the Forepaugh Circus elephants lined up outside their rail cars. Judging from "30th Year" painted on the side of the car, this photo dates from 1893.

bad elephant far stream samuel hawley

Copyright 2013 Samuel Hawley