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 circus route book 1889
The opening pages of the Adam Forepaugh Route Book for 1889, featuring Adam Sr. (right) and son Addie (left). The circus toured that year in combination with a Wild West show.

forepaugh clown elephant picaninny
An advertising card featuring the Forepaugh Circus's clown elephant, named Picaninny. One of Picaninny's most popular acts (depicted at bottom right) was the restaurant number: In it Picaninny would sit at a table, order a meal from the waiter, eat it, daub his mouth with a napkin,  pay the bill and leave.

vaulting over elephants
Another popular act was to line up some of the elephants for the acrobats to vault over. The vaulters would run down the ramp at the right and jump onto a springboard to get some good height for the leap. Note the uniformed assistants on the left ready to help with the landing.

forepaugh circus elephant men
The "elephant men" with the Forepaugh Circus as listed in the Forepaugh Route Book for 1892. Not all the keepers got their names in the route book; certainly not the short-term men who came and went during the course of a season. William "Whitey" Alf was likely one of these more lowly employees.

forepaugh-sells circus poster
In 1896 the Forepaugh Circus and the Sells Brothers Circus combined to form the Forepaugh-Sells Circus. This beautfiul poster circa 1896 is an advertisement for the new consolidated show. It gives a good idea of the layout of the tents on the lot: main tent, menagerie tent, sideshow tent, cook tent, stable tents, etc. The rail yard was never as conveniently nearby as shown here.

forepaugh circus train
The Forepaugh-Sells Circus train circa 1900, with the wagons loaded on flatbed cars.

forepaugh circus train
Some of the  hands and performers with the Adam Forepaugh Circus, posing in front of one of the cars.

adam forepaugh elephants
An updated photograph (circa 1900) of the Forepaugh elephants lined up in a rail yard. They have either been just unloaded from their rail cars or are about to be loaded. As usual, the only readily recognizable one is African Mike in the background with his big ears and capped tusks.

forepaugh circus parade 1888
When the circus arrived in a new town, usually early in the morning, the first thing that was done was to hold a parade up and down the main streets to get the locals stirred up and out to buy tickets.  The elephants were always included in this. Here we see the Forepaugh Circus on parade circa 1888. Note how the elephants walk freely, their keepers strolling alongside. A favorite parade gimmick that Forepaugh developed was the "Yankee farmer" routine. This was a show hand who played the part of an old farmer just in from the countryside who rides his buggy into the parade by mistake and is then swept along with it, growing increasingly agitated and flustered. It was always good for a laugh.

forepaugh african elephants
The two African elephants with the Forepaugh Circus, "African Mike" (left) and the female "African Topsy." In this photo, African Mike appears to be thoroughly restrained with leather straps around his body attached to chains on all four feet.

forepaugh elephant tent
The Forepaugh-Sells Circus mengerie tent circa 1898. During most of her time with the circus, Topsy was kept in a menagerie tent like this.

forepaugh circus dancing elephants
The "dancing  quadrille," Adam Forepaugh's most famous elephant act, circa 1900. Topsy was a long-time member of the quadrille.

ephraim thompson elephant trainer
Eph Thompson had in the meantime made it big as an elephant trainer in Europe. He is shown here with one of his most famous acts, a somersaulting elephant.

forepaugh circus elephants
The Forepaugh elephants circa 1901. Topsy (identifiable from her martingale harness) is the fifth from the left. That's African Mike on the far right, the ends of his tusks covered with brass balls.

forepaugh-sells main tent
The Forepaugh-Sells Circus main tent (aka the big top) circa 1900.

forepaugh circus tent blow down
An account from the 1898 Forepaugh-Sells Circus Route Book of a tent blow-down in Sioux City, Iowa. Two people were killed and 33 injured.

forepaugh elephant african mike
The Forepaugh elephant African MIke, loaded with chains.

forepaugh elephant sid
The Forepaugh elephant Sid, who killed Patsy Meagher at winter quarters during the off-season of 1898-99.

forepaugh elephants parade
The Forepaugh elephants on parade circa 1900. That's Sid in front, identifiable from the capped tusks. African Mike (big ears, tusks also capped) can be seen five places back. Topsy is in there somewhere too.

bad elephant far stream samuel hawley

Copyright 2013 Samuel Hawley