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 train wreck
A report from the Quincy Daily Journal (Quincy, Illinois), September 28, 1898 of the wreck of the Forepaugh-Sells Circus train. Derailments were a frequent occurrence for circuses in the 19th century traveling by train. In this one, one of the elephant cars went off the tracks and rolled down an embankment.

forepaugh route 1898
The route traveled by the Forepaugh-Sells Combined Circus in October 1898, with miles traveled between each town, from the Forepaugh-Sells Route Book for that year. A total of 26 towns were visited that month (the standard six per week, with Sundays off) and 2,336 miles traveled. The circus would typically cover 10,000 miles or more in a season.

elephant dick strangled
A fanciful newspaper illustration depicting the strangulation of the Forepaugh elephant Dick at Madison Square Garden in April 1900. Dick was indeed strangled at the Garden, but not by a small army of men. Two elephants apparently were used. It is hard to be certain about what exactly happened, however, as newspaper acounts vary widely.

forpaugh-sells circus new york
The Forepaugh-Sells Circus opened the 1902 season once again in New York's Madison Square Garden, the show in the main hall, the menagerie housed underneath. This photo shows the three center rings and the spiral ramp in the background down which an acrobat balanced on a ball.

lewis sells
Lewis Sells was by this time the general manager of the Forepaugh-Sells Circus.

elephant crooked tail topsy
An illustration of Topsy after she killed Jesse Blount in Brooklyn, New York on May 28, 1902. The main illustration of Topsy, based on a photograph, clearly shows the martingale harness which she had been obliged to wear for the past year or two. (St. Paul Globe, June 16, 1902)

elephant topsy killed man
A photo of Topsy from the Syracuse Journal, June 4, 1902. The article notes that the killing of Jessie Blount "has brought [Topsy] into a prominence almost paralleling that of the late lamented Jumbo."

elephant topsy attacks man
An account of Topsy's attack on clerk Louis Dondero in Kingston, NY (Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle, June 6, 1902). This was the last straw for circus manager Lewis Sells. He decided to get rid of Topsy.

elephant topsy final forepaugh show
An account of the Forepaugh-Sells Circus's appearance in Poughkeepsie, New York on June 9, 1902 (Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle, June 9, 1902) with mention of Topsy. This was Topsy's final appearance with the circus.

paul boyton
Paul Boyton, who purchased Topsy from the Forepaugh-Sells Circus in June 1902. Boyton planned to use her as an attraction at his failing Coney Island amusement park, Sea Lion Park. Topsy was there for only a short while before Sea Lion Park closed.

frederic thompson luna park
Amusement park impresario Frederic Thompson. Thompson and partner Elmer Dundy purchased Sea Lion Park from Paul Boyton in 1902 and set to work redeveloping it into the biggest amusement park in the world, the Disneyland of its day. They would call it "Luna Park." Topsy and her keeper William "Whitey" Alf went with the purchase.

elephant topsy luna park
At Luna Park, Topsy, under the guidance of keeper William "Whitey" Alf, was put to work hauling heavy loads as construction progressed. This account from the New York World (November 1, 1902) tells how she moved an entire building, the structure for a ride known as "A Trip to the Moon."

luna park gate coney island
The original main entrance of Luna Park on Coney Island as it appeared at the park's opening in May 1903.

elephant topsy coney island
The first incident involving Topsy and "Whitey" Alf (named here as William Alt) on Coney Island, as reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 30, 1902. The trouble stemmed from Whitey's drinking.

elephant topsy luna park
More trouble for Topsy, as reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 6, 1902. Whitey got drunk again and this time took Topsy out for a joy ride. That got Whitey arrested and fired. With no one else on hand who could handle Topsy, Luna Park owners Thompson and Dundy tried to get rid of her. No circus or zoo would take her, even for free. An effort was also made to raffle her off. That failed too. With no other options, the decision was made to euthanize Topsy.

elephant topsy execution
This photo from the St. Louis Republic, January 11, 1903 shows Topsy in position at Luna Park moments before her execution. The park, as is clear in this photo, was still under construction.

elephant topsy electrocution
A still from the Thomas Edison film "Electrocution of an Elephant," showing the electrocution of Topsy at Luna Park on January 4, 1903.

elephant topsy electrocuted
One of the many newspaper reports of the execution of Topsy, this one from the New York Sun, January 5, 1903. In the first paragraph it is stated that Topsy "was brought to this country by Adam Forepaugh twenty-eight years ago," i.e. circa 1874. Other reports give different dates for Topsy's arrival in America, "30 years ago," i.e. circa 1872, being perhaps the most frequently cited.

elephant jumbo 2 electrocution
Topsy wasn't the first elephant to be electrocuted. Here is an account from the San Fransisco Call, November 10, 1901 of the attempted electrocution of an elephant named Jumbo II at the Exposition grounds in Buffalo, New York. There was apparently a problem with the electrical connection and the attempt failed. It was likely this that gave Thompson and Dundy the idea to electrocute Topsy.

edison electrocution of an elephant
Here is a link to the Thomas Edison film "Electrocution of an Elephant," showing the killing of Topsy. It is posted on Youtube with a content warning, so sign-in is required.

bad elephant far stream samuel hawley

Copyright 2013 Samuel Hawley