Topsy the Elephant
Brooklyn, New York
As the 19th century turned into the 20th, one of the biggest attractions at Coney Island's "Luna Park" was its private herd of elephants, which roamed freely. A favorite was Topsy, a three-ton tusker whose great strength had been put to use building the attractions that made Coney Island so much fun.
But Topsy had a temper. She killed three men in three years, the last a drunk trainer who had fed her a lit cigarette. Topsy had to go. But how? The authorities fed her carrots laced with cyanide. She wolfed them down without effect. Topsy was one tough elephant.
Thompson & Dundy, who owned Luna Park, decided to turn Topsy into a moral issue -- and to make a profit at the same time. They announced that man-killer Topsy would be publicly hanged for her crimes. The ASPCA protested: Hanging was cruel and inhuman punishment. After all, hadn't New York State just replaced the gallows with a modern electric chair?
All right, said Thompson and Dundy. Coney Island has a powerful electrical plant -- we'll FRY Topsy! But to pull it off, they needed top-shelf technical support. And that's where Thomas Edison came in.
Edison at the time was engaged in his own free-for-all, battling Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse for control of America's electric infrastructure. Edison had declared that his direct current system was safe, but that Tesla and Westinghouse's alternating current was a deadly menace. To prove it, Edison had been publicly electrocuting dogs and cats for years. And it was Edison who had convinced New York to use Tesla and Westinghouse's "deadly" AC for its electric chair.
Topsy offered an opportunity that Edison couldn't resist. What better way to demonstrate the horrible consequences of alternating current than to roast a full-grown elephant?
Edison sent over a crack team of technicians -- and a film crew. Topsy was led to a special platform, the cameras were set rolling, the switch was thrown. It took only ten seconds. Edison later showed the film to audiences across the country to prove his point.
In the end, it made no difference. AC beat out DC, but both Edison and Westinghouse prospered (Tesla did not). In fact, Westinghouse was awarded the Edison Medal for "meritorious achievements in the development of the alternating current system."
That wasn't much consolation to Topsy, who was dead, nor to Luna Park, which was eventually destroyed in a horrible fire. Today, nothing remains of either except for Edison's film. If you ask the folks at the Coney Island Museum, they'll show it to you.
(Topsy had been largely forgotten -- except perhaps as a scene of out-of-context horror in the 1979 Mr. Mike's Mondo Video -- until Ric Burns' 1991 Coney Island film documented and recounted the grisly details.)