Edison's Elephant

Thomas Alva Edison, known as the wizard of Menlo Park, is often revered in North American school systems as one of America’s greatest inventors, though most are unaware of the measures he took to secure his place in history. In one famous example, Edison pushed direct current (DC) as the electrical standard and was living comfortably off earnings from doing so. Unfortunately for him, George Westinghouse and his nemesis Nikola Tesla began to push alternating current (AC) as a better alternative.

In an effort to tarnish the credibility of alternating current, Edison set about to demonstrate its unsuitably by incorrectly discrediting it as unsafe in comparison to direct current. He would gather stray cats or dogs and electrocute them with AC to prove the danger it presented. Ever the showman, Edison naturally coined a term for these electrocutions; being “Westinghoused”.


Topsy the elephant was a circus elephant that that had killed 3 trainers. Forepaugh Circus, which owned her by the time of the third death, decided that she needed to be put to sleep. Of course, this decision did not take into account that Topsy had suffered abuse at the hands of at least one man she killed. Initially the method of execution was to be death by hanging. The circus was going to use the elephant’s hanging as way to draw in curious spectators and make some money while simultaneously disposing of their “elephant problem”. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals strongly opposed this, as surely hanging an elephant was cruel and abusive.

In stepped Thomas Edison with an apparently better solution to the circus’ problem – Topsy would be electrocuted by the dastardly alternating current, showing the public once and for all the evils of AC, while ridding the Forepaugh Circus of their rogue elephant. So it came to pass that on January 4, 1903, with a camera there to record the event, Topsy met her death at the hands of 6,600 volts of AC courtesy of the wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison.

A short newspaper recounting the tale is reprinted below:

The Commercial Advertiser, New York, Monday, January 5, 1903.

BAD ELEPHANT KILLED. Topsy Meets Quick and Painless Death at Coney Island.

Topsy, the ill-tempered Coney Island elephant, was put to death in Luna Park, Coney Island, yesterday afternoon. The execution was witnessed by 1,500 or more curious persons, who went down to the island to see the end of the huge beast, to whom they had fed peanuts and cakes in summers that are gone. In order to make Topsy's execution quick and sure 460 grams of cyanide of potassium were fed to her in carrots. Then a hawser was put around her neck and one end attached to a donkey engine and the other to a post. Next wooden sandals lined with copper were attached to her feet. These electrodes were connected by copper wire with the Edison electric light plant and a current of 6,600 volts was sent through her body. The big beast died without a trumpet or a groan.


Topsy was brought to this country twenty-eight years ago by the Forepaugh Circus, and has been exhibited throughout the United States. She was ten feet high and 19 feet 11 inches in length. Topsy developed a bad temper two years ago and killed two keepers in Texas. Last spring, when the Forepaugh show was in Brooklyn, J. F. Blount, a keeper, tried to feed a lighted cigarette to her. She picked him up with her trunk and dashed him to the ground, killing him instantly.

Against Edison’s best efforts, the current wars were in fact won by AC, its use spread throughout the 20th century and it is still the standard for both commercial and residential use.


Edison's recording of Topsy's electrocution, dubbed Electrocuting an Elephant, can be viewed below.

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