A grainy YouTube video shows men leading a circus elephant onto the electrodes and backing away. Within seconds, smoke rises from the animal’s feet. It wobbles, then pitches forward, dead. After seeing Thomas Edison’s 1903 film “Electrocuting an Elephant,” author Michael Daly had to know more.
The result is “Topsy” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 369 pages, $27), a sad and fascinating story of a circus elephant at the turn of the last century, when America was flexing the new power of electricity.
Daly’s richly researched account unfolds as kind of a three-ring circus. In the center is Topsy, an Asian elephant that joined the circus in the late 1800s, when elephants were beloved by audiences but brutalized by their handlers. Coached by one of the few humane trainers of the time, she learns to perform the dances and pachyderm pyramids that draw crowds in towns like Duluth. Later she will sport a crooked tail, thanks to a beating by her owner.
Performing at her side are the cutthroat operators of American circuses, among them P.T. Barnum himself. These hucksters presented the original Siamese twins, Zip the Pinhead and a real “white” elephant, but still dreamed up outlandish hoaxes. “Real merit does not always succeed as well as humbug,” opined Barnum, who would fittingly get to read his own premature obituary thanks to a sly publicist.
On the other side is Thomas Edison, the famed father of electricity, involved in a cutthroat competition of his own against Westinghouse’s alternating current. His ego wouldn’t let him see what the public wanted, and that blindness set him up for disgrace and bitter disappointment.
These three forces collide in the early 1900s in a way that seems unreal to 21st-century eyes. Electrocution has just been deemed a “humane” alternative to hanging for death-row inmates. Edison himself advises the executioners on the most effective way to do it. Somehow, experimenters get the idea to use the technique on large animals.
Topsy’s timing could not have been worse.
Labeled “troublesome” for killing one of her tormentors, Topsy’s fate is assured. The public debate concerns not whether she should be executed, but how. Poison? Hanging? Electrocution? All of the above?
With Edison’s film crew on hand and a saloon keeper selling rooftop seats to spectators, à la Wrigley Field, Topsy meets her maker at the Coney Island “amusement” park.
While the tragic conclusion is known from the outset, the journey in “Topsy” offers continuous surprise. Along the way the reader has a chance to contemplate the contrasts between man and beast.
Maureen McCarthy is a team leader at the Star Tribune.