Thomas Edison: Inventor, Genius ... Elephant Killer?

Public Domain. Philadelphia Journal

It's safe to say that our modern world would not be what it is today without Thomas Edison. The famed inventor and entrepreneur known as the Wizard of Menlo Park gave us new technologies and new industries, ranging from the light bulb to electric utilities to the motion picture industry. But for all his genius, Edison also had a dark side: he refused to let anyone get the better of him in business. This flaw in his personality hit what is perhaps its lowest point in 1903, when he set out to destroy one of his competitors by electrocuting a circus elephant.

That elephant, Topsy, was portrayed as something of a monster in the days leading up to her death in 1903. "Murderer elephant," the newspapers proclaimed, with drawings depicting her as a vicious beast. Although she was beloved by visitors to Coney Island's Luna Park, Topsy had supposedly killed three trainers over the course of three years. Described as "ill-tempered" and dangerous, Topsy's owners decided to make a public event of her execution.

They originally planned on hanging the 10-foot-tall pachyderm, but the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stepped in and complained. That's when Thomas Edison entered the picture. He said he could electrocute Topsy using 6,600 volts of alternating current (AC), which had already been used for human executions for more than two decades. Edison, of course, was a proponent of the competing electrical system direct current (DC). He would later use the film of Topsy's execution as "proof" that AC was too dangerous for common use.

Here's how a local paper, the Commercial Advertiser, described Topsy's execution the day after the event:

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.

But here's the thing: Topsy was not the monster she had been made out to be. Writer Michael Daly uncovered the truth in his fascinating new book, "Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison."

It turns out that Topsy really did kill a man — and only one, not three — but that was after a lifetime of abuse. She had been smuggled into the country as a 200-pound baby after being torn away from her mother. (Despite her African origins, she was billed by then-owner Forepaugh Circus as the first U.S.-born elephant.) Throughout her life on display, she had been "trained" with pitchforks, whips and other abusive implements.

The decades of mistreatment came to a head one day when, as Daly wrote, a trainer mockingly "jabbed the lit end of his half-smoked cigar into the extremely sensitive tip of Topsy's trunk." Topsy snapped, picked the trainer up with her trunk and smashed him to the ground, then stomped on him, killing him. Later she picked up another assistant trainer and threw him. She almost stomped on his head but was coaxed away from the fallen man just in time.

That was the last straw, and Topsy was sold to the Coney Island circus. The new owners, however, decided that she was too "inconvenient" and put her on the path to execution on Jan. 4, 1903.

That's where Edison got interested. He had already electrocuted several animals to display the supposed danger of AC power. Ever the showman, he said he "Westinghoused" the animals, as Westinghouse was the biggest proponent of AC power and Edison's biggest competitor in the "War of the Currents." Edison made a short film of Topsy's electrocution and used it for years to promote his preferred electrical system. The death of this creature was seen by Edison as a way to illustrate the safety of DC power.

But while Edison may have turned a few stomachs with his film, he did not turn the tide of history. No lives were lost to AC power, and the system won out in this country. Some historians say the war over current had already been lost more than a decade earlier, but Edison kept fighting on, perhaps out of hubris or merely for spite.

Despite its horrific aspects, Topsy's story has a few happy-ish endings. Luna Park burned down in 1944. In 2003, the Coney Island Museum erected a memorial for Topsy. And now in 2013 Daly's book has helped to illuminate some of Topsy's true story. But the lies remain, immortalized — and Edison, the man who brought light to the world, has a permanent blemish darkening his record.