Thomas Edison & Animal Cruelty: The Story of Topsy the ElephantPublished November 1, 2012
Thomas Edison is perhaps America's most prized inventor, a pioneer of electricity whose scientific work revolutionized the technological landscape and propelled the United States toward an electric future. There is, however, a little known dark side to the prized inventor; though it may come as a shock to some, Edison, who philosophically believed in nonviolence, was guilty of publicly killing animals by electrocution. The story of one animal in particular, Topsy the elephant, seemed to capture the nation's attention.
It's not often that you think of Edison's name and animal abuse in the same sentence, but it is a sad truth that, at least for this writer, won't allow me to ever think of the inventor in the same light. To be sure, however, this stark animal cruelty, specifically the story of Topsy, does come with a bit of a historical background.
Edison, a shrewd businessman in the midst of pioneering the electric industry (thanks to the financial backing of J.P. Morgan), found himself locked with rivals Nikola Tesla and financier George Westinghouse over which form of electricity, direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC), would take hold throughout America. The time period, known as the War of Currents, found both sides running smear campaigns to discredit the other, attempting to sway public opinion toward their respective sides by portraying the opposing current as dangerous.
Edison's smear campaign took the form, sadly, of portraying alternating current as dangerous by showing its deadly effect on animals. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Edison's campaign publicly executed a number of stray cats and dogs using alternating current. In 1903, they had their most impressively disturbing display with the execution of Topsy the elephant, a circus animal at Coney Island's Luna Park Zoo that had garnered a reputation for being rambunctious. (The elephant had killed three men in three years, one of which was an abusive handler who had reportedly tried feeding her a lit cigarette). Deemed a danger to people, Topsy's fate was sealed and the execution was ordered.
Topsy would have hanged, but the SPCA deemed that punishment cruel and unusual, which it clearly would have been. Topsy was ordered to die by electrocution, with Edison assisting to carry it out as a part of his publicity campaign against Tesla and Westinghouse. The elephant was hooked up to wooden sandals rigged with copper electrodes attached to a copper wire that ran to Edison's electric plant, and when the go-ahead was given was blasted with a 6,600 volt AC charge. The elephant died instantly (though in an equally cruel act was fed cyanide-laced carrots before the execution to insure the deed was done). Close to 1,500 people had witnessed the disturbing ordeal, and even more saw it once Edison released a short film he had taken of the incident later that year titled Electrocuting an Elephant.
For Edison, Topsy's death was further proof that AC was dangerous...in his mind, at least. History would go on to ultimately discredit Edison's advocacy of direct current, and Westinghouse's AC form of electricity would go on to take hold throughout America's households (it is still the electric form we use today to power homes, while DC is used in a different capacity to power batteries and other devices). In retrospect, Edison's animal cruelty, as all abuse and cruelty is, was senseless.
Had you ever heard the stories of Edison's animal cruelty and specifically the story of Topsy the elephant before? Does it make you think of the inventor in a different light? Share your thoughts in a comment.