Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)
Synopsis: The execution of Topsy, a female elephant, in a publicity stunt advertising the opening of Luna Park on Coney Island.
The story of Topsy, the unfortunate star of this sordid little movie, is one that illustrates the stupidity and cruelty of which humans are capable. Born in the 1860s, Topsy was smuggled into America in 1875 to serve in the Forepaugh Circus, where she earned a reputation as a rogue animal. It’s true that she killed three men in her lifetime, but she was a victim of mishandling and abuse for most of her time at the circus. The death of one of the men she killed was the price paid for burning the tip of her sensitive trunk with a lit cigar (and if that isn’t the height of stupidity, I really don’t know what is). The decision to kill Topsy was taken only after the circus dismissed her trainer, William Alf, for riding her down a main street while drunk. Alf regularly abused Topsy, and had previously been reprimanded for stabbing his charge with a pitchfork.
When Thomas Edison, the so-called Wizard of Menlo who was always quick to claim the credit for his underlings’ toil and to fiercely crush any competitor who threatened to diminish the profits he expected to make from his staff’s labours, heard about the plan to kill Topsy, he promptly offered the use of his technicians to manage the public execution, for which the circus owners planned to sell tickets at 25 cents a head. You might wonder why Edison would make such an offer. Well, he was in the middle of a titanic tussle with George Westinghouse who, with former Edison assistant Nicolas Tesla, had devised a system of alternating current to rival Edison’s own direct current. Edison was waging a concerted campaign to discredit Alternating Current, falsely claiming that it was vastly more dangerous than his own Direct Current, and so he ensured that the current that coursed through Topsy’s body was AC in order to associate the animal’s unpleasant death with Westinghouse’s rival system.
Any normal human being will be repulsed by what they see on this short and badly deteriorated film. The elephant’s questionable ‘murderous’ behaviour doesn’t really justify her electrocution. She’s docile enough as she’s led to her death, suggesting she’s no rogue. Despite the graininess of the picture, the viewer can easily identify the moment the poor animal is zapped by the way her huge body stiffens. A second later, smoke rises from around her feet and a few seconds after that she topples to the ground. That’s entertainment, folks.
(Reviewed 16th September 2014)