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Who Was Topsy?

The story begins with the capture of a baby female elephant in Southeast Asia in 1875. Forcibly separated from her natural family, she is abducted and forced to make the months-long land and sea journey to Hamburg, Germany, where Carl Hagenbeck, then the world’s leading wild animal dealer, is based. Hagenbeck sells the baby elephant to circus impresario Adam Forepaugh in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is shipped as cargo to the United States to perform in the Forepaugh Circus.

The baby elephant’s quick growth most likely inspires her name, Topsy. In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Miss Ophelia asks an enslaved young girl named Topsy, ‘Do you know who made you?’ ‘Nobody, as I knows on,’ the girl replies. ‘I ‘spect I grow’d. Don’t think nobody never made me.’ It is not unreasonable to speculate that the book’s popularity and her ‘I ‘spect I grow’d’ comeback inspired the figure of speech to ‘grow like Topsy.’

Topsy the elephant never experienced a natural life in the jungle, where her mother would have raised her in a matriarchal society among her family of elephants. Instead, she grew up performing in the circus ring and travelling across the United States. But two incidents in 1902, when she killed one man and attacked another, set in motion the sequence of events that led to her premature and violent death.

Before an audience of more than 1,000 paying spectators, journalists, and photographers at Luna Park on Coney Island, New York, on Sunday, January 4, 1903, Topsy was poisoned with carrots laced with 460 grains of potassium cyanide and then electrocuted with 6,600 volts of electricity for 10 seconds. According to some newspaper reports, she was also hanged for 10 minutes. Veterinarians declared her dead.

The Edison Manufacturing Company filmed the electrocution. The film, ‘Electrocuting an Elephant’, has been viewed on YouTube more than 1.4 million times, including by me. After I watched her electrocution, I vowed to write her biography so that her miserable life and cruel death were not in vain.

So why kill an elephant? Why film her electrocution? What would have happened to Topsy if she were alive today?

These are the questions I will answer in my biography Topsy the Elephant.