Marc Estrin : The Execution of an Elephant

Topsy the elephant:
Executed by Thomas Alva Edison

By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / January 9, 2010

[Noted author and activist Marc Estrin will be contributing to The Rag Blog on a regular basis.]

Wait! Do not activate that video — unless you have a stomach immune to moral indigestion. Let me tell you the story first, and then you decide if you want to click the mouse that clicks the video that clicks off the elephant.

This week marked the anniversary of the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant at Coney Island on January 4, 1903. Not the accidental electrocution, but the intentional one, by one of our American heros, Thomas Alva Edison. And for purposes no higher than winning a commercial battle with his nemesis, George Westinghouse.

I reported this incident in a chapter of my novel The Lamentations of Julius Marantz. Julius, our sweetheart, has taken the D train from Manhattan out to his homeland, Coney Island, to submit to a well-earned and inevitable suicide. But since it is a long ride, I thought my readers would like something to entertain themselves along the way. So I included a chapter called “A Study of History,” which treats five FUQs — Frequently Unasked Questions — concerning the playland and its visitors. Here are the last two:

4. And What about Edison? Did he come too?

At last, a native American. Yes, yes he came, eight years before Freud he came — accompanied by Westinghouse and Faraday, and Adam Smith, and Death. They came to electrocute an elephant. Forty-four years before Julius was born, they came to electrocute an elephant named Topsy.

Elephants — the highest form of animal, symbols of strength and astuteness, emblems of wisdom, of eternity, of moderation and pity, removers of obstacles, charismatic beasts suggesting the power of Buddha: miraculous aspiration, analysis, intention, and effort. Their trunks are capable of both uprooting trees and picking the smallest of leaves, thus suggesting that humans develop their powers in both the gross and spiritual worlds.

Massive and gray, they resemble dark clouds of refreshing rain. Indra’s mighty elephant digs with its tusks, and reaches its trunk deep into the earth, sucking up water, and spraying it into clouds which bring forth rain. Elephants thus link the heaven above with the chthonic below, and symbolize the mist that separates formed worlds from the unformed.

Their tusks, both digging tools and weapons, linking the beast again to things supra- and sub-terranean. Elephants were named for their tusks, from elefas, the Greek for ivory. Achilles sword, in Pope’s Homer, had a handle “with steel and polished elephant adorned.”

They are loyal and affectionate, the elephants. Older calves help younger siblings, adults their sick or wounded comrades. They demonstrate ideals. It is said that mothers of great masters will dream of them at birth.

Most easily trained of all the beasts, they rarely forget. And when their great patience is exhausted, they have a remarkable memory for wrongs done them, and many stories are told of elephant revenge.

Mice do not scare them.

Topsy the elephant.

Topsy was 30, and weighed three tons. She began as a worker, hauling the beams and blocks that became the Island. When the parks were built, she turned entertainer, doing tricks, in pink tutu, for gawking faces. Towards the end, she became quite blind, having worn her eyes out looking at America — and seeing nothing.

But she did see the drunken trainer who put his cigarette out against her tongue and laughed. She picked him up, threw him against the wall, then smashed his head quite easily underfoot. And thus she became “a rogue,” a “man-killer,” and her sentence was death.

Topsy was given a bale of carrots laced with cyanide, and scarfed them down without effect. Another helping, please? The park owners saw a chance to be tough on crime, and also make a profit. For every scratch, an itch: they announced that the murderous rogue elephant would be publicly hanged. “No, no!” cried the ASPCA. Too cruel and inhuman.

“No, no!” cried Thomas Alva Edison. Hadn’t New York State just replaced the gallows with a new, humane, electric chair? “I’ll come and help.”

There was more to this than met the eye.

In Topsy-time the Wizard of Menlo Park was engaged in his own death-struggle with George Westinghouse for control of America’s electrical infrastructure. His DC system, he claimed, was safe, while Westinghouse’s was deadly. To prove it, he’d been publicly electrocuting cats and dogs for years. It was he who had convinced the state to use Westinghouse’s AC for their electric chair. So much, and no more, had he accomplished: an electrocuted criminal was widely referred to as “being Westinghoused.”

So what an irresistible photo-op here! How better to demonstrate the danger of his enemy’s system, than to roast a full-grown elephant? Dr. Edison brought a team of technicians, and a film crew. On July 4th, 1903, before a cheering, patriotic crowd of thousands, Topsy was led to a special platform, the cameras rolled, and the switch to Coney’s powerful electrical plant was thrown. Topsy’s short-lived hell-on-earth lasted only 10 seconds. At six thousand volts. She convulsed, her hide began to smoke, and she collapsed. Applause. “It’s a take.” The great man showed the film to audiences across the nation to win his point, if not his contracts, and to help forge the created non-conscience of his race.

Whither reeleth our sweetheart?
He sang to himself, in cadence count
E non voglio più servir,
No, no, no, no, no,
E non voglio più servir, hitting on vir a low Eb — abysmal depth, and the base tone of creation.
Non serviam.

George Orwell had warned him some time ago: “We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of civilized men.”

Whither hobbles he, wandering among these ghosts?

To the towering parachute jump which — six years before he was born — was transferred from the “Lifesavers’ Exhibit” at the New York World’s Fair, the site right next to the Centaurs. He liked the parachute jump. It reminded him of his father. “It packs more thrills than any wings-in-sky interlude since Icarus,” the old guides used to say. It reminded him that it takes longer to rise than to fall. Its rising and falling came to an end in ’68, on a nearly vacant lot, in a moribund park on Coney Island. And now, there, in front of him, it rusted.

For Hegel, the Enlightenment meant a struggle between reason and what he called “the night of the world,” that chaotic mix of hatred and irrationality which can destroy humanity and what it builds, but which is paradoxically the source of its enormous energy.

For Hegel, human history revolves around the attempt to negate the negativity of “the night of the world,” and turn it to productive thought and action. He would have liked to have said, “Where there is id there shall be ego.”

Final question: Which tense do you want to live in?

“I want to live in the imperative of the future passive participle,” our sweetheart said, “in the ‘what ought to be.'”

They hanged “Murderous Mary.”

The execution of Mary

While googling for a photo of Topsy I came across an even more disturbing graphic of another elephant execution — that of “Murderous Mary” 11 years later, for similar motives of profit. Mary, killed her keeper in a mood known only to an elephant, but apparently quickly passing. The crowd began chanting “Kill the elephant!” and a local blacksmith pumped two dozen rounds into her with little effect. Fear spread (or was spread), as it easily does, into the business community, and nearby towns threatened to ban the show if Mary was in it.

I’m sure Mary’s owner was conflicted over his decision, but it’s likely that the loss of his investment in Mary would be less than a potentially ruinous blacklisting, and he decided, like Edison, to kill Mary in public. Not soft on elephant-terrorists he.

Mary was sent by rail to Erwin, Tennessee, where 2,500 people paid to see her hanged like the murderer she was. Wikipedia’s taciturn obit goes like this: “The elephant was hanged by the neck from a railcar-mounted industrial crane. The first attempt resulted in a snapped chain, causing Mary to fall and break her hip as dozens of children fled in terror. The severely wounded elephant died during a second attempt and was buried beside the tracks.”

[Marc Estrin is a writer and activist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels, Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. Insect Dreams was recently published in German by Parthas Verlag, Berlin. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. Two novels, The Annotated Nose, and Skulk appeared in November 2008, and The Good Doctor Guillotin in September 2009. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]

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5 Responses to Marc Estrin : The Execution of an Elephant

  1. Richard says:

    Edison was trying to prove that AC was dangerous to promote his idea of a nation on DC. There is very little difference, 60 milliamps of AC will kill you. 300 or a little more of DC will kill you. The real difference, AC can be transmitted hundreds of miles, DC not very far, maybe a block or so efficiently. The fight going on was generating electricity on a block by basis and in many cases

  2. Anonymous says:

    I'm looking forward to more from Estrin. I didn't want to read this upsetting tale, but was unable to resist this author's spell. I did manage to skip what was sure to be a dreadful video. That made me wonder exactly why out sensibilities are so aroused upon evidence of cruelty to some large mammals & most household pets, but not to tiny insects, or to some entire subsets of

  3. So true anonymous. Case in point, I have yet to find an article on this blog site discussing the Progressive movement's aroused sensibilities over the cruel death of millions of unborn children. At that point the authors lament over the death of a few elephants might rise above the level of hypocricy.

  4. Richard says:

    DHS, You gotta be born to be unborn, like you gotta be dressed to be undressed. Not born, pre-born, fetus, are more descriptive… and not children until they are born, after which (I think) you can't be unborn, due to the trama to the mother by such.

  5. David says:

    Anonymous, I think our sensibilities are always aroused by evidence of cruelty toward human beings. At least mine are. Why elephants, and other mammals and other vertebrates, but not insects? Is it so mysterious? There’s a lot more similarity between us and an elephant than there is between an elephant and an insect. An elephant is an individual, to anyone who pays attention. The story is eloquent about this.

    (I skipped the video too …)

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