January 4th, 1903 – Electrocuting an Elephant


The film Electrocuting an Elephant documents the publicly announced January 4th, 1903 killing of Topsy the elephant at the (still under construction) Luna Park on Coney Island. The elephant had recently been acquired from Forepaugh Circus where she had a reputation as a “bad” elephant, having killed a drunken spectator the previous year who burnt the tip of her trunk with a lit cigar.

Electrocuting an Elephant 680

After several incidents at Luna Park (sometimes attributed to the actions of her drunken handler, William “Whitey” Alt) the owners of Luna Park, Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy, claimed they could no longer handle the elephant and announced they would hang Topsy in a public spectacle and charge admission. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stepped in, questioning the idea of hanging an elephant as well as making a public spectacle out of the death of an animal.

Thompson and Dundy cut the event back to invited guest and press only and agreed to use a more sure method of strangling the elephant with large ropes tied to a steam powered winch. They also agreed they would use poison and electricity as well.

topsyThe Edison company submitted the film to the Library of Congress as a “paper print” (a photographic record of each frame of the film) for copyright purposes. This form of submission may have saved the film for posterity since most films and negatives of this period decayed or were destroyed over time. It may have been the first “death” ever captured in a motion picture film.

The film fell into relative obscurity in the years after 1903, showing up as an out of context clip in the 1979 film Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video. In 1991 documentary maker Ric Burns made the film Coney Island which included a segment recounting the death of Topsy, including clips from the film Electrocuting an Elephant. The film was also used in a memorial arts piece to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Topsy’s death created by New Orleans artist Lee Deigaard and exhibited at the Coney Island USA museum. It allowed the public to view the film on a hand cranked mutoscope while surrounded by hanging chains and standing on a copper plate. In recent years portions of Electrocuting an Elephant have also appeared in movies, music videos, TV shows, and video games.

In popular culture Thompson and Dundy’s execution of Topsy has switched attribution, with claims the film depicts an anti-alternating current demonstration organized by Thomas A. Edison during the War of Currents. Historians point out that Edison was never at Luna Park and the electrocution of Topsy took place 10 years after the War of Currents.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


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