'Topsy' author Michael Daly discusses the unfortunate life story of a famous elephant
As a baby, the elephant named Topsy was beloved by 19th-century circus audiences. But as an adult she would suffer a horrible fate at the hands of Thomas Edison.
Talk about a power struggle.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, Thomas Edison desperately wanted to dominate the world of electricity and vanquish a rival named Westinghouse. What better way than connect his foe to the snuffing of human life through electrocution?
That's quite a story in itself. But in a bizarre turn of events, an elephant named Topsy – the victim of cruelty and American-style show biz – would play a role and pay a price. She would be electrocuted in public and become a Coney Island legend.
Like many of his neighbors, journalist and Brooklyn native Michael Daly had heard of Topsy. But it was only after stumbling upon a story in an old New York Times article (titled "Elephant Lands in Jail for Swimming Narrows") that he began to explore a wild saga of elephant trading, circus magnates on the prowl, and a famous inventor gone positively rogue.
Daly expertly tells the tale in his recent book "Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison."
In an interview, Daly talks about the remarkable world of elephants, the fascination that led to their landing on American shores, and the price paid by these extraordinary creatures.
Q: What about this little news story captured your attention?
A: It was about as remarkable a story I ever heard. They say a photograph is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a little bit of prose is worth a thousand photographs.
It was about how these men are fishing off Staten Island in the early morning darkness and all of a sudden they hear this trumpeting that makes them think of Judgment Day. They hear this form coming toward them and start rowing as fast as they can to shore, but this thing keeps pace with them .... and up comes this elephant just looking at them.
Q: The peaceful elephant, which had escaped from Coney Island, caused quite a stir. The delightful little news story from 1904 says it was "charged with being a vagrant" and locked up in a police stable but eventually was to be sent on its way back to Coney Island.
What else strikes you about this story?
A: One of the things I love about it is thinking about how elephants came to America across the water. The elephant might have had some impulse to just start swimming to get home.
Q: How did this story bring you to the unfortunate Topsy?
A: If you dig up the accounts, the elephant that swam was Fanny, who came over from Coney Island. The elephants there got very rowdy if they were over at one particular spot.
One report said they were digging and making these mournful noises where Topsy was buried. And I started thinking: If Topsy ended up there, where did Topsy start out?
Q: What did you learn about elephants and the way they live in their natural habitat?
A: Among females, who have sense enough to get rid of the males when they're old enough, the leader is the senior one, and seniority is the basis of authority. It's not the one with the biggest claws or the biggest teeth but the one who's been around the longest and knows the most in terms of experience.
It seems the perfect way to pass on authority.
And when an elephant is born, all of them become mothers to a degree. They're very caring with each other and that gentleness passes on from generation to generation.
Q: What does this tell you about nature?
A: We're raised to believe that nature is all about survival of the fittest and strongest, the fastest and most savage. This is a whole different notion of existence.
Q: Some of the most remarkable parts of your book look at the trade in circus elephants during the 19th century, a glorious time for circuses run by people like P.T. Barnum. Americans were amazed to see these huge creatures for the first time.
How big was the interest?
A: People would pay to see them, including the first elephant, who was named The Elephant because there weren't any others.
They'd move the elephant at night so no one could see it. In one town, people thought they'd lay out potato peels on the road and lead it to a bonfire so they could look at it. But the circus people were on to them and presented them at the bonfire with nothing more than a horse in a blanket.
Q: You explore the remarkable cruelty that the elephants endured thanks to circuses that wanted them to perform tricks but stay in line. What did you discover?
A: People would say that elephants are so big they don't feel it when you beat them. But when they stroke each other, they're so gentle you realize they must be very sensitive.
And while people talk about them being savage, they show incredible restraint around humans.
Q: There's a big debate going on now about how killer whales are treated at SeaWorld theme parks. Do you see similarities between their treatment and the way elephants were treated?
A: It's all unconscionable cruelty. But I'm not sure it's any better to be cruel to a beast who isn't aware. We think it's worse because these animals are more like us.
Q: Topsy the elephant eventually became part of a big dispute over the future of electricity and the type of current – direct or alternating – that would be used. You write about how Thomas Edison tried to use the debate to crush his competitor, named Westinghouse, and even tried to popularize the term "Westinghoused" to mean "electrocuted."
What was going on in his head?
A: There some scientists who can tell you about the God Particle and how all that works but have very little sense of practical uses. He was kind of opposite: He was able to come up with these incredible and practical inventions, but he really didn't understand how they worked.
He'd admit himself that he didn't know much about electricity. But he felt he was the first one and electricity was his, and who was this guy to come along?
He also couldn't stand to be wrong. The personal tragedy was that he was so desperate to beat Westinghouse that he lost control of his own company. I ended up feeling kind of bad for him.
Q: What should people be thinking when they read your book?
A: You might think about how elephant society works and how nature isn't necessary a bad neighborhood. And you might be a little more conscious of these elephants when you see them in the circus and at the zoo. If they rock back and forth, they're not entirely happy.
And you might think about how the great religion of that time was science, with the belief that science can deliver everything. They thought that electrocution would be this scientific bloodless way to kill people.
There's a film of Topsy being electrocuted on YouTube. The supposedly savage creature is so obliging. She raises her foot so they can adjust the sandal that will kill her; the people around her are not nervous or leery at all because they knew she wasn't dangerous.
You think how trusting she is. You have a situation where the executioners aren't nervous around the prisoner, and the prisoner has no idea of what's going to happen to her.
It's about as bad a thing you can think of. For all of us, if you see really bad things, you've got to ask: How did this happen and what can we do so it doesn't happen again?
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.