Daly (The Book of Mychal, 2009) tells the story of the infamous 1903 execution of Topsy, a man-killing circus elephant.
The narrative also encompasses the strange phenomenon of 19th-century elephant mania, the history and culture of traveling circuses, the rivalry between electricity titans Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, and the disquieting marriage of cruel exploitation and exuberant hucksterism that constitutes the dark side of American innovation and progress. The author renders vital portraits of P.T. Barnum (impossible not to love despite his larcenous heart) and Edison (a complicated mixture of bullheaded pride and skewed integrity), as well as various intelligent and sensitive elephants. This makes Daly’s descriptions of their brutal mistreatment very difficult to stomach, and the fact that these incredibly powerful creatures so seldom struck back at their tormenters supports the author’s characterization of them as essentially noble, benign creatures. On the lighter side, the details of circus life—underhanded advertising campaigns launched to discredit competitors’ shows, pickpockets colluding with circus owners to fleece the rubes as completely as possible, all manner of fakery and humbug employed to increase ticket sales—are wonderfully amusing, and there are accounts of more humane trainers who disdained cruelty and emphasized an empathic approach to their work. Most compelling is the “War of the Currents,” in which Edison and Westinghouse fought to dominate the future of commercial electricity by backing either direct (Edison, prideful and misguided) or alternating (Westinghouse, a less-rigid thinker and aided by the genius Nikola Tesla) current. This was a battle of wills and geniuses that had an immeasurably profound effect on the world. The spectacle of an abused, exploited elephant dying to prove a point in a battle already won provides a potent illustration of the pettiness of human behavior that often accompanies man’s attempts to control the natural world.
A fascinating and moving piece of American history and a meditation on the cost of entertainment and human progress.