It was the forgotten story of an elephant who swam more than four miles across Lower New York Bay on a foggy night in 1905 that convinced Michael Daly his near future should be spent in the company of long-dead pachyderms.
This was back in 2008, when Daly—then a routinely controversial columnist for the New York Daily News and the author of a 9/11-related tribute, The Book of Mychal—was casting about for the topic of his next book. An editor suggested he investigate a historical murder case. But Daly’s online searching led him instead to both the bizarre saga of Topsy, a former circus elephant who was executed by electricity at New York City’s Coney Island in 1903, and a related incident involving another long-trunked mammoth, Fanny, who was spotted off Staten Island two years later, after her epic paddle from Coney’s newest, gaudiest amusement sensation, Luna Park.
“The mystery of what had driven Fanny to undertake such a feat,” Daly tells me, “was solved after her keeper said that she and the rest of her small herd of performing elephants were spooked every time they went near a particular section of the amusement park. It turned out to be where Topsy’s head was buried. That story got me going on Topsy.”
Wait, what? Topsy’s head? More on that later ...
It’s truly a jumbo-sized yarn that Daly—now 62 and a special correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast—delivers in Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison. By turns humorous, heartwarming and horrifying, it encompasses everything from the first elephant debarking in the United States in 1796, to the 19th-century rise of American circuses, the invention of “pink lemonade” (believe me, you don’t want to know its founding ingredients) and the zealous rivalry between pioneering electricity entrepreneurs Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.
However, the thematic and emotional center of this book is occupied by a female Asian elephant, Topsy, who was born around 1875 and came to the United States in 1877. Despite that history, her original American owner—Adam Forepaugh, the cheapskate proprietor of a traveling circus that competed head-to-hype against “humbugger” Phineas T. Barnum’s own big-top spectacle—fraudulently declared Topsy to be the first native-born proboscidian.
Over the years, she, like so many other imported elephants, was cruelly mistreated by handlers, one of whom actually broke Topsy’s tail in a wrathful thrashing. As Daly explains, it was rare to find people who understood that pain and fear weren’t necessary motivators for pachyderms—but Topsy at least had two such early trainers, one of them a young black man whose gentle expertise with animal performers was actually hidden from white circus-goers. “Both men,” the author states, “were secure enough in themselves that they did not need to inflate their sense of self by dominating and abusing elephants. They sought to connect with elephants, not subjugate them.”
Daly says he’s surprised and impressed at how few elephants retaliated against their abusers. “Topsy endured a lifetime of torment,” he notes, “but, by my count, only killed once and that after a guy threw a lit cigar in her mouth. Even after that, she put up with treatment so brutal that cops in Coney Island twice felt compelled to arrest her drunken trainer. She could have killed her tormentor at will, but never harmed him as he struck and stuck her again and again, day after day.”
Nonetheless, after being retired from circus duty and acquired by Fred Thompson and Elmer “Skip” Dundy, the builders of Coney Island’s Luna Park, Topsy gained a rep in the press as a “bad elephant.” The park wanted no such negative publicity, so a decision was made to electrocute the onetime star performer. This wasn’t the first time an elephant had been thusly eliminated; and electrocution had become an accepted form of capital punishment, thanks in part to its grudging endorsement by inventor Edison.
On Jan. 4, 1903—four months before Luna Park opened—electrodes were fitted to two of Topsy’s huge feet, and a switch thrown. The 10-foot-tall leviathan collapsed under 6,600 volts of electricity, while a crew sent by Edison filmed her demise. Daly recalls how difficult it was to write that scene: “Had [Topsy] been a person, everybody would now be saying that she was wrongly executed on trumped-up charges, and it seemed important to describe her death in whatever detail was most telling. The supposed crazed man killer obligingly raised her foot when asked so the electrode could be adjusted moments before the fatal jolt. The result was indeed sad and unnecessary and, more than anything, unjust.”
So here’s where Topsy’s 300-pound noggin comes in.
Following her execution, some of the elephant’s hide was stripped to cover Fred Thompson’s office chair. A pair of her legs became umbrella holders. And her head was buried in a remote corner of the Luna Park site—the same allegedly haunted section that provoked giant Fanny to make her headline-generating swim in 1905.
Only memories of Topsy lived on. When, in 1944, fire destroyed much of Luna Park, more than one wag called it “Topsy’s revenge.”