Topsy: The Elephant We Must Never Forget

  • Kim Stallwood
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature book series (PSAAL)


An Asian elephant called Topsy was electrocuted in front of 1500 spectators by Thomas Edison in New York on January 4, 1903. Her life represents the treatment of animals exploited by the entertainment industry and symbolises America’s industrial empire. The footage shot by Edison of Topsy’s electrocution is recognised as an important development in film-making history. Edison wanted to prove direct current was safer than alternating current (the alternative promoted by his rival, George Westinghouse) and thereby win the battle to electrify America. This chapter explores the biography of Topsy as an individual elephant whose life and death played a prominent role in the development of the animal industrial complex and the USA as an industrial, capitalist empire.


Elephant Topsy Circus Electricity Edison New York 



The author wishes to express his appreciation for advice and professional assistance from Jill Howard Church in the writing of this paper.

Works Cited

  1. Anonymous. “Coney Elephant Killed: Topsy Overcome with Cyanide of Potassium and Electricity.” The New York Times, January 5, 1903.Google Scholar
  2. ———. “Zimbabwe’s Elephants Poisoned by Cyanide.” BBC News, September 25, 2013. Accessed September 30, 2017.
  3. Balcombe, Jonathan. Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.Google Scholar
  4. Bekoff, Marc. The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy – and Why They Matter. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007.Google Scholar
  5. Buck, Frank and Edward Anthony. Bring ‘Em Back Alive. New York: Garden City Publishing Company, 1930.Google Scholar
  6. Daly, Michael. Topsy. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013.Google Scholar
  7. Dunayer, Joan. Animal Equality: Language and Liberation. Derwood, MD: Ryce Publishing, 2001.Google Scholar
  8. “Elephant Electrocution.” Accessed September 30, 2013.
  9. Essig, M. Edison and the Electric Chair. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing, 2003.Google Scholar
  10. Evans, E. P. The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. London: Faber and Faber, 1987.Google Scholar
  11. Frederick Crick Memorial Conference. Cambridge, UK, July 7, 2012. Accessed September 23, 2017.
  12. Hagenbeck, Carl. Beasts and Men: Being Carl Hagenbeck’s Experiences for Half a Century Among Wild Animals. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909.Google Scholar
  13. Hawthorne, Mark. Bleating Hearts: The Hidden World of Animal Suffering. Winchester, UK: Changemakers Books, 2013.Google Scholar
  14. Hribal, Jason. Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2010.Google Scholar
  15. Lewis, George “Slim” and Byron Fish. I Loved Rogues: The Life of an Elephant Tramp. Seattle, WA: Superior Publishing Company, 1978.Google Scholar
  16. Maslin, Sarah and Nate Schweber. “After 146 Years, Ringling Brothers Circus Takes Its Final Bow.” The New York Times, May 21, 2017. Accessed September 30, 2017.
  17. Mathiesen, Karl. “Elephants on the Path to Extinction – The Facts.” The Guardian, August 12, 2016. Accessed September 23, 2017.
  18. Moss, Cynthia. Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.Google Scholar
  19. Nance, Susan. Entertaining Elephants. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.Google Scholar
  20. Pacelle, Wayne. “Ringling Announcement an Indicator of Broader Shift Toward Animal Protection.” Last modified January 16, 2017. Accessed September 23, 2017.
  21. Payne, Katy. Silent Thunder: The Hidden Voice of Elephants. London: Phoenix, 1998.Google Scholar
  22. Pick, Anat. “Sparks Would Fly: Electricity and the Spectacle of Animality.” In Animalities: Literary and Cultural Studies Beyond the Human, edited by Michael Lundblad, 106. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.Google Scholar
  23. Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983.Google Scholar
  24. Regan, Tom and Peter Singer, ed. Animal Rights and Human Obligations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976.Google Scholar
  25. Rothfels, Nigel. Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.Google Scholar
  26. Ryder, Richard D. Victims of Science. London: Davis-Poynter, 1975.Google Scholar
  27. Stowe, H. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Originally published in 1852. London: Wordsworth Classics, 2002.Google Scholar
  28. Stross, R. The Wizard of Menlo Park. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.Google Scholar
  29. Sukumar, Roman. The Living Elephants: Evolutionary Ecology, Behaviour and Conservation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.Google Scholar
  30. Thomas, Keith. Man and the Natural World. London: Allen Lane, 1983.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kim Stallwood
    • 1
  1. 1.Independent ScholarHastingsUK

Personalised recommendations