Saturday, 12 April 2014

Edison Executes an Elephant

     Did you know that Coney Island, in New York, once featured a hotel in the shape of an elephant? The Elephant Hotel stood 122 feet [37 metres] high and, to quote P. V. Bradford,
it had circular stairs in hind legs 60 feet in diameter each, glittering glass eyes four feet wide, telescopes on top and rooms scattered throughout its body, thighs, and trunk.
     It burnt down in the 1890s, but Coney Island also had a herd of real elephants, one of which was executed in a spectacular manner.
     To quote the same source:
     An elephant named Topsy was among these stalwarts of the amusement parks. She is remembered less today for how she lived than for her death, an unforgettable solo turn. It is not easy to get the true story. Coney Island historians tell it as if Topsy's final bow took place before tens of thousands of spectators on a busy day at the height of the season; the New York Times of January 5, 1903, reports it as having occurred the preceding Sunday, a wintry day, with few people around who were not involved in carrying out her execution.
     Topsy was sentenced to die in large part because of the misbehavior of her keeper, Whitey Alt, a cantankerous drunk. A few months earlier, when he was arrested, Topsy loyally followed him to the police station where, according to the Times, she spent some time "trying to get her fat head in through the door with doubtful success." More recently, under orders from Whitey - "Stick 'em" were reputedly his words - she had charged a group of Italian workmen who saved themselves by climbing the rafters at Luna Park.
     Topsy's own character was not entirely without blemish. She had a temper, having killed a man in Brooklyn the previous year after he fed her a lit cigarette. With only the increasingly erratic Whitey to prevent it from happening again, Luna Park's owners decided the safest recourse was to put her down. Electrocution was the method chosen; as Elephant Hotel had burned, so would Topsy.
     Whitey refused to have anything to do with her death, though they offered him twenty-five dollars to lure her to the assigned spot. Finally, after a doctor fed her carrots stuffed with cyanide to no avail - "She ate them greedily, and waited for more" - Edison's men clamped the electrodes on her where she stood, and threw the switch. Topsy raised her trunk aloft as if to make one last remark, then commenced to smoke and sizzle while Edison's Vitascope cameraman preserved it on film  (The resulting shot - Electrocuting an Elephant - was popular in the early days of cinema.) Ten seconds later, she "shook, bent to her knees, fell, and rolled over on her right side motionless." Her organs were donated to Princeton University. Her feet were made into umbrella stands.
 Reference:  Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume (1992), Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo, Bookman Press, Melbourne, pp 156 - 7
(This excerpt is merely a sideshow to a very interesting narrative which you might like to read.)

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