In 1903 at the soon-to-open Luna Park on Coney Island, an elephant named Topsy was electrocuted, likely with advice from Thomas Edison, whose film crew recorded the horrible event. Over the past century, this bizarre, ghoulish execution has reverberated through popular culture with the ring of an urban legend. But it really happened, and today, Edison's footage can be found on YouTube, where it has been viewed nearly two million times.
Many historical forces conspired to bring Topsy, Edison, and those 6,600 volts of alternating current together at Coney Island that day. Journalist Michael Daly's Topsy is a fascinating popular history that traces them, from the rise of the circus in America and the lives of circus elephants, through Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the war of the currents, to the birth of Coney Island.
Throughout the book, Daly follows Topsy's picaresque life up to the point of her death, from her capture, the roar of the crowd, life on the endless road, and the tormenting of her trainers, weaving her tale through other big stories such as P. T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh's circus rivalry, trainers Stewart Craven and Eph Thompson's kindness to the animals, and Thomas Edison's attempt to prove alternating current was far more dangerous than his direct current. It's a touching tale, and it is impossible to read Topsy and look at the circus, elephants, or Thomas Edison the same way again. Above all, Topsy is an entertaining read that brings to life this remarkable world and its characters.