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Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)

The execution of Topsy, a female elephant, in a publicity stunt advertising the opening of Luna Park on Coney Island. Topsy was originally owned by Forepaugh Circus where she killed a ... See full summary »

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Topsy ...
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Storyline

The execution of Topsy, a female elephant, in a publicity stunt advertising the opening of Luna Park on Coney Island. Topsy was originally owned by Forepaugh Circus where she killed a drunken spectator who burned the tip of her trunk with a cigar. She was sold to Sea Lion Park in 1902 which was then sold to new owners who turned it into Luna Park. After they decided they could no longer handle her, the owners of Luna Park announced they would hang Topsy, leading to an outcry by the ASPCA. The owners then decided they would electrocute the elephant, with a backup plan of feeding her cyanide-laced carrots and strangling her with a cable. Written by Rob O

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Documentary | Short

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Release Date:

12 January 1903 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Electrocution of an Elephant  »

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1.33 : 1
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Did You Know?

Trivia

On July 20, 2003, a memorial for Topsy was erected at the Coney Island Museum. See more »

Connections

Edited into The 20th Century: A Moving Visual History (1999) See more »

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User Reviews

 
like Bambi vs Godzilla if was crossed with the holocaust
1 May 2016 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

Now here is some bad storytelling. This is one minute long - sure it's 1903, literally, but still - and we get barely any head up, just two shots: one of an elephant, bound with some wraps, coming up to the camera, and then the next shot the elephant gets electrocuted and falls over to his/her side. Dead. Who committed to this? Why did no one step in, like the police or possibly (if it existed) 1903's version of PETA? And what was Thomas Edison doing there filming it, for posterity? Why didn't he come with a script prepared and some stakes? Where's the three act structure here? Even for a documentary this is poor work.

OK, so that's no very funny, I know. I think it's all I can do to try and mask the fact that I just watched an elephant get electrocuted. It's a purposeless act, but I haven't read the history on it so perhaps there was some context that was there. Maybe the elephant was old or sick and it came from the circus and it was time to set the elephant out to pasture? No, it looks relatively healthy, and as it stands there in poise before the electroshocks happen it seems content enough.

Seriously, I have no idea if it was Edison's notion to shock the elephant, and I'd assume it wasn't (I looked it up and it wasn't his exactly, the elephant would've been killed anyway for killing a couple of people). But the fact is he documented it not for himself but for others to view, and it comes down to one of two things: anthropological purposes (that we see this horrible act for future generations to see and to be horrified by so that we further appreciate the life around us) or, most likely, to gain some public blood-thirst (or again to publicize his electricity, which sounds and is about right). These were the primitive days of cinema, when movies played very quickly, probably at some of the same circuses (or at least in that carnival atmosphere, and to audiences who's attention was brief before going on to this or that.

How did people react then? I'd be curious to see if they were mortified or found it somehow, some way, entertaining. I'd sincerely hope not the latter, and it suddenly occurs to be the irony that it was because of Edison creating electricity that this could be a possibility to start with. It IS a part of history and in the context it was set in I know I should give it a pass. But in the 21st century, after so many decades where elephants have been decimated and Dumbo has become the example of elephants in cinema, it's really shocking (no pun intended).

I don't know if this should even get a rating, but it does here.


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