Electrocuting an Elephant (1903) Poster

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uncletoph17 October 2003
This film is a kind of mixture between a snuff film and an animal experimentation film. I suppose the film is somewhat interesting due largely to its age and its gruesome subject matter, but that's really about it. Edison made some other morbid films, with people being sent to the electric chair, hanged, shot, etc. I think these were reenactments, but the subject matter is the same. For this reason I don't think Edison was trying to tout his DC current as much as he was trying to cash in on audience blood-lust. As an early film buff, I just had to see it. But one time was enough for me. NOTE: For the morbidly curious, this film is available on Kino's wonderful "The Movies Begin" DVD box set. There is an easter egg on one of the disks that allows you to access this film, along with a few "execution" films and films considered adult-themed at the time.
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Edison and the Electricity War With George Westinghouse
theowinthrop11 August 2007
Warning: Spoilers
"The Wizard of Menlo Park" was deeply responsible for many things we take for granted in 2007: even if he did not invent them without rivals or assistants, he gave birth to the electric light, the phonograph, the motion picture camera, the electric car battery, the electric power grid (possibly his most important but least recalled invention), the pre-fabricated house, and innovations to the telephone and telegraph, as well as the ticker-tape machine and an early voting machine. The total number of patents is over 1,000 - far more than any other American Inventor.

But Edison was a ruthless business competitor. He frequently had vast legal fights over the precedence of his inventions over rivals. The best example is the telephone, where he was one of seven or eight rivals with claims against Alexander Graham Bell. Actually Edison's invention here was not the central idea that Bell and Gray had come up with independently of each other in 1876, but an improvement on the sound quality of the phone receiver and transmitter that Bell did not develop. Still it was part of the huge 1888 Supreme Court decision that was the longest U.S. Supreme Court decision (a single volume of their reports!) written by Chief Justice Morrison Waite - which, by the way, killed the poor Chief Justice from overwork within weeks of completing it.

In 1886 Edison found an equally ruthless competitor in the area of electric power grids for large cities. This was George Westinghouse, inventor of the railroad air break. Westinghouse's firm had gotten the assistance of a new inventor, and former Edison assistant, Nicola Tesla. Tesla developed "alternating current", which was a rival system to Edison's "direct current". Edison's system was basically a straight circuit system of electricity. Tesla's system allowed the current to be switched from one circuit to another - actually it was a better, and more efficient system. But Edison was determined to break this rival by a publicity campaign.

It started with electric power lines. Edison early on had his lines put underground, so that they would not be endangered by weather conditions. But Westinghouse was forced to have his lines out in the open - like telephone lines. When there were several accidental deaths by repair linemen on Westinghouse's lines (in particular one incident where the repairman was burned alive in front of hundreds of horrified onlookers in Manhattan's business district), Edison started insisting that A.C. current was far more dangerous that D.C.

One result of all this was Edison helping some subsidiary inventors with getting Westinghouse A.C. generators and dynamos for an electric chair. Edison himself always denied that he invented the electric chair, but he helped several lesser figures along the way - for the complete story read Mark Essig's EDISON & THE ELECTRIC CHAIR (New York: WALKER & COMPANY, 2003).

Edison experiment himself with cats and dogs (experiments he was glad to show the public). In the long run, despite assisting in the invention of a new method of execution, Edison failed to dislodge the public support of Alternating Current. But he never stopped trying.

In 1903 he had an opportunity to combine his campaign against Westinghouse and A.C. with his invention of the motion picture camera. He assisted in "putting down" a well known public elephant ("Topsy") who had killed several men. He did so by electrocuting the poor beast with A.C. But the entire killing is on film - and one can view it to this day. It is a pitiful looking film - whatever poor "Topsy" had done it was a poor beast - not a Machiavellian murderer. The moment we see the explosions of electricity sparks that show the death of the elephant, we are aware it will soon be over, but the sudden collapse of "Topsy" is still an unpleasant sight to view. The film leaves a bad flavor in the mouths of modern movie audiences. Yet, sad to say, it probably made a profit for Edison - his description of the film in his catalog of films shows real pride in his accomplishment here. In 1903 it may have been exciting entertainment for many Americans watching it. One is glad that more people are appalled by it today - sometimes one can sense the human race has improved a little bit.
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proof that humans suck
Mr Pants11 August 2000
in response to the response posted earlier, i think a film like this is good evidence towards the theory that humans can be kinda dumb. yeah, the elephant killed some people, but that seems more a reaction to its situation of being captured and paraded around for slack-jawed coney-islanders. in a way, this film was the first edition of "when animals attack!" as it similarly shows the results of animals rebelling against their human captors. of course, this edison film just shows the electrocution, but the meaning is the same.

the film can be seen in its entirety in Mr. Death, as the previous guy posted, and also in a PBS documentary about the rise and fall of Coney Island.
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A_Roode16 February 2006
This vicious little film is horrendous. My low rating for it comes for two main reasons. The first is that it is an animal snuff film and I find that whole concept so vile it turns my stomach. Filmed over a hundred years ago, I can only hope that we've evolved into something a little more humane and compassionate. This film is complete and utter exploitation, made to cash in on the sensational aspects of the film and the subject. Historical interest aside, this is something to watch only if one finds themselves in the grip of morbid fascination.

Reason number two? Look at the way that the camera is set up. It is placed in the best possible location to fully capture the full effect: long march forward of the elephant, perfect view of the electrocution platform and a cold and clinically dispassionate viewpoint of the elephant with smoke coming out of it before it finally collapses. Sickening.

Thomas Edison did many great things for civilization and his talents and intelligence aren't in doubt. Nobody is perfect, but when you realize that this film provided A) an opportunity for him to trump early cinematic competitors with a sensationalist film of an elephant being electrocuted and B) he filmed the execution to demonstrate the greater effectiveness of DC as opposed to AC, you can't help but wonder if the scientist in him was a little TOO dispassionate and cold. Any number of Peter Cushing's mad scientists would be proud. The rest of us should be ashamed and revolted.
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PR Stunt
PhobosDiemosX20 February 2003
I would like to just point out that the main reason Edison zapped 'ole Topsy was to show the dangers of AC and scare the public into wanting DC power, which would make him filthy stinking rich. It was just a bonus that the elephant killed some idiot. Also, Westinghouse wouldn't sell an AC generator to Coney Island because he knew that was what it would be used for so they had to buy one from somewhere is South America. Interesting don't you think?
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A must-see for sadists and Edison groupies
anonymous-1111 June 2000
I first heard of this film short in a horror movie textbook--and it was quite an appropriate place for it. This film is not likely to be exhibited to tourists at the Edison museum anytime soon. It documents a side of Edison that suggests that even the greatest of inventors can have sociopathic personality traits on par with a vivisector or serial killer. Another user seemed to be attempting to put the atrocity in context--but if the information was correct, that the elephant was abused by trainers-it only serves to compound the injustice here. This ranks with "Night and Fog" and the Ian Holm narrated "Animals at War" as one of the most shameful documents of human depravity recorded on film.

Dont feel bad if you cant find it at Blockbuster's.
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Hmmmmm. Interesting.
bigsleepj19 October 2003
Boy, talk about a gratuitous documentary. Imagine the pre-production scene that happened!

Edison: "Hey, an elephant killed some people, LET'S ELECTROCUTE IT BEFORE CAMERA!"

"Really, Mr Edison, is it decent?"


Seriously, this is a very odd piece for PETA to use in their campaign for animal rights. I'm not a very PETA-person, but I'm with them on electrocuting elephants, which Edison surely should have been. This is a very disturbing piece of work, especially when you see that the shock did not kill the poor animal.
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Cruel? Yes, but see this movie as part of that period of history
mvanhoore29 January 2014
First of all: It wasn't Edison who sentenced this poor elephant to death It wasn't Edison who abused the elephant It wasn't Edison who made the public bloodthirsty

Edison's involvement with the execution of the elephant is by providing the equipment and then filming the event. So making use of two of his "inventions". That he also makes a profit off the fate of the elephant has to be blamed to the nature of humankind that is still eager to see extreme violence. I only have to mention the success of the Faces of Death movies and you see that nothing has changed in 100 years.

What about the movie which in fact is a documentary or rather a newsflash. The filming is accurate en there is some historic significance. So it is important that this movie still exist and shows us a world where cruelty on animals (and human beings) was still a public affair.
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Not too beautiful
dkp-315 February 2005
I saw this film recently and it was fairly disturbing. My previous reviewer has reacted a little violently to the anti-cruelty issue and for no good reason, this is a factual piece of documentary footage shot a long time before Cannibal Holocaust and should not bear any comparison. I'm pretty sure that given the conditions of Coney Island in those days, over packed, rowdy and boisterous, that the elephant was probably provoked. I believe it was fed a lit cigarette, so there you go. This is a fascinating piece however that reveals a time when it was not unusual to inflict such cruelty on animals for spectacle (diving horses and pig chutes).
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Coney Dogs or Coney Dumbo: 25 cents on a stick
cricket crockett7 March 2013
Warning: Spoilers
PETA people constantly are deriding Texas, where we perhaps have more than our fair share of stockyards, slaughter houses, and meat-packing plants. But unlike the Swedish meatball folks, we do not grind horse into our tube steaks, nor do we wolf down swan burgers as does the British royal family. But about 22 seconds into this 77.34-second ELECTROCUTING AN ELEPHANT Edison short, a sign is seen above the cheering throng of New York City immigrant spectators along the lines of "Available May 2nd, 1903 at Luna Park: Dumbo Dogs--Elephant on a stick!" No cow suffered in the history of the Lone Star state the way poor Topsy suffers here, led through the pervert crowd by the world's most infamous inventor, chained by ankle rings to four stakes, jolted to tippy-toe as her right front foot begins to sizzle, then felled as five-foot flames shoot from her left hind paw as she's literally burned alive just like Joan of Arc in the 1400s. When last seen, Topsy's head is still thrashing around as her tongue swirls out toward her trunk: the "execution," intended to win old Tom the Osing Osing contract for a human electric chair based on "humane" DC or direct current, has FAILED (leaving men to poke steel rods through her eyeballs or something to finish her off). Not only were tickets sold to this "cultural event," but Edison raked in additional thousands for years to come at his peep show "kinetoscopes." I don't care if Topsy personally killed Tom's mom, dad, wife, brothers, sisters, kids, and grandkids: this event is unwarranted barbarism, and all of the mercenary motives behind it--from novelty meat treats to government contracts to sensationalistic snuff film sales--no doubt inspired Leni Riefenstahl to make TRIUMPH OF THE WILL for Hitler! It's hard to dispute ELECTROCUTING AN ELEPHANT is the most scandalous and horrific 77 seconds in cinema history.
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