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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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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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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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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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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A glorification of the lowest facet of humanity.
rooprect6 July 2006
We see Thomas Edison, with a glowing smile on his face, trying to electrocute a 5 ton living being. Eventually he was successful, and so the first animal snuff film is born, cleverly disguised as an amazing achievement in technology. This is scientific arrogance at it's worst, folks. It ranks up there with the doctor who decapitated a monkey just to prove that he could keep its severed head alive for 22 minutes.

Oh yes, there's the absurd excuse that the elephant had been convicted of "murder" and sentenced to death, and that this was a fair and humane "execution". To all the people who are satisfied with this sophistry, please form a line on my right. I'm going to give you all a big collective Three Stooges slap across the head.

Go watch "The Advocate" (1993), a movie based on the true story murder trial of a pig in Mideval France. 500 years later, humans are still a bunch of morons I see.

What's next? We arrest birds for stealing our blueberries? Arrest pricker bushes for assault and battery? Thomas Edison, I hope you have a big fat worm crawling through your eye socket right now. Oh wait, that would be trespassing, wouldn't it? lol
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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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Great fun for the whole family.
lalaloo1730 May 2000
In response to the only comment I saw listed, I would just like to say that the death of poor little Topsy the Elephant was not merely for the sake of movie footage. As it turns out, Topsy was a three-time man killer (the last victim had fed her a lit cigarette). Topsy was once an attraction/helper at the old Luna Park at Coney Island. Her trainer, one "Whitey" Alt taught her to "sic" the Italian workers, and this is what forced the owners of Coney Island to do away with this 6 ton paciderm. At least Topsy was electrocuted, she was supposed to be hanged. A scaffold had been prepared for such an occasion, but the animal rights activists would not stand for that. Edison had been frying animals (cats, dogs, cows, gorrillas, etc) for years in a battle between his DC and Westinghouse's AC forms of current. So Edison jumped at the opportunity to fry Topsy. He sent his boys to hook up their electrodes, and sent his film crew to tape the occasion. I also saw a show on Alice Guy which had a copy of the short film with it accredited to her direction. Where did you guys see this film in the first place? If anyone knows where I might purchase this movie short, please let me know.
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RIP Topsy
ackstasis7 May 2007
Now here is a fascinating little film from the archives of Thomas A. Edison. 'Electrocuting an Elephant' is sure to arouse highly conflicting feelings among different audiences. Some people see it as absolutely despicable, the equivalent of an "animal snuff film" and an indicator of how loathsome the human race actually is. Others may see it as a glorious demonstration of the power of Alternating Current electricity, an invention that has since revolutionised life as we know it (though this definitely wasn't what Edison had intended). The film-goers among us may view 'Electrocuting an Elephant' as a fascinating cinematic curiosity from the early twentieth century, and a testament to film's ability to incite powerful emotions. I, myself, am unsure how exactly to approach this film – in any case, no verdict may be reached until we know all the facts.

Topsy the elephant was born around 1875. She was a domestic animal with the Forepaugh Circus at Coney Island's Luna Park, measuring ten feet in height and 19 feet 11 inches in length. Over a three year period, Topsy killed three men – two of her keepers in Texas, and a third abusive trainer who tried to feed her a lit cigarette. She was then deemed an unacceptable threat to humans and sentenced to be put down, or "executed," if you were so inclined. Thomas Edison, who had been looking for a means to discredit AC electricity – which had been stealing the market for his DC electricity – suggested that Topsy be electrocuted, and he was able to convince the ASPCA that it would be a humane death.

On January 4 1903, after being fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide, Topsy was led to her execution. A hawser (a heavy rope) was place around her neck, one end attached to a "donkey engine" and the other to a post. Wooden sandals lined with copper were attached to her feet, and these were connected by a copper wire to the Edison electric light plant. It took 6600 volts of electricity less than one minute to kill her, and 'Electrocuting an Elephant' captures every uncomfortable moment of it. Is this an entertaining film? Most certainly not. But, at the same time, isn't it all just incredibly interesting?
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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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Exploitation 1903 Style
Michael_Elliott24 May 2012
Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)

Edison made thousands of films in his career but this here is perhaps his most notorious. The elephant Topsy was a performer at Luna Park on Coney Island and after killing her third person she was sentenced to death. Edison, being a businessman, wanted to film her electrocution and the end result is this movie lasting under a minute. There's really not too much to be said with this film without entering the debate field. People complain about the violence towards the animal but from everything I've read this is how they were handled back in the day and apparently many places still use this form of death. I think the biggest problem is that Edison would want to film it in order to make money. I can certainly see why people would be offended by this today but apparently those in 1903 were okay with it as apparently this film made quite a bit of money. On a technical level there's certainly nothing impressive about it and today it will just be viewed for a form of exploitation.
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Real, Not Special Effects
nekrotikk2 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
This is just silent film footage of the elephant murdered by Coney Island workers because after one of her trainers burned her trunk she became difficult to handle. A depressing watch and one that makes me so glad we now have organisations like PETA.
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A short torture film
unraisedwall21 February 2018
Yay torturing animals is fun what the hell 1903 I thought that was illegal plus this is an actual animal killed but at least it's short
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like Bambi vs Godzilla if was crossed with the holocaust
MisterWhiplash1 May 2016
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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Wrong for all kinds of reasons Warning: Spoilers
This is a black-and-white short film from 1903 and it shows us exactly what the title says. For two thirds of this very short film (roughly 45 seconds) we only see how Topsy is taken to the place where she got killed. And in the end, we see the actual electrocution. This is an absolutely inhumane video and I hope Edison was ashamed for filming this, even if he obviously did not order the killing. This film is a definite contender for worst silent film of all time. Maybe you could even cut the "silent". Quite an achievement for such a short movie. Cruel, no value in terms of film, nothing. This should never have been made and I am actually glad that this did not become a common trend among filmmakers back in the day. I thing I saw some bullfighting and cockfighting, but that was pretty much it. Hughly not recommend, especially if you are sensitive when it comes to violence against animals.
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An Early Example of Cinema's Potential to Arouse Strong Feelings
Snow Leopard6 September 2005
This would have to be considered as an early example of the potential of motion pictures to arouse strong feelings, and despite its disturbing content, it is still of interest for that reason. Incidents such as the one depicted here used to happen every so often, but this is one of the rare ones that is still remembered, because seeing movie footage of it makes it stick in the mind much more than reading an account in print, or even seeing a still photograph, could have done. Some of the general issues involved are also still topical, more than a century later.

Being aware of the background to the event, which some of the commentators here have described (the full situation is also described in at least one of the video releases), helps to explain what is going on. Even so, it is very uncomfortable to watch this, regardless of your reason for so doing, and it should thus be viewed with caution.

It would be difficult or impossible to watch this movie without having some strong feelings about it. Some of the speculations (and criticisms) on why the Edison Company chose to film it as a movie are definitely to the point. Yet it still serves today as an early and uncomplicated example of the powerful ability that motion pictures have to make us react to their images.

If you had just read a news story about this ill-fated elephant, it would probably provoke some response, but it would more than likely be rather short-lived. When you actually see it happen on a screen, it's much harder to forget.
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Disturbing and Provoking
aumgn1 April 2000
This short film displaying the graphic eletrocution of an elephant is some of the most shocking footage ever put on celluloid. A noble animal electrocuted for no specific reason. You can see the pain the animal experience as it falls to the ground without dignity. Amazing.
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redmond barry23 June 2000
It's 1909 and I think plain truth is Edison needs money. I don't know exactly who hires him to document this, but it looks like a Zoo. Basicly this is a documentation of an elephant electrocution. The whole thing is less than a minute long. You can see it in Mr.Death by Errol Morris.
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...And They Created A Monster But I'm Not Talking About the Elephant!
Rodrigo Amaro1 May 2010
This is one of those old films that I even know it existed until the day I make a strange research on internet about filmed deaths, and the execution of Topsy, an elephant, happened to be one of the oldest executions captured by a camera. Today you can watch and complain that the film it's almost not watchable because of it's theme and because it's very difficult to see something, the movie is too old.

But what Thomas Edison were thinking in filming such atrocity? First, let me explain what this short is about. Topsy was a domesticated elephant with the Forepaugh Circus at Coney Island's and she killed three men. Fearing that Topsy would be a threat to everybody a bunch of people decided to execute her, but they wanted to do it in the harmless possible way. So, they opted for the electrocution. The rest become this movie, not much impacting nowadays but it created something more horrible than everything you can think of.

The mankind didn't evolved after this movie, it only went downhill in every single aspect of its capacity of destruction. I mean, after this movie it seemed that animal killing was allowed and many so-called filmmakers started to film horrific acts of violence towards animals. Hollywood movies, Foreign movies, documentaries, and sometimes even in the news you can see things like that. I really think that this film pointed the way on how human race would follow. The recent images of today's films are far more shocking than Edison's film. For instance, the documentary "Death on a Factory Farm" has unspeakable scenes (OK, it was a denounce against farmers who are animal abusers and it was used in a trial to convict such people), or the infamous horror movie "Cannibal Holocaust" who featured several unnecessary animal deaths (By the way, except for that scenes, this is an incredible and great horror movie). There are more disgusting and shocking and gratuity examples of that.

Even for not being so striking now, it's almost impossible not fell sorry for the poor elephant, a human being that just wanted to live. Now: it's a bad movie or it's good movie? Well, I don't have a opinion formed about it except that it was a unnecessary waste of time for Edison and the people who helped making this short. To me it was just an experience in seeing a movie made in 1903 and see how things were in that time. Have we changed? Think about it!
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Horror Movie
JoeytheBrit4 May 2009
The story behind how this film came to be made has been covered by other reviewers so I won't bother going over it again. Suffice to say, any normal human being will be repulsed by what they see on this short and badly deteriorated film. The elephant whose execution we witness was apparently a killer of men, but that doesn't really justify her electrocution. She's docile enough as she's led to her death, suggesting she's no rogue. Despite the graininess of the picture, the viewer can easily identify the moment the poor animal is zapped by the way her huge body stiffens. A second later, smoke rises from around her feet and a few seconds after that she topples to the ground. That's entertainment, folks.
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