January 4th, 1903, Coney Island, New York. Topsy the elephant is given a dose of poison and a rope around her neck. A few minutes later, 6,600 volts are sent through the copper sandals attached to her feet. In less than 10 seconds, she’s dead. Eagerly watching it all from the sidelines was none other than legendary inventor, Thomas Edison. Or was he?
Many modern accounts of the event placed both the blame for its occurrence and the video footage directly on Edison. They claimed he wanted to perform an experiment in order to prove that alternating current, the current of choice by his rival Nicola Tesla, was more dangerous than direct current, and thus the need for video footage to show everyone.
The thing is both of those theories are incorrect. For one, as far as we can tell, Edison was not present that day for Topsy’s execution. There was a great deal of media presence at the event, and not one account mentions him being there.
Secondly, the reason for Topsy being euthanized was because she had killed three people and terrorized cops. This wasn’t some experiment where Edison’s just wanting to strap some electrodes on a pachyderm to see what happens. This was in fact a legit execution. Park officials had initially wanted to hang Topsy, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or the ASPCA, was not in favor of hanging because they thought it was unusually cruel.
The ASPCA did approve of Topsy being electrocuted because they’d found it was a more humane method of euthanization. And who helped him come to this conclusion? Well, Thomas Edison. Who tested electrical canine Euthanization in the 1880s at the request of Henry Burg Jr., the founder of the ASPCA.
But what about that film crew? It was sent by Edison Manufacturing Co., so it must have had something to do with him, right? Again, there’s no evidence to suggest that Edison himself sent the videographer to document the lethality of AC electricity to use against Tesla. The so-called Battle of the Currents had fizzled out a decade before, so if they sent someone to film Topsy’s euthanization, it was likely because the public might find it interesting. Kind of like a turn to the century viral video!