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The Death of Topsy: a book review

Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison. Atlantic Monthly Press, 369 pages, $27.

Topsy by Michael Daly                                     
If there’s one thing you can say/About Mankind/There’s nothing kind about man — Tom Waits


It’s no secret to my friends and family that I’ve become obsessed with elephants of late. It began around the time I discovered a disturbing couple of photos in MdHS’s Photo Vertical Files and decided to write about them here. The visuals of hundreds of Baltimoreans gathered at the Bolton freight yards to watch an elephant being hanged hit me hard and reminded me of other historical images, ones that I’ll never be able to unsee. Like photos of racial violence which captured dozens of whites watching African-Americans get lynched as if it were a spectator sport, the filming of Topsy the elephant being electrocuted in 1903 by Thomas Edison’s film crew, drew a reported crowd of 1500. It seems man’s inhumanity to man and/or animal has always captivated, especially when captured with a camera.

Since my first visit to a zoo, I found myself sympathetic to the large pachyderms. Despite the amusement park atmosphere and the underlying educational value, I always found the zoo a profoundly sad place. And the elephants always made me feel saddest. Maybe it’s their body language. So it should come as a shock to no one that my idea of a great summer read this year was Michael Daly’s Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison. Yes, this was the book I found myself glued to while sitting seaside by the seashore.

Over 100 years before Jersey Shore became a hit cable show, a different kind of freak show played out on the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. Here we have a story of an unfortunate creature, a story of rivalry between budding businesses (circus and electric), of greed and cruelty, and proof that the country’s skewed idea of entertainment dates as far back as anyone can remember.

Daly, a former New York Daily News writer turned novelist/historian, interweaves three storylines throughout this captivating 369-page work published by the Atlantic Monthly Press. First there’s the story of Topsy, the Asian elephant stripped from her homeland as a baby and brought eventually to America where she would, some 28 years later, find herself the victim of torment, lies, and finally electrocution in Brooklyn.

Then there’s the story of P.T. Barnum, the most famous of the entertainer/businessmen/scam artists and the many upstart entertainer/businessmen/scam artists who tried to dethrone him. Familiar names like Ringling, Hagenbeck, and Bostock populate this thread of the story. But the name of another central character, Adam Forepaugh a.k.a. 4-Paw, the man who purchased Topsy, smuggled her into the country, and attempted to pass her off as the first American-born elephant, may not be so familiar.

Finally there’s the story of the War of the Currents, the direct current (DC) system of electricity that Thomas Edison advocated vs. the alternating current (AC) system pushed by George Westinghouse. This thread centers mostly around Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park. As recounted by Daly, the battle is one of inner conflict for the great inventor. With the insights this book provides, all of these men look like monsters in hindsight.

The grim details of the young elephant’s capture and harrowing transport across two oceans (Southeast Asia to Germany, Germany to America) will remind some of the plight of African slaves. From the kettling-like capture techniques of the mahouts and their hired hands to the many animals stolen along with Topsy who did not survive the journey and were thus dumped overboard, it all sounds eerily familiar to anyone who’s studied the slave trade. If that isn’t clear enough, Forepaugh chose to name her after a character from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Topsy is the name of a young slave girl who never knew her mother and was raised by slave catchers.

Once Topsy arrived in America in 1877, she found herself a pawn in a game of one upmanship between Barnum and Forepaugh (nee Forbach). The latter, who changed his name upon entering the menagerie business, had an elaborate scheme planned to secret the baby elephant into port undetected. He would then try to pass her off as the first of her kind born in the states—the first to survive childbirth. What he didn’t realize was that his German animal dealer, Carl Hagenbeck, from whom he bought Topsy, also sold to Barnum, who was a better customer and thus privy to the scoop on the baby elephant. Daly makes excellent use of planted newspaper articles and “rat bills,” posters plastered around towns circus men used to disparage one another’s shows and reputations, to come up with this and other stories about Barnum and his competitors.

Though she dodged fame in her early years, Topsy was not able to escape infamy. Daly details how she and all other elephants of her time were trained to do tricks: with fear and pain that included crowbar beatings, red-hot pokers, and jabs of the bullhook and pitchfork.  In one chapter, Daly describes the way Forepaugh beat Topsy, because of his frustration of having lost a skirmish with Barnum, resulting in her crooked tail. The list of elephants publicly executed by menagerie and zoo keepers in these pages is longer than I can bear to recount. This aspect of the book makes it a very uncomfortable read at times.

However, Topsy is not without its heroes, tragic or complicated though they may be. Take for example Moses “Eph” Thompson, the African-American elephant trainer who realized early on that there might be a kinder gentler way to train. Thompson was a student of Stewart Craven, who worked for Forepaugh and started out using brutish methods but soon developed a theory that patience and kindness might go further with proboscideans. Sadly Thompson’s talents went uncredited and unappreciated because he was black, and also because Forepaugh wanted to make his son, Adam Forepaugh Jr., the star animal trainer of his show. Daly shows that Forepaugh Jr. was not only a fake talent, but even more cruel than his father in his treatment of their herd.

Another area where Daly dispels a myth is in Thomas Edison’s part of the story. The War of the Currents is well covered in history books. During the 19th and early 20th century, the country was turning away from gaslight and rapidly moving toward the world of cell-phone power stations we know and love today. Edison wanted his DC system to prevail over George Westinghouse’s (and Nikola Tesla’s) more efficient, generally superior AC system. Direct current had obvious drawbacks: power stations had to be within five blocks of what they were powering, while AC could supply power from great distances. Few but the rich and famous could afford Edison’s service, and those who did such as the Vanderbilts resented having a loud dirty power stations so close to their mansions. Whoever was to win this war was certain to become rich and powerful beyond all reasonable expectation.

Here Daly shows that despite having already lost out to the AC system, Edison continued to secretly lobby to have Topsy electrocuted before an audience. He did this so that rather than use the term “electrocuted,” we might instead used the term “Westinghoused.” When someone got the electric chair or took a jolt from a faulty power cord, he could have the last laugh against his rival. Edison is painted as not only a bitter little man, but also a hypocrite. Originally against capital punishment on principal, Edison took an attitude that if it had to be done, what better way to do it than with Westinghouse’s generators supplying the AC.

A litany of Edison’s shortcomings and miscues are offered up: He originally wanted his phonograph invention to be used for dictation, not for frivolous music recordings. His kinetoscope was to be used for scientific and educational purposes, not for cheap entertainments. And then there was his scheme to extract iron ore using magnetic separation system. Edison poured large amounts of his remaining fortunes into the development of this iron ore separation project at about the same time that large deposits of ore were discovered in Minnesota. They were reportedly so close to the surface that a train could pull up and load faster than you can say magnetic iron ore separation system. Not every idea or thought the wizard had was on the money. He often did not understand the potential of his inventions.

At the end of Topsy’s life, Edison’s film crew was there in Coney Island. No doubt to capture the grotesque display for scientific and educational purposes. It was alleged that Topsy killed several men, but in fact she only killed only one, James Fielding Blount, a drunken circus groupie. One morning in May 1902 he slipped under the flap of her tent, reportedly  to say good morning to the elephants. He teased them with some whiskey he was carrying and when he got to Topsy, he did a bait and switch, burning the tip of her sensitive trunk with a lit cigar. In turn she responded by grabbing him about the waste and smashing him into the ground hard enough that workers 30-feet away heard the crunch.

Several other instances contributed to Topsy’s reputation as a troublemaking “bad” elephant. A few of them involved getting away from her cut-rate attendant, “Whitey” Alt. When attendance thinned out at shows, entrepreneurs like Forepaugh routinely would lay off competent, more expensive trainers like Craven and Thompson in favor of cheap hacks like Whitey. Reports in Brooklyn newspapers, read as if the elephant were terrorizing the town, when in fact she was simply disobeying or even displaying loyalty to a drunken abusive idiot. On one occasion she damaged the doorway to the police station when she attempted to follow Alt in. He was being arrested for punishing her trunk in public with a pitchfork.

Topsy was now owned by two partners looking to make a splash at a new venture called Luna Park. They had gone over budget in building their new amusement and in looking to cut back, the pair took into consideration the $25 a week worth of hay Topsy ate. The bad press combined with the need for publicity for the soon to open Luna Park unfortunately combined with Edison’s need to cast aspersions on his rival Westinghouse. Thus a death sentence was handed down to poor Topsy.

There’s not much to quibble with in Daly’s work, except for one thing that’s crucial to doing history. There are no sources or footnotes or endnotes! As valuable as journalistic works are, we know from Mencken’s example in the Death of Sport that memories fail and mistakes are reported. Some sources are alluded to, a few newspapers are named with dates, but for the most part we just have to trust the author. And this wouldn’t be such a big deal had Atlantic Monthly Press not expressly labeled the book “History” on the back cover. And that’s a real shame, because with all the great insights and tear-inducing stories, this book could have been so much more. (Joe Tropea)