Thomas A. Edison is remembered as the inventor of the first practical electric light bulb and the motion picture camera. However, many people don’t remember that Edison electrocuted cats, dogs, horses, and an orangutan with alternating current (AC) electricity as part of a campaign to bolster support for his allegedly safer direct current (DC) method of electricity distribution. His “War of Currents” rivalry with George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla, both AC proponents, ultimately led to the electrocution of a six-ton zoo elephant named Topsy on Jan. 4, 1903.
In the late 1880s, Thomas Edison launched a public campaign against alternating current. “I remember Tom [Edison] telling them that direct current was like a river flowing peacefully to the sea, while alternating current was like a torrent rushing violently over a precipice,” Westinghouse recalled.
Edison sent Professor Harold Brown on a tour to demonstrate the dangers of AC by electrocuting dogs, cats, horses, cows, and even an orangutan on stage. The demonstrations led some people to believe that electrocution was a valid form of execution.
On Aug. 6, 1890, New York State performed the first execution by electrocution with the assistance of Thomas Edison’s engineers. Professor Brown illegally purchased a Westinghouse generator and with two surges of electricity, one of them lasting more than one minute, electrocuted murderer William Kemmler to death. After Kemmler’s execution, “Westinghousing” became a slang term for the death penalty administered by electrocution.
Having already electrocuted cattle and a human, Edison was ready for his largest challenge – a six-ton elephant named Topsy. The Luna Park Zoo at Coney Island decided that Topsy the Elephant was a danger to visitors after the 10-foot-high Indian elephant killed three trainers in three years. One of the victims was J. Fielding Blunt, a handler who tried to feed Topsy a lit cigarette. The zoo built a scaffold to publicly hang Topsy, but opposition by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals led the owners to turn to Thomas Edison, who had been electrocuting animals since the 1880s.
On Jan. 4, 1903, as a precaution in case the electrocution was ineffective, Topsy was fed cyanide-laced carrots before over 6,000 volts shot through her body in front of a crowd of 1,500 spectators. The precautions were unnecessary, as Topsy was killed nearly instantly. Edison’s cameraman filmed the entire scene, and the motion picture, titled Electrocuting an Elephant, was released later in 1903. A memorial for Topsy opened 100 years later on July 23, 2003, at the Coney Island Museum.
Edison’s involvement in the electrocution of Topsy has been disputed, mainly because DC power had essentially lost the “War of Currents” to AC by the time Topsy was killed. However, at least two sources have confirmed Edison’s role in the proceedings. The official website of Newsweek and Daily Beast correspondent Michael Daly, author of the 2013 book titled Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, stated that “the electrocution was for Edison a means to vent his fury and frustration over his defeat [in the “War of Currents”] as well as an opportunity to film the first death of any kind.” Tom McNichol, an independent journalist published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many other publications, stated in his 2006 book AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War: “When Luna Park officials put out the word that Topsy would be killed by more humane means [than hanging]—electricity—Thomas Edison quickly offered his services. Edison dispatched three of his top electricians to serve as Topsy’s executioners. The electricity used to kill the elephant—alternating current, of course—would be supplied by Coney Island’s own generator that provided power and light to the amusements.”
The video above about Topsy the Elephant is the first episode in ProCon.org’s Critical Thinking Video Series.
Michael Daly, Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, 2013
JoAnn Bren Guernsey, Death Penalty: Fair Solution or Moral Failure?, 2009
Tony Long, “Jan. 4, 1903: Edison Fries an Elephant to Prove His Point,” wired.com, Jan. 4, 2008
Tom McNichol, AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War, 2006
“New York Honours Electrocuted Elephant,” BBC website, July 21, 2003
Roadside America, “Topsy, Electrocuted by Edison,” Roadside America website (accessed July 14, 2010)