Topsy, the elephant died by electrocution in January 1903. Deemed a “problem” elephant because she killed a man who fed her a lit cigarette, she was sentenced to die. Luna Park’s founders parlayed Topsy’s notoriety in the press for months as free publicity and treated her death as a publicity stunt. As the winner of a national competition, I built a memorial to Topsy for the Coney Island Museum.
Along Luna Park’s Grand Canal when it opened in May 1903 were rows of Mutoscopes whose “moving pictures” could be viewed by paying a penny. Peering into a box to watch a contained, repeating sequence references the elephant’s confinement, her repetitive days controlled with painful gouges, and of being put on display. Turn the crank and the figure within the box dances, strips, or gets electrocuted on demand. In a crowd, personal responsibility gets diluted, but the viewer at the peephole becomes implicated, a witness and a voyeur.
A mob came to watch Topsy die. Thomas Edison’s company filmed the event.
Topsy features lastingly in the collective unconscious. Born wild in India, she traversed the globe and the back roads of vanishing rural America even as she was confined to spaces and behaviors wholly out of scale to her needs and her body. The ethics of animal welfare, capital punishment, corporate warfare and opportunism, voyeurism, mob mentality, and human solecism permeate her story. Through her death, Topsy quite literally and wholly embodied converging frontiers of corporate development and technological innovation.