Memorial to Topsy
Coney Island Museum, Brooklyn, NY
Topsy, the elephant, was born circa 1875 in India and died by electrocution on January 4, 1903 Brooklyn, NY. Deemed a problem elephant because she fought back and killed abusive handlers, she was sentenced to die. Thomas Edison, losing the War of the Currents to Westinghouse, collaborated with Luna Park’s founder Frederick Thompson in making her death a publicity stunt.
Along the edge of Luna Park’s Grand Canal when it opened in May 1903 were rows of Mutoscopes whose “moving pictures” could be viewed through its viewfinder by paying a penny and turning its crank. Because only one viewer at a time can look into the viewfinder, a sense of voyeurism pervades the experience, akin to peeping through a keyhole. The person next to you cannot see what you see. As one of many in a crowd– watching a bullfight or a public execution– your personal responsibility for the spectacle is diluted, even abdicated. But in gazing through a peephole, you become implicated in what you watch: an observer, but also a vicarious participant.
A mob came to watch Topsy die, 6,600 volts coursing through her body, 1500 bystanders.
Also featured in penny arcades, the Mutoscope offered peep shows of the Good Girl showing some leg to the Bad Girl in more overtly sexual and even sadomasochistic positions. Topsy, whose given name sounds like a Victorian-era stripper’s and herself a victim of sadism from handlers as bad as the worst pimps, fell into the camp of the Bad Girl. And was sentenced to die for her crimes.
An elephant in captivity has no emotional or physical outlets. She cannot take a walk around the block to calm her nerves. Her smallest gesture carries lethal force. Thus, an elephant’s momentary loss of equilibrium and decorum can lead to her death. Topsy had a long record of compliance: 28 years in a circus and a season of heavy lifting at Coney Island, before killing a handler who fed her a lit cigarette.
What Topsy was guilty of was, at worst, manslaughter, but it was more self-defense after a lifetime of abuse. Without advocacy or legal rights or protections, she was failed by the law so she had to make her own justice.
The act of using a mutoscope, of peering into a box to watch its small actors perform within their contained, repeating sequence references the elephant’s confinement, her repetitive days of being controlled like a puppet with painful gouge hooks, and of being put on display. The viewer turns the crank of the Mutoscope, and the figure within the box dances, strips, or gets electrocuted on demand.
One guideline of the time held that 129 square feet was adequate for a circus elephant. Topsy was 10 feet tall and 19 feet 11 inches long. Simple multiplication shows the failure of this equation.
In memorializing Topsy and making a mutoscope reel from Edison’s notorious film, I have first sought that her individual reckoning be witnessed by individuals, within the private space of the viewfinder, each of us in single file. The memorial is for Topsy, and it is for her witnesses.
Elephants with their collective far-reaching memories have less need of such a remembrance, but we humans with our collective amnesia need some help in remembering to give Topsy and all her kin what she didn’t have then: a little consideration for her feelings. To offer witness to her death as elephants are known to do for us. In gently covering a human body with leaves and branches and standing over it in sober vigil, they include us among their own kind in memorializing death. How little it is to return the favor.
Topsy’s story retains its resonance. With habitat theft and depredation, violent culling practices, and poaching, our executionary methods span the globe. Elephants’ nurturing and deeply moral culture may have been irrevocably broken by human interference. On the brink of extinction, traumatized to their limits, Topsy’s kin take to heart our language of cruelty. We did not learn from them how to hold our power in reserve.
(acknowledgements: Ars Subterranea, The Coney Island Museum)