The Film Palace



Electrocuting an Elephant
Reviewed by Edward Larsen Terkelsen

USA, NR, 1 m, 1903
Directed by Thomas Edison. Stars Topsy.


In the earliest part of the 1900s, Topsy, a female Asian elephant, trumpeted goodbye to the Forepaugh Circus (along with its unbecoming tutus) and hello to Coney Island’s Luna Park, where she served the last few years of her relatively short life as both a zoo attraction and a beast of burden. Unfortunately, her fiery temperament resulted in the deaths of three trainers, including J. Fielding Blunt, a sadistic inebriate who tossed a lit cigarette into her mouth. Pairing that with the six-ton tusker’s subsequent attack on a group of Italian laborers (which some claim was instigated by her final—and most obliging—keeper, “Whitey” Alt, yet another sot), Topsy’s owners came to see her as a big (yep, six tons is big) liability and condemned her to death by hanging. (At first blush, the mechanics of carrying out such a sentence are within sight of in-fucking-conceivable, but three-ring four-striper Charlie Sparks pulled it off circa 1916 when he strung up his ten-thousand-pound pachyderm Mary with a giant industrial crane.) This didn’t sit well with the folks at ASPCA, who saw the proposed punishment as both cruel and unusual. So, after a while of considering other less spectacular ways of serving Topsy her just deserts (flaying, slow slicing, reciting J. Gordon Coogler poems), the powers that be settled on electrocution (the preferred means of putting down undesirable humans since 1890). This, boys and girls, brings us to Thomas Edison, the man behind our little flicker show, Electrocuting an Elephant.

Edison, that most inexhaustible of inventors, was a champion of direct current, where his rival, George Westinghouse, was all about alternating current. In his many attempts to sway the public into backing DC, Edison (whose workforce gave us Old Sparky) would hold demonstrations in which he’d jolt a stray cat with enough AC to take all nine of its lives. (As its corpse lay smoldering, he’d joke to the shaken witnesses that the unfortunate pussy had just been “Westinghoused.”)  In the end, Edison would lose the legendary “war of the currents,” but that didn’t put the brakes on his campaign against Westinghouse. In fact, he saw in Topsy’s imminent destruction an opportunity to showcase the dangers of Westinghouse’s alternating current on a scale markedly grander than anything he had attempted before. Okay, I should note here that there is some disagreement amongst historians with regard to what role Edison played in zapping Topsy into the great unknown, but the fact of the matter is that an Edison Company employee, D.P. Sharkee, flipped the switch that ended Topsy’s life, and Edison himself was on hand to record it.

Electrocuting an Elephant, which runs under a minute, is crude and undemanding—a minor piece of animal snuff. (I think something on the order of The Wizard of Menlo Park vs. the Man-Killer of Luna Park would’ve made for a more imaginative and less off-putting title.) The clip (which has deteriorated some over time) is sure to frustrate the Faces of Death crowd; it’s surprisingly tame. (There are scenes in Dumbo that are far more objectionable.) Honestly, all we can make out is Topsy getting swallowed up by the smoke from the six-hundred-volt charge to her body and then keeling over. (As a precautionary measure, Topsy’s killers fed her some cyanide-laced carrots only moments before, which, according to one of the local rags, “she devoured greedily.”) I’m not about to subject my readers to some mushy moralization here (it’s best to leave that touchy-feely crap to the softheads at Think Progress), but I do hope that those who are still broken up over Topsy’s demise can take some comfort in knowing that she didn’t depart this life without leaving something (other than this movie) behind: her oversized trotters were made into umbrella stands. I sooo can’t wait for one of those things to pop up on eBay. 

July 22, 2012 

© Copyright 2012 by Edward Larsen Terkelsen. All rights reserved.



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