[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 21 July, 2003, 09:38 GMT 10:38 UK
New York honours electrocuted elephant
Coney Island
Coney Island excels in the bizarre
A New York museum has unveiled a memorial to an elephant - which after killing three trainers - was electrocuted in public by the Edison company.

The exhibit is displayed on Coney Island - the faded holiday resort famous for its freak shows, fair rides and Russian mafiosi.

Topsy was part of a private collection of elephants - one of the tourist attractions on the island at the turn of the century.

But after she killed three men in three years - the last a drunk trainer who had fed her a lit cigarette - her owners decided she had to go.

They fed her carrots laced with cyanide which she wolfed down without effect. A plan to publicly hang the elephant was opposed by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Copper sandals

Eventually, the inventor Thomas A Edison came to the rescue.

Locked in a battle with George Westinghouse over what he deemed the supremacy and safety of his direct current electrical system, he agreed to electrocute the six-ton Indian elephant.

In January 1903, a crowd estimated at some 1,500 gathered at Coney Island, to witness what The New York Times termed "a rather inglorious affair".

Clad in copper-lined sandals and covered in electrodes, Topsy was given a huge electric shock. "There had been no sound and hardly a conscious movement of the body," reported the paper.

The inventor Thomas A Edison
Edison wanted the publicity
The event would probably have been forgotten if it had not been for two artists - Gavin Heck and Lee Deigaard - who decided to honour Topsy.

They have a designed a coin-operated mutoscope (a turn-of-the-century viewing medium) through which images of the execution can be viewed.

"She was considered a bad elephant because she killed an abusive handler. But she wasn't a bad girl - she was an elephant confined and one of the builders of Coney Island," said Lee Deigaard.

Mr Heck has devoted five years of his life to creating Topsy art - including a huge sculpture of the elephant - which is exhibited at a gallery in Brooklyn.

"I was struck by how a story so old could bring up many issues and feelings for people," Mr Heck told the BBC.

"I don't think we are quite there yet with a holistic way of dealing with our own deaths and the way we are voyeuristic about it when it comes to those of animals."

Sri Lankans battle with elephants
20 Jun 03  |  South Asia
Vietnam's famed elephant tamer
04 Jun 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Pink elephant back home
23 May 03  |  Lancashire
Tributes to nurse
06 May 03  |  Cumbria
Elephants tune into Elgar
14 Apr 03  |  Scotland
Delhi's cure for jumbo traffic problem
27 Mar 03  |  South Asia


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific