In the late 1800's and early 1900's, there was still debate about whether AC
power should be used in America
's homes. On the AC
side were George Westinghouse
and Nikola Tesla
, and in DC
's corner was the powerful Thomas Edison
. While Tesla and Westinghouse explained to people why AC power was better for transmission and home use, Thomas Edison
advocated a DC generator
on every block in every city. Since Edison's argument was obviously weaker, he also preached about how dangerous AC
power was, and did demonstrations on animals of its efficacy
as a tool of killing. It was also during this time that Edison invented the world's first electric chair
for capital punishment
in New York
Also at this time, the never-ending carnival of Coney Island was in full swing, including its "Luna Park" petting zoo which had a private herd of elephants. One of the elephants, Topsy, was known for having a bad temper, and had killed three people in the last three years. After the last killing, it was decided that she had to be destroyed by hanging. Note, I am making none of this up. New York's ASPCA protested that hanging was cruel, citing the fact that it had been replaced by electrocution in the NY penal system. Luna Park's owners took the protest in stride, and decided that electrocution would be the kindest solution, and one that they could sell tickets for! They enlisted the willing Thomas Edison to help with technical matters.
Here's an article from The Commercial Advertiser that appeared Monday, January 5, 1903, the day after the electrocution:
BAD ELEPHANT KILLED.
Topsy Meets Quick and Painless
Death at Coney Island.
Topsy, the ill-tempered Coney Island elephant, was put to death in Luna Park, Coney Island,
yesterday afternoon. The execution was witnessed by 1,500 or more curious persons, who
went down to the island to see the end of the huge beast, to whom they had fed peanuts and
cakes in summers that are gone. In order to make Topsy's execution quick and sure 460 grams
of cyanide of potassium were fed to her in carrots. Then a hawser was put around her neck
and one end attached to a donkey engine and the other to a post. Next wooden sandals lined
with copper were attached to her feet. These electrodes were connected by copper wire with
the Edison electric light plant and a current of 6,600 volts was sent through her body.
The big beast died without a trumpet or a groan.
Topsy was brought to this country twenty-eight years ago by the Forepaugh Circus, and has
been exhibited throughout the United States. She was ten feet high and 19 feet 11 inches in
length. Topsy developed a bad temper two years ago and killed two keepers in Texas. Last
spring, when the Forepaugh show was in Brooklyn, J. F. Blount, a keeper, tried to feed a
lighted cigarette to her. She picked him up with her trunk and dashed him to the ground,
killing him instantly.
Edison made a film of the electrocution, a copy of which can be seen right before March of the Pigs on Nine Inch Nails Closure tape. It's quite poor quality and grainy, but that makes it no less visually powerful. When the 6600 VAC turns on, Topsy's blood goes from normal to boiling so fast that a cloud of steam is released. I have, shall we say, the common modern compliment of desensitization, and I still find it damn disturbing.