Sunday, January 06, 2008

Topsy, the beginning - the final edition of recycling old writing

Here is the final installment in the essay. Click here to read part 1 or here to read part 2.

The day of the execution was blustery and cold. Though some later reports claimed a huge crowd, by early afternoon—the execution was scheduled for noon—the yard was sparsely filled by reporters and some local luminaries. Construction workers and police officers were stationed near the walls of the park to function as security for the huge crowds expected to attend. In the end, their job turned into half-hearted attempts to stop boys from sneaking through, under, and over the walls to catch a glimpse of the execution. A little before two, the word was given and Edison started his camera rolling.

Skip Dundy, Carl Goliath, and two other men led Topsy out of the stable into the yard. She followed obediently—Goliath had been working the past week to get her to trust him; elephants’ relationships with their handlers are so important. They crossed the yard in front of the small crowd, mostly men in dark suits, coats, and hats, and boys peeking out around corners. Twice Topsy paused as though she knew she were heading out for a show and wondered where Whitey was, or what she was expected to do. With each step, the anticipation grew, and a mix of fear and excitement crossed Skip Dundy’s face. Finally, they reached the walkway, a narrow, reinforced plank leading up to what had been the scaffold. Instead of a noose, though, they had rigged up two large conducting plates, one each for a front and back foot.

Topsy balked. Dundy stood on the plank above her and Goliath stood next to her and tried to coax her onto the plank, but she froze at the bottom of the walkway and would not be moved. Try as they might, the elephant would not budge. The men tried for a few more minutes to coax her onto the walkway, until Goliath said there was simply no way she was going up there without Whitey. Though Thompson was exasperated and in danger of being embarrassed, Dundy convinced him to offer a Whitey a chance to come back to them. They would offer him twenty-five dollars and forgiveness for all he had done if he would help bring Topsy onto the scaffold. The men who had let him into the stables, and who were as close to friends as Whitey had, were sent for him. Once they had woken him up, they convinced him to come with them back to the park. Whitey refused, and when they tried again, he slammed the door in their face. Unsuccessful, they returned and were immediately sent back with a new offer: fifty dollars, a new job, and forgiveness for his transgressions. Whitey put his cap on and followed them, but when he saw the scaffold and the wires, he too froze and refused to help. Realizing what was really going to happen, Whitey slipped away and disappeared. (A picture was taken of him before he left the execution and in it he looks like a perfectly normal, but very sad man in his thirties. That was the last anyone at Luna Park saw of him.)

This left them with a problem.

Finally, Edison consulted with Thompson and, P.J. Sharkey, the chief electrician at the generating plant, and they came up with an alternative: set up makeshift electrodes on the ground where Topsy stood. At this point, though, time was ticking away and Thompson knew his audience would be getting restless; they had to work fast. Furthermore, Topsy’s chains were being held by four husky workmen, as though they could stop her if she became unruly.

As the electricians worked to set up the new electrodes near the elephant, a veterinarian hired to be present for the execution fed her carrots laced with 460 milligrams of potassium cyanide. While he knew this dosage wouldn’t kill her, he certainly expected her to be more subdued by it than she was. Instead she happily snacked on the carrots and looked for more when she was done. Meanwhile, the electricians extended their wires and moved the electrodes from the scaffold.
What they had created were metal plates cut to the shape of an elephant’s foot. Each was bolted to a wooden board and the main wires were attached to the plates. One would be placed under her right front foot and the other under her left rear foot—it was assumed that the best way to electrocute an elephant would be diagonally through the body. These electrodes were to be strapped to her feet so that she couldn’t easily lift them as the current was going through her body and she would be chained too. Finally, they had no idea what sort of voltage would be required to execute an elephant as large as Topsy; Edison had experimented on many animals, but none of them as powerful or large as this; they decided to set the number quite high: six thousand volts of direct current.

With the help of Dundy and the other two men, Goliath carefully coaxed Topsy to lift her feet, first the front, and then the rear so that the electrodes could be slipped underneath. Perhaps mellowed by the cyanide, Topsy complied easily, but the boards splintered and fell apart under her weight. Once the electricians had made certain that the electrodes would work and were still in contact with her feet, Dundy—it had to be him, of course—secured the final rope to the harness around her head. The four of them left Topsy alone in the middle of the barren construction area.

Edison now restarted the camera which he had stopped when she first balked. The frame was centered on Topsy to catch everything that happened through the course of the actual execution.

The current was switched on and Topsy turned her head to see what the commotion was about. The electricity was shooting through her, though and she pulled at her rear foot where a puff of smoke had first appeared. Less than a breath later, she tried to pick her front foot off the plate. That was when the current really kicked in, though, and a large puff of smoke and some flame exploded from the front foot and then again the back. Her body went stiff and shook involuntarily for a few seconds and the volts continued to shoot through her. She fell with her free hind leg stuck out, her body prostrate, and as she fell, the ropes tied to her harness pulled the stakes out of the ground.

The execution took twenty-two seconds. The veterinarian pronounced her dead at 2:48 and the partners and Edison congratulated each other, exchanged hand shakes.

A Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographer took two photos that ended up in the paper the next day. The first was of Topsy falling, and the second was of Thompson, Dundy, and thirty of the more important spectators standing in a half circle around the carcass. These photos and the notoriety of Edison’s electrocution of the killer elephant gave Thompson all the extra publicity he was looking for, making the future Luna Park stand apart from George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase as much as giving it a legend for years to come.

After Topsy was pronounced dead and the photos were taken, the other dirty work started. In what remained of the afternoon, her body was dismantled—Hubert H. Vogelsang had bought the remains in advance. The organs were sent to the Department of Biology at Princeton for further study. Her skeleton was kept by Vogelsang for undisclosed purposes, and the head was later mounted. Finally, two of her feet, the ones not burned by the electrodes, and a portion of her hide were preserved for Thompson and Dundy. They made umbrella stands of the feet and a chair of the hide.


There is no record of where these items finally ended up. In fact the only firsthand record of the execution is that film of Edison’s. The only way to know, other than by far-removed explanations, that this film is accurate is that the images in it match closely the pictures shown in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, from January 5th, 1903. Beyond inconsistent newspaper accounts of the execution and Edison’s short, silent, uncatalogued film, however, accurate information is impossible find.

Like so many accounts of old Coney Island, the stories about Topsy’s execution change with the teller. Depending on who tells it, for instance, the year may change, the reasons may change, the fate of her remains may change. One account even put Topsy’s death in the thirties and claimed that Thompson and Dundy had executed Jumbo, P.T. Barnum’s elephant, in the early years. But the story in all its variations stays with the place; in the annual Mermaid Parade, a group still reenacts the execution.

After Luna Park was sold by Thompson following the death of Dundy a few years later, it went bankrupt twice and was finally destroyed by two fires in the nineteen-forties, long after the glory of its original attractions had passed. Steeplechase Park, legendary for rides and ribald stories, finally closed in the sixties. In fact, of old Coney Island, all that remains is the rickety joyride of the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel, Nathan’s hot dogs and a housing project named for Luna Park.

The rest is fantasy based on dying memories and pictures. All the dreams Coney Island created never could save it from the outside world, electrical fires, or the inaccurate eye of history.