Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Topsy, the beginning - more editions of recycling old writing

This is part 1 of the essay I wrote in 2000 at the beginning of my work on the story of Luna Park and Topsy the Elephant.

This is a true story.

Topsy and Whitey Alt, her handler, were relative newcomers to Brooklyn. They had traveled with the circus for a number of years—in fact Topsy had been a popular attraction ever since she had been as Adam Forepaugh’s original baby elephant in 1875—but circumstances had recently changed. First Topsy killed a keeper in a bizarre accident in 1900. Later that year she was responsible for another keeper’s death. In May of 1902, however, the incident that gained her the most notoriety was the killing of J. Fielding Blount, a tourist from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Blount had tried to feed Topsy a lit cigarette. Perhaps it was meant as a little gag, but it freaked Topsy out. She picked him up with her trunk and beat him to death against the ground. Whitey understood that Blount had hurt her and that she was simply defending herself, and he argued these facts with the owners of the circus. They were not to be swayed, however; a killer elephant was not good for business. Better that they sell her and she be part of a side show.

At this time, Fred Thompson and Skip Dundy were in the process of building what would be the largest and most spectacular amusement park in Coney Island: Luna Park. They were also running out of money and living very much on credit. Bargains like a cheap elephant and a devoted handler did not come along often—particularly in a place like Coney Island where elephants were becoming a regular amusement. The fact that Topsy had earned this reputation was of little consequence to them at the time.

Unfortunately, Luna Park was far from being completed and Thompson and Dundy were far from needing an elephant as amusement. What they did need was the extra help a six-ton elephant could provide in moving large pieces of lumber across Surf Avenue. Topsy had performed tricks and delighted crowds, but immediately upon arriving at Luna Park she was pressed into service as part of the construction effort.

Whitey assisted as best he could, and he was happy with the turn of events. Coney Island, with its bars and brothels, suited him. Before, he had simply preferred the company of his elephant, but now he had landed in Sodom-by-the-Sea. No more was he traveling around to places that might or might not appreciate his carousing; here he was in a place that practically reveled in it. When he wasn’t caring for Topsy, he haunted the Bowery—a seedy strip of gambling joints, bars, and brothels. He got into fights and often found himself in trouble with the police.

None of this was unusual for the time or the place. Coney Island was rife with official corruption and undesirable elements. What stood out about Whitey was the fact that he seemed a little off; he was hopelessly devoted to Topsy and would fly into a rage whenever anyone made fun of his job or his elephant—particularly her reputation.

Topsy, though, had her first real chance to make a stir when Whitey’s carousing and love for her collided. On October 30, 1902, Whitey began drinking early in the day and by early afternoon, he was quite drunk and had decided that hauling lumber for Thompson, Dundy, and their amusement park was beneath Topsy. Instead of returning to get another load of lumber, he led the elephant away from the site.

First, they made their way to Feltman’s on Surf Avenue—Whitey leading Topsy along by her harness—where Whitey, much to the chagrin of management and customers, stood outside and ordered hot dogs and beer. After this, the two walked down the street to the nearby German restaurant where Whitey sat in the beer garden while Topsy stood a tether-length away outside. By this time the police were getting wind of Whitey Alt and his elephant—the killer elephant—taking a tour of drinking establishments. The two of them, meanwhile, left Surf Avenue and went a block over to the Bowery, home to many brothels, and many of the worst bars and gambling houses. Topsy’s feet kicked up dust on the hard-packed streets and well-dressed people slumming it and down-and-out drinkers alike stared at them and pointed. Topsy was quite well-behaved through all of this; in fact over the years, there had never been a problem as long as she was under Whitey’s control. By this time, however, Whitey was getting quite drunk and making a stink about how he wanted respect and this noble animal should never have been hauling lumber in the first place. It was all a mistake, all a stupid mistake made by someone who should have known better than to feed an elephant a lit cigarette.

On down the Bowery, Whitey would leave Topsy outside and go in to get a quick drink. Some establishments—often the better ones—would toss him out immediately, which gave him more fuel or the indignities he felt they were suffering. Other establishments, the seedier ones such as O’Shea’s would humor him and give him a whiskey or two until the bartender thought there was the possibility of a fight and sent him off with one for the elephant. As the walk went on, enough people reported to the police that Whitey and his killer elephant were terrorizing the neighborhood. A few cops were finally sent to arrest him and bring him to the station.

The possible charges ranged from public drunkenness to disturbing the peace to possession of stolen property. Whitey was handcuffed and led a couple of blocks to the small police station and Topsy obediently followed along. One of the police officers left for Thompson and Dundy’s offices to report that they needed to do something about their elephant. No solution was found before they reached the police station, however, and Topsy tried to follow her keeper into the station.

When she pushed her head through, the damage to the front of the wood structure was severe. Another keeper, Carl Goliath, arrived with the police officer to find pandemonium. Whitey stood back in a happy stupor as Goliath tried to lead Topsy out of the doorway and back to the building site and her stable. Topsy, however, would listen to none of Goliath’s commands. Finally, after Thompson and Dundy arrived, the police decided to let Whitey go—provided the partners insure that he would be kept under control, and that he wouldn’t stroll from bar to bar with the elephant again. He was, after all, the only one who could remove the elephant from the front of the station, even as drunk as he was.

Once they had returned to the Luna Park site, they threatened to let Whitey go if anything else happened, but both parties were in a bind—they needed him to take care of Topsy and he needed them to be able to eat. With his reputation, there certainly wouldn’t be much work for him if he was let go.

This stalemate worked for the next two months. Topsy continued to haul lumber and Whitey guided her, as well as occasionally helping out himself. He continued to carouse, but enough establishments had banned him that he had to stick to the more dangerous taverns and the brothels—and in most of those places, no one gave a damn whether he was an elephant keeper or a dwarf trainer; his money was good.

As time wore on, though, he could swear he saw a dip in Topsy’s spirit. She certainly wasn’t enjoying the menial labor, and in particular there was a group of recent immigrants from Italy working on the central tower—a fantastic structure according to Thompson’s drawings—who were clearly making fun of Topsy, and him. Though he couldn’t understand a word they were saying, it was clear from their gestures and the ways in which they looked at Topsy that they didn’t like her.