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The Electric Circus

A new book shows the role of an elephant in P.T. Barnum’s and Thomas Edison’s parallel races for power

Photo: SVF Animals Elephant Hanging, 1900,  no. 2, Maryland Historical Society., License: N/A

SVF Animals Elephant Hanging, 1900, no. 2, Maryland Historical Society.

The hanging of sport the elephant in baltimore, 1900

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

Michael Daly


While looking through the Maryland Historical Society’s archives, City Paper contributor and Curator of Films and Photographs at the Historical Society Joe Tropea was struck by two mysterious photographs of an elephant. The elephant wasn’t relaxing in a zoo or performing in a circus, but rather being executed. People had long assumed that the animal was killed after going on some kind of rampage. After some serious sleuthing, Tropea found the truth. The elephant was Sport, a member of Frank Bostock’s Wild Animal Show in Baltimore. Sport had fallen out of a moving boxcar while playing with a pachyderm pal and had badly injured his back. To put him out of his misery, his owners hanged him as hundreds of spectators looked on. Still, the story was full of contradictions, and a number of questions remained unanswered. What was Sport’s life like before he was injured? Why was he hanged instead of electrocuted?

Michael Daly’s new book, Topsy (Atlantic Monthly Press), answers these questions. While Daly doesn’t mention Sport specifically, he delves into the golden age of circuses, including Frank Bostock’s Wild Animal Show, and the executions of many of their biggest stars.

The humans in Topsy are colorful, violent, and sometimes possessed of genius. P.T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh compete to have the grandest circus in the country; Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse compete to provide electricity to that country; and the elephant trainers compete with their elephants for superiority in and out of the circus ring. The animals in Topsy are just as colorful as their human counterparts but lack their lust for violence.

Topsy begins in 1875, at the height of the circus wars, in an Asian forest with the capture of the book’s eponymous elephant. After the capturers locate an elephant herd, they tear Topsy from her mother and shackle her to a westbound ship. They smuggle her into New York and claim she is the country’s first American-born elephant. The violence and deception depicted in this first chapter continue unabated throughout the book.

To show readers how elephants became such a popular commodity, Daly rewinds to the end of the 18th century, the first time an elephant stepped foot onto American soil. Showmen quickly realize the value of the large animals, and thus begins the rise of the circus.

The book then turns to Barnum and his many detours on the way to becoming a famous showman. The “humbugger’s” understanding of American gullibility and the value of awe leads him to create the American Museum, which exhibited marvels such as Tom Thumb and the “FeeJee Mermaid.”

But Barnum wasn’t alone. His rival, Adam Forepaugh, also known as 4-Paw, is always trying to outdo Barnum. For example, Barnum’s claim that he had procured a sacred white elephant from the King of Siam is met by 4-Paw’s response that he owns an even whiter one. When the elephants arrive in America, they turn out to be “slate-gray,” but that doesn’t stop experts hired by both men from proclaiming that they are some of the “finest specimens” in the entire world. To further enhance the authenticity of the animals, 4-Paw hires Buddhist priests to perform religious rites on the elephants while they are exhibited. Of course, elephants do not come in white, and it is soon discovered that the men used bleach, paint, and pumice stone to alter the skin color.

It is at moments like these, when elephants are poisoned by bleach, that the comical battles between the two men are undercut by the realization that they were actually quite ruthless. Forepaugh constantly cheated his workers and even employed pickpockets to steal from the people in towns through which he traveled. Barnum, despite his reputation as having a “moral” circus, never ceased lying to the public.

The circus elephants are introduced to pitchforks and hooks as soon as they step off the boat. Chained when not performing, treks from town to town between performances (before they were transported on trains) are their only glimpse of freedom. Topsy, the star of the book, has a crooked tail due to a particularly vicious beating by Forepaugh.

Luckily, there are a few heroes in Topsy who refuse to harm the elephants. Trainers such as Stewart Craven and Eph Thompson understand the docile nature of the animals and teach them with kindness and patience. Whether they are beaten or loved, the animals perform remarkable feats. Their synchronized dancing, somersaults, and pyramids are a testament to the true awe and appeal of the circus.

As Daly shifts from the circus to electricity, animals continue to steal the spotlight from their human counterparts. Dozens of stray dogs from Buffalo are used as guinea pigs as Edison attempts to perfect electrocution as a form of painless execution (which he never seems to accomplish—just ask anyone who has ever been electrocuted).

Daly gets into Thomas Edison’s mind through journals from his secretary, Alfred Tate. Despite being championed by the public as “The Wizard,” Edison is disillusioned when his direct current is considered inferior to Westinghouse’s alternating current. Still, in 1903, Edison manages to electrocute Topsy on Coney Island as punishment after a series of mishaps including an escape and a man’s death (such an execution wasn’t available to euthanize Sport just three years earlier).

Although Topsy covers over 100 years of American history, the story is full of vivid details. Daly integrates clippings from the Brooklyn Tribune, The New York Times, and other publications to add to the atmosphere of the book in a way that is alternately hilarious and saddening. The New York Times claimed a premature obituary they printed for Barnum actually “revived him after his oxygen failed” and “prolonged his life.” Yellow journalism at its finest. On the other hand, at Topsy’s execution, a Tribune reporter wrote that there was “a real benevolence in her eyes and kindness in her manner” just minutes before she was killed. Although they make the book great, clippings like this can also make Topsy almost unbearably sad.

However tragic, Topsy is also a tale of determination, invention, and hope. Readers will come away with an understanding of aspects of American history that include un-sugarcoated descriptions of animal abuse, glories of the circus, and the emergence of electricity.

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