Lessons From The TragicLife And Death Of Topsy The Elephant

A Peek Into The Dark Side Of The Human Condition

“The least I can do is speak for those who cannot speak for themselves”
Jane Goodall

Topsy elephant

The little Asian elephant who would someday bear the name Topsy was promoted as the first of her kind to be born in the US. In actuality, she was born around 1875 In southeast Asia and subsequently kidnapped, stolen from her mother and of all that was safe and familiar by evil wildlife traffickers and shipped across the Atlantic to the US. Topsy was to endure a life of captivity and abuse at the hands of sadistic keepers and trainers.

As with so many other captive pachyderms over the years since, she was forced to do tricks and other unnatural feats for the entertainment of slavering crowds of the clueless, heartless, mindless and unimaginative. She suffered for 25 years in servitude to the owners of the Forepaugh Circus, until, apparently having had enough of it, she killed a spectator in 1902.

Now regarded as a “bad elephant”, she was sold off to the Coney Island Sea Lion Park, where she lived a life of publicity stunts, forced to do tricks for the entertainment of visitors. Apparently, there were several incidents of Topsy’s misbehavior, mostly as a consequence of mistreatment by humans who had charge of her. On one occasion, Topsy was seen covered with blood after being prodded mercilessly by a trainer named William Alt, who was arrested and convicted of animal abuse before ultimately being fired by the park.

It was decided that to attract visitors to the grand opening of the new Luna Park, Topsy would be executed by a public hanging. The event was widely advertised, and there were those who leaped at the opportunity to view such a morbid spectacle. Never underestimate the innate sadism of the general public. Only the ASPCA intervened and insisted that electrocution would be a more humane method of execution than hanging.

And so it was decided that Topsy would be publicly electrocuted before an audience of gleeful onlookers on January 4, 1902, an event that would attract visitors to the new park. First, Topsy was fed 460 grains of potassium chloride hidden in carrots. Sensing somehow that the humans were up to no good, Topsy at first resisted walking to the place of execution, but she calmly acquiesced in having copper plates attached to her feet, after which she was subjected to 6600 volts of electricity and fell over dead. When Topsy died, the audience cheered. Just to be certain of the poor elephant’s demise, she was subsequently strangled.

While Thomas Edison had no role in Topsy’s painful demise, he did dispatch a crew from Edison Studios to film the event, yet another reminder of the great inventor’s sociopathic impulses. He had on occasion electrocuted dogs and cats, even a horse, apparently just to prove that it could be done. As C.S. Lewis has observed in his essay on vivisection, “If we find a man inflicting pain it is for him to prove that his action is right. If he cannot, he is a wicked man.”

In the case of Topsy, what is to be learned from this wretched tale of human depravity? Not only do the activities of Topsy’s tormentors deliver a blow to any presumption of innate human goodness, but the excitement of the onlookers raises even more uncomfortable questions. The willingness of some to witness the torturous deaths of others has a lengthy record in the human experience, one not limited to other creatures including our fellow humans as well.

During the period when Roman tyrants such as Nero and others were given free reign to glut their blood lust in the arenas of the empire, specially trained gladiators slashed and gouged and stabbed one another to death to the glee of raving masses of spectators. All manner of wild beasts were first starved and then set upon hapless human victims and upon one another. Victims of mock battles, these creatures died in grotesque and pitiful ways in order to  appease the fans. Beautiful young virgins were publicly raped to death by specially trained donkeys, leopards, cheetahs and apes. Thousands of the young and innocent were corrupted, tormented and slaughtered in an age that knew neither pity, nor compassion, nor reverence for the creation. And it was all conducted as an essential element of the Roman leadership’s program of blood and circuses concocted in order to appease the blood lust of society’s restless internal proletariat. The bloodbath continued for five centuries, providing employment and subsidizing the Roman economy to such an extent that it became dependent upon the practice.

What, one asks, ailed the people of the Roman Empire? A broader and more troubling question is, what ails a huge subset of most human societies in most periods of our bloody history? It is an unpleasant question, but it will not go away. The unpleasant reality faces us wherever we are and wherever we may have been. What does it take to reduce a segment of the human population to such a level, to a crowd cheering on the death of an innocent elephant. It seems, not much.

On May 16, 1884, in my old hometown of Ashland, Ohio, George Horn and William Gribben, were publicly hanged after having been convicted of the murder of a man named Henry Williams in the nearby small village of Polk. This is not to debate the propriety of the death penalty or the means of carrying it out, although hanging does seem to be among the more barbaric methods.

What is perhaps more disturbing is that tickets were sold for the event and families came from miles around in their horse drawn buggies to watch. Many brought the kiddies and packed picnic lunches in order to better enjoy the entertainment. What could have been the possible motive in subjecting children to such a scene? Perhaps a warning that if they grew up to become murderers a similar fate awaited them. At one point, a fight broke out between those who had purchased tickets and those who had not but who wanted a better vantage point from which to watch the execution. The militia had to be activated in order to keep the peace.

What gives here? Perhaps the same drive that causes motorists to gawk at the scenes of bloody accidents on the highway. Perhaps. Or, more likely, something worse. The National Park Service’s establishment of the Emmet Till National Historic Site last year has resurrected in the public consciousness the gruesome story of that unfortunate 14 year old boy’s protracted torture and lynching before a slavering crowd of soulless crackers in 1955.

Can one rightly compare the torturous death of Topsy with that of Emmet Till? Yes, in a sense. The dark corridors of the human soul are revealed in both cases, as in many others we could cite throughout history, from the outrages in the Roman arenas to more recent horrors. The question is of human culpability, human lust for extravagant bloodletting and torture. Perhaps Jane Goodall says it best, “To me, cruelty is the worst of human sins. Once we accept that a living creature has feelings and suffers pain, then by knowingly and deliberately inflicting suffering on that creature, we are guilty, whether it be human or animal.”

World War II Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel famously asks of the next time, of all the next times, “Who will be the hangman, who the victim, who the indifferent bystander?”

Perhaps one should ask in addition, who will be among the crowds of the cheering fans?

For those wishing more information concerning the mass murder in the Roman arenas, you may wish to check out the Historica Ecclesiastica, by the early Christian writer Eusebius Pamphlii or Ecclesiastical History by Theodorus.  A more recent source is Daniel Mannix’s Those about to Die.


For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com


Lorin Swinehart
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