Edison electrocuted an elephant 105 years ago today

Today's the anniversary of Thomas Edison's vicious electrocution of a live elephant in order to prove the dangers of Nikola Tesla's alternating current and the safety of his competing direct current.

When the day came, Topsy was restrained using a ship's hawser fastened on one end to a donkey engine and on the other to a post. Wooden sandals with copper electrodes were attached to her feet and a copper wire run to Edison's electric light plant, where his technicians awaited the go-ahead.

In order to make sure that Topsy emerged from this spectacle more than just singed and angry, she was fed cyanide-laced carrots moments before a 6,600-volt AC charge slammed through her body. Officials needn't have worried. Topsy was killed instantly and Edison, in his mind anyway, had proved his point.

A crowd put at 1,500 witnessed Topsy's execution, which was filmed by Edison and released later that year as Electrocuting an Elephant.



  1. Edison was a treacherous motherfucker.

    Read “Cities of Light” for the account of his electric chair. Horrible man.

  2. The “War of the Currents” was really fought between Edison and Westinghouse. Tesla’s role was as inventor and more accurately electrical engineer for Westinghouse during the “war”. A good book to look up and read about all of this is, AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War. Not a lot of technical, but it does tell the stories of all the players involved.

    As for his penchant for electrocuting dogs, cats, cows, horses, elephants, and people. He (Edison) was opposed to capital punishment supposedly. In the book they talk about a guy named Harold Brown, he invented the chair. He was also the one who did the actual electrocutions of previously mentioned animals. All while trying to pass it off as scientific. Which, it really wasn’t.

  3. #3: Here in NE England, we prefer to credit the Mackem Joseph Swan with the invention of the incandescent light bulb (he certainly held a patent for it before Edison).

  4. This wretched scene from history deserves a much happier form of electrocution as a chaser. And I’ve got just the perfect thing:

    The delightful Presto Hotdogger!

    What other kitchen appliance has ever allowed up to six hotdogs to be condemned and hurled into their afterlife in just 60 seconds?

    And later models were even better, since they carried, arguably, the greatest logo ever.

  5. According to wikipedia, Topsy’s keepers had already decided to “execute” her… so it wasn’t like the elephant was killed just to prove Edison’s point.

  6. Starwed, you’re right – Topsy had been ruled a “danger”, having killed one (or was it two?) of her handlers and had already had her death sentence passed – Edison petitioned for the right to do it by electrocution.

    However, another fact of the matter was that right before she killed one of the handlers, the man had fed her a lit cigarette, so she was obviously being baited. It was a rotten situation all around.

  7. Edison was a hack piece of shit, whose true legacy is cruelty, thievery, plagiarism, & buttfuckery (not the fun type).

  8. I like your painting Shardcore, and the attached text also answered my question as to why the elephant was being “executed” (does anyone else find this use of “execution” ridiculous?): it had attacked a keeper. Still seems pretty macabre, the idea of a public execution.

  9. I’m an electronics tech and the worst I’ve ever been zapped was not with AC, but 28 volts DC. It knocked me back like I was physically hit with a heavy object. I’ve even been kissed by voltages up to 460v AC. Nothing hurts as much as high current DC.

    At least with AC, it’s easier to break away because of the way the voltage is alternating. With DC, it’s constant.

  10. @BENTCORNER – are you sure about that? DC is way safer then AC. Remember, voltage does not kill, its the current that kills.

    And at 60 hertz, I cannot imagine “breaking away” is very easy.

    In general though, I do not think its fair to call Edison “evil”. They did not really look at animals the same way then and we do today. The elephant was condemned to die anyways.

  11. I have read a couple of fat biographies on Edison. He was pretty much a bastard to his family, his employees and his competitors (and apparantly to animals).

    The phonograph was his only truly original invention. When Edison developed the light bulb there were already several types of electric lights in use.

    Later in his life he really bought into the whole “you have brought light to mankind” demigod bull that he was being fed.

    Many of the people we consider “Great Inventors” had some serious personality flaws. Ford was a huge anti-semite and early fan of Hitler, Alexander Grahem Bell almost certainly stole the design for telephone outright and don’t even get me started on the Wright Bros.

  12. It’s all about the wattage folks (volts x amps)- not AC vs DC. High voltage with low amperage will not kill you, nor will low voltage with high amperage.

    But ramp up wattage and either DC or AC will kill. AC will defibrilate your heart – DC will burn.

  13. I knew that Edison was impassioned about DC and bitter about Tesla and AC, but I didn’t know this story. It’s disgusting, but probably seemed like good showmanship at the time.

    Edison thought that his world view ‘had it all figured out,’ and condemning him without recognizing that he came from a very different time makes the same mistake, only without frying an elephant.

  14. I reserve the right to despise Edison for screwing over the Lumiere Brothers, driving the movie industry out of New York City, and entering into a conspiracy to turn the nascent movie industry into a patent-driven monopolistic trust.

  15. Amazing to me is that this public spectacle happened only 105 years ago. We’ve come a long way both socially and technologically (and still have a long journey ahead).

  16. Cory’s original post has its facts wrong. In short, Edison was not present at Topsy’s death, and the episode had nothing to do with the battle of the currents. In act, it was the ASPCA that recommend use of electricity to kill Topsy. If I may repeat a comment I left on boingboing a few weeks ago:

    Topsy the elephant was indeed electrocuted in 1903, and an Edison company made a film of it, but Edison himself wasn’t involved. (Edison was involved in the killing of dogs and horses at his West Orange lab more than a decade before–tests related to the development of the electric chair.) Topsy died in 1903, 13 years after the first electric chair execution — by then, AC had more or less won the battle of the currents and the electric chair was an accepted method of execution. Topsy’s death had nothing to do with the debates over AC/DC or the electric chair.

    Here’s what happened: Topsy was a rogue Coney Island circus elephant, and her owners decided they had to kill her. They proposed hanging her from a scaffold with a rope and pulley, but the ASPCA claimed that would be cruel. Instead, Topsy was fitted with copper-lined wooden sandals on her right front and back left legs, and the sandals were wired to a dynamo at the local Edison lighting plant. The film you can find on the Web was shot by the Edison Manufacturing Company.

    For more details, read my book, “Edison & the Eletric Chair.”

  17. Forget what everyone say about each generation is worse than the last and that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. The world’s becoming better. This would never stand in most countries today.

  18. @entropymd – Yeah, I’m sure. DC is no safer then AC. You’re right, it’s the current that kills, not the voltage. The reason people think DC is safer is because most of the DC they come into contact with is the low voltage, low current variety. For instance, electrical power on a USB bus is around 5volts/500mA.

    That’s not the kind of DC that Edison used.

  19. Yeah, Edison was a twat. He used strong arm tactics sending thugs to physically threaten filmmakers in the East Coast if they didn’t pay him what he considered motion picture taxes on technology he created (which he didn’t). Fuck that guy.

  20. Btw…Benjamin Franklin also electrocuted many animals and explored the idea of using electricity for human excecutions.

  21. If it weren’t for the ready availability of other living creatures in this world, we would not have had the chance to develop the world’s best life-saving medicines, developed numerous life-saving vaccines and other wonders that have enabled mankind to progress ,live longer, and enjoy healthier lives. Not that this particular example suits that end … however, many of the objections to this seem to bleed over into any killing of animals for any reason whatsoever. While we should try not to be so cruel, we must exploit our lordship over dumb creatures in order to advance. That’s a simple fact.

  22. Mark Essig wrote:

    They proposed hanging her from a scaffold with a rope and pulley, but the ASPCA claimed that would be cruel.

    If I understand, the proposition was that electrifying an elephant would be less cruel than hanging it. Seems like they should have just shot it. Electrocuting it may have been fast, but takes on a “performance” element that seems repugnant.

  23. I never heard this story before. Thanks for posting it, even though it sucks in more ways than I can think of right now.

  24. I can’t condemn Edision for being a victim of his times. Yes, what he did was wrong by todays standards; in many many ways. But 105 years ago, it was considered “cutting edge”.

    I suppose that the ASPCA didn’t reccoment shooting the elephant because there would be no way to ensure that it would be an instant death. Though the poor thing was already dying at the time, having been fed cyanide.

    This was an interesting story, and seeing people’s reactions today to something that was accepted 105 years ago gives me hope in humanities ability to be humane.

  25. >Seems like they should have just shot it.

    Shooting things is harder than you realize if you’re trying to kill them quickly, especially for an animal that has a brain not much bigger than ours that’s hidden in the middle of a thick, heavy skull.

    They very likely would have missed, putting the animal in extreme pain. It would have been crueler than hanging or electrocuting it.

  26. oh come on Teresa…I walk past a shoot every other freakin’ day and I don’t even bother going up to mid-town.

  27. A substantial portion, if not all, of the Edison Co. film “Executing an Elephant” can be seen in the Errol Morris documentary “Mr. Death,” which follow the career of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., an electric-chair engineer and Holocaust denier:


  28. Specialist is actually incorrect about wattage. It is the amperage that kills, not the voltage. The minimum electricty needed to electrocute a person is 0.07 amps if it directly passes through the brain or heart.

    However, at the same time, Specialist is right about needing a certain amount of volts and amps to kill. Ohm’s law comes to the rescue and shows that the maximum amps passing through a circuit is proportional to potential divided by resistance. The actual equation ends up being Amps = Volts/Ohms (iirc). Hence if you don’t have sufficient volts even if you have a lot of amps, you can’t get a lethal shock. (A 30 volt DC arc welder at 130 amps is unlikely to electrocute you even though it could injure or maim any number of other ways. However if you attach electrodes to the arc welder and impale yourself with them, you might be electrocuted. However you would have to be suicidal and/or stupid to accomplish this feat.)

    AC is more dangerous because the greatest resistance in the body is at the skin. This does not block AC, so only the internal resistance matters. However, you can still get shocked/hurt by DC at non-lethal voltages.

  29. ‘Electrocuting an Elephant’

    Even back then movie titles had that ‘Educating Rita,’ ‘Boxing Helena,’ ‘Raising Arizona’ -ing title naming convention.

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