Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison

Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison

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by Michael Daly
     
 

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In 1903, on Coney Island, an elephant named Topsy was electrocuted, and over the past century, this bizarre, ghoulish execution has reverberated through popular culture with the whiff of urban legend. But it really happened, and many historical forces conspired to bring Topsy, Thomas Edison, and those 6600 volts of alternating current together that day. Tracing them…  See more details below

Overview

In 1903, on Coney Island, an elephant named Topsy was electrocuted, and over the past century, this bizarre, ghoulish execution has reverberated through popular culture with the whiff of urban legend. But it really happened, and many historical forces conspired to bring Topsy, Thomas Edison, and those 6600 volts of alternating current together that day. Tracing them all in Topsy The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, journalist Michael Daly weaves together a fascinating popular history, the first book on this astonishing tale.

At the turn of the century, the circus in America was at its apex with the circuses of P.T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh (or 4-Paw) competing in a War of the Elephants, with declarations of whose pachyderms were younger, bigger, or more “sacred”. This brought Topsy to America, fraudulently billed as the first native-born, and caught between the circus disputes and the War of the Currents, in which Edison and George Westinghouse (and Nikola Tesla) battled over alternating versus direct current.

Rich in period Americana, and full of circus tidbits and larger than life characters—both human and elephant—Topsy is a touching tale and an entertaining read.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Daly (columnist, New York Daily News; The Book of Mychal) compellingly traces the juxtaposition of circus and power industry rivalries at the turn of the 20th century. He delves into the world of circus entrepreneurs and antagonists P.T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh, arguably America's first show business celebrities, who competed to offer the most extravagant big-top presentations. Topsy spent many years as a Forepaugh circus elephant. Meanwhile, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse were warring over whether to establish direct or alternating current as the standard for the new American electrical industry. In a narrative comparable in pace and tone to Erik Larson's Thunderstruck, Daly weaves a sympathetic tale of elephants cruelly captured and turned into performers and, in this case, made the centerpiece in the heartbreaking culmination of these colliding rivalries. In an era that claimed to be progressive, Edison backed electrocution as a means of capital punishment owing at least in part to his professional frustrations and jealousies. Needless to say, these histories are linked. VERDICT Although this is a tale with a sad ending, popular history buffs will enjoy. Fans of Paul Chambers's Jumbo, about a Barnum elephant, or Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, will be drawn to this as well.—Barbara Ferrara, Chesterfield Cty. P.L., VA
Publishers Weekly
In this bizarre and remarkable dual history, journalist Daly (The Book of Mychal) weaves together the stories of two turn-of-the-century rivalries. Circus entrepreneurs P.T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh wrangle over who will be the biggest in the big-top business by flaunting their best pachyderms, while Thomas Edison, a proponent of direct-current (DC) electricity, fights to convince New York state to conduct its electrocutions via alternating current (AC) in an attempt to smear his rival, AC advocate George Westinghouse. Set against the backdrop of a New York City busily building itself up to meet the demands of a new, electrified era—an evolution that included the construction of the famous Luna Park in Brooklyn and the renovation of Madison Square Garden—these two rivalries finally intersect in a horrifying and gruesome public execution on Coney Island in 1903. Having claimed three men’s lives over the course of her career, Forepaugh’s prized elephant, Topsy, was executed by poisoning, hanging, and electrocution (via AC current)—all at the same time. Edison proudly filmed it—“the first actual snuff film”—and used it as propaganda against Westinghouse. Daly’s fascinating, nuanced portraits of the seedy sides of the circus’s heyday and the dawn of the electric age makes for incredibly entertaining reading. Agent: Philippa Brophy, Sterling Lord Literistic. (July)
From the Publisher

“Michael Daly vividly revives a rollicking pachydermal tale that riveted New Yorkers a century ago and still survives in a gruesome YouTube video. Daly . . . provides perceptive insights into circus and sideshow elephants and their huckster handlers . . . [and] leads readers on mesmerizing detours that reveal everything from the origins of pink lemonade to a brazen pickpocket’s trick. . . . Even [the] dark episode does not dampen the book’s exuberance. . . . A summery escape.”—New York Times

“[A] poignant, grim account of dueling impresarios and the American appetite for curiosities centered on one elephant’s life and death. . . . Topsy is a fascinating but disturbing story, a skillfully told and admirably researched reminder of a time not as long ago as we’d like to think.”—Wall Street Journal

“A gripping popular history . . . Vivid . . . simultaneously fascinating and horrifying."—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“[Daly] invoke[s] these creatures . . . with grace and compassion.”—New York Times Book Review

“Heartbreaking.”—Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“A lively chronicle.”—Dallas Morning News

"A fascinating and moving piece of American history and a meditation on the cost of entertainment and human progress."—Kirkus Reviews

“Bizarre and remarkable . . . Daly’s fascinating, nuanced portraits of the seedy sides of the circus’s heyday and the dawn of the electric age makes for incredibly entertaining reading.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“This book should be read by anyone who’s ever been to the circus. I read it and could not bring myself to put it down. Nor could I bring myself to look at the moment—preserved by Edison’s footage and now on YouTube—that this book illuminates so clearly. The story left me a little breathless, and I will never see an elephant in captivity again and not think about Topsy and the cruelty of which we humans are capable. I’ve always respected Michael Daly as a great New York writer. But here, he reaches out to the world beyond New York and goes deep. The results are extraordinary. He humanizes and speaks for those animals who cannot speak. He touches the hearts of those of us who are not animal activists. I’m not so proud to be a member of the human race today, but I am proud to know someone who should be.”—James McBride, author of The Color of Water

"Step right up, folks, and read all about it! The amazing tale of elephants, electricity, Edison and Barnum, stunts, fights and ghastly events. Topsy is a 19th-century reality show that boggles the mind as the pages fly by with events that have you laughing out loud one moment and gasping in disbelief the next."—Tom Brokaw

Topsy offers a compelling history of late-nineteenth-century scientific genius, American hucksterism, and the chase for the almighty buck; it’s a tale of giants; Edison, Barnum, and an elephant, in which the four legged creature comes across as more humane than her fellow players”—Richard Price

“[A] tale of American enterprising spirit gone amok. . . the author’s quiet outrage . . . endows an off-the-radar circus story with the fatalistic gravitas of Aeschylus."—Boston Globe

“After seeing Thomas Edison’s 1903 film 'Electrocuting an Elephant,' author Michael Daly had to know more. The result is Topsy, a sad and fascinating story of a circus elephant at the turn of the last century, when America was flexing the new power of electricity. . . . While the tragic conclusion is known from the outset, the journey in Topsy offers continuous surprise.”—Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

“Daly’s anecdotes will have readers laughing at the bad luck of the sometimes honest circus goers. . . . [and he] skillfully recreates several examples of animal brutality, the importance of the circus as one of the few affordable forms of entertainment, and the immoral actions of the leading characters.”—ForeWord

"Daly deftly weaves the story of one pachyderm's untimely end."—Barnes and Noble Review.com

“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.”—Baltimore City Paper

“Daly expertly leads his readers through this peculiar series of events, as well as the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo—where McKinley was assassinated—and the development of Coney Island. Complete with letters, photographs and newspaper accounts from the period, Daly enlivens a captivating popular history of this exceptional time. A poignant read.”—Brooklyn Daily Eagle

“Fascinating . . . a heartbreaking, complex story of brutality.”—Workforce

Kirkus Reviews
Daly (The Book of Mychal, 2009) tells the story of the infamous 1903 execution of Topsy, a man-killing circus elephant. The narrative also encompasses the strange phenomenon of 19th-century elephant mania, the history and culture of traveling circuses, the rivalry between electricity titans Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, and the disquieting marriage of cruel exploitation and exuberant hucksterism that constitutes the dark side of American innovation and progress. The author renders vital portraits of P.T. Barnum (impossible not to love despite his larcenous heart) and Edison (a complicated mixture of bullheaded pride and skewed integrity), as well as various intelligent and sensitive elephants. This makes Daly's descriptions of their brutal mistreatment very difficult to stomach, and the fact that these incredibly powerful creatures so seldom struck back at their tormenters supports the author's characterization of them as essentially noble, benign creatures. On the lighter side, the details of circus life--underhanded advertising campaigns launched to discredit competitors' shows, pickpockets colluding with circus owners to fleece the rubes as completely as possible, all manner of fakery and humbug employed to increase ticket sales--are wonderfully amusing, and there are accounts of more humane trainers who disdained cruelty and emphasized an empathic approach to their work. Most compelling is the "War of the Currents," in which Edison and Westinghouse fought to dominate the future of commercial electricity by backing either direct (Edison, prideful and misguided) or alternating (Westinghouse, a less-rigid thinker and aided by the genius Nikola Tesla) current. This was a battle of wills and geniuses that had an immeasurably profound effect on the world. The spectacle of an abused, exploited elephant dying to prove a point in a battle already won provides a potent illustration of the pettiness of human behavior that often accompanies man's attempts to control the natural world. A fascinating and moving piece of American history and a meditation on the cost of entertainment and human progress.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802194572
Publisher:
Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
07/02/2013
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
288
File size:
5 MB

Meet the Author

Michael Daly has been a newspaper journalist and columnist for many years, currently with the New York Daily News. He is the author of The Book of Mychal: The Surprising Life and Heroic Death of Father Mychal Judge about his friend, an NYFD chaplain who died on 9/11. In 2002, Daly was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. He lives in Brooklyn.

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Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
AlanAbrams More than 1 year ago
Topsy is a brilliant book. The subject matter is totally enthralling. Author Michael Daly displays mastery of the written word as he brings the circus animals to life. The text is rich in history. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Michael Daly definitely knows how to tell a story. I loved Topsy from start to finish. It's an amazing story told in an exciting way. Great stuff!
JonathanBell More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. I found the subject matter fascinating. Plus it is told in a well written fashion that makes it easy to follow and enjoy.
JYKWA More than 1 year ago
A sad history of animal cruelty.  It was difficult to get through this book, because the author did such a good job vividly portraying the human arrogance and cruelty toward elephants, which are intelligent, empathetic animals. It broke my heart as they were torn from their mothers as calves and "trained" through beatings and deprivation. What makes me sadder is the uncomfortable thought that we still may not have learned to be better one hundred-plus years later. We still have instances of confining intelligent animals - whether they be elephants, orcas, or apes - in the name of profit or scientific research. This is a well-written book that makes us ponder whether we truly have progressed as human beings.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Written like a fast-paced thriller, this account of Thomas Edison's feud with every other budding electrician shines a light on a variety of issues, such as the plusses and perils of competition in a capitalist market, the maltreatment of animals in captivity, and the problematic aspects of using experimental test subjects (animals) who are unable to give consent. I have already recommended this book numerous times, and will continue to do so.
BrandyGirl More than 1 year ago
I really love animals so to me this book was disturbing. Of course, it is true and true life is not always pretty. I sure view Thomas Edison in a whole new light. Makes me happy that today we have someone looking out for circus elephants even though I know there are still some mishaps and the animal usually winds up being blamed. As far as the historical value, it hit the mark.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Zero rating. Educate yourselves and read about Tesla and elephants.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book about the development of electricity, the lives and treatment of elephants, and the story of the American circus industry. Another great book is the novel "The Partisan" by William Jarvis. Both books deserve A++++++