Monday, August 19, 2013

"Topsy" by Michael Daly (2013)

Growing up in Brooklyn I have always been aware of the story of Topsy, the elephant who was cruelly killed at Coney Island long before I was born. But, until now, I never knew the full story, nor of the people involved in it. Thanks to Mr. Daly I now know the facts of the matter, which are not at all pretty. And when you do hear the whole story, your estimation of some very famous people may be lowered by a notch or two.

The author begins with the birth of an elephant in the wilds of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, on the southern tip of India. He chronicles the life of an ordinary elephant calf, including the hunt and capture by traders, who then transport the animals to Europe for sale. The first elephant arrived in Europe with Emperor Claudius in 43 A.D. After that it would be over 1,000 more years until another elephant was presented to European royalty in 1255, this time as a gift from Louis IX to Henry III. Even Pope Leo X eventually got one, given to him by King Manuel of Portugal in 1514. He is buried on the grounds of the Vatican.

Eventually, in 1796 the newly freed English colonies in America acquired their own elephant. This one was named simply The Elephant, since it was the only one on the continent. But, this didn't last for long. By 1804 a second elephant was bought over to America and purchased by a farmer named Bailey who lived North of Manhattan in Westchester. He paid $1,000 for the elephant, and then sold a “share” of him to a man who took him on a tour of the colonies. To avoid people seeing the elephant for free they traveled at night.

The admission price was 50 cents to see the elephant named Old Bet, who was named after Mr. Bailey’s daughter Betsy, but this price was too steep for the time and was soon reduced to 25 cents; still a lot of coin for the time. So, in order to stop people from seeing her for free, they erected canvas around the area, allowing enough room for the paying customers to observe this unusually docile creature. In just a few more years a top would be added as protection against the weather, thus creating the “bigtop” as we commonly refer to the circus now.

Of particular fascination in the lead up to the main story of Topsy is the history of the traveling troupes of acrobats; as well as the groups of exotic animals which were called “menageries”; and who both traveled the country exhibiting their unique, but separate forms of entertainment. It was only after both of these elements were put together in one show that the modern equivalent of a “circus” came into being.

When Barnum met Bailey, a national entertainment was perfected. The circus, which required cunning and genius to organize; which Bailey possessed; also took a man of rare talent, and the ability to promote something; which is exactly what Barnum possessed. Together, the two of them founded a company which would dominate the circus world for more than a century; and probably still does, though neither man's family owns it any longer.

Along with the story of Topsy and these two men there is another tale, one which involves Tesla, Edison and Westinghouse; as well as an excitable public; always eager to see something new and horrific. The rivalry between Edison and Westinghouse; coupled with Edison’s loss of control over his own company; all contributed to the demise of Topsy in a race to prove the practicality of using electric current as a means of punishment for criminals; or to be more direct; the electric chair.

Topsy was the first elephant to meet a violent end in America, after she had killed; or wounded; several individuals who were tormenting her. The part of this book which will astonish you the most is the fact that cruelty towards animals was so common place at the time. Though Topsy was the first to be successfully executed for pure spectacle does not discount that others had tried to do this before. There were other elephants previous to Topsy; such as Jumbo; who thrilled audiences for years, only to have his bones displayed by P.T.Barnum for 25 cents a look in New York.

The book is sprawling in its range, encompassing even the founding of Luna Park in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, as well as the sadistic trainer who abused Topsy until her fateful day. When that day arrived, the only help that she received was from the SPCA, which forbade the owners from charging to see Topsy killed. The crowd was limited to about 800 select people, all of whom were either reporters, or residents of Coney Island. Below is the film which Edison took of the execution. Don't watch if you are easily upset. The date of the film is January, 2, 1903.

A startling look at the underside of human nature, this book reads like a film, and haunts the reader afterward with questions about who we all are, and why? There are no more public executions of animals anymore; either for profit, or even to prove a point. But the fact that there once was, and laws had to be passed to outlaw the practice in the first place, is what really disappoints me the most.

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