topsy elephant electrocution coney island


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Samuel Hawley is a writer. His books are highly eclectic. He has written about 16th-century East Asian history, 19th-century Korean-American relations, Olympic sprinting and land speed racing and a circus elephant named Topsy who was electrocuted in 1903. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.


ceylon elepant roundup
An elephant roundup in Ceylon in the mid 19th century, as illustrated in J. Emerson Tennent, The Wild Elephant and the Method of Capturing and Taming It in Ceylon, 1867. I used Tennent's vivid eyewitness account of a roundup as the basis for chapter 2 in Bad Elephant Far Stream.

ceylon elephant capture
A captured elephant in Ceylon tied to a tree, struggling. (Tennent, The Wild Elephant, 1867)

elephant capture
Another illustration from Tennent's book of a captured elephant struggling to free itself.

ship nehemiah gibson
The bark Nehemiah Gibson, built in 1868. In 1871, when this painting dates from, the Gibson under a Captain Smalley transported a shipment of twelve elephants from Colombo, Ceylon to New York City, which created quite a stir when it arrived. I used Smalley's firsthand account of the voyage, which appeared in a New York newspaper, to imagine Topsy's journey to America.

adam forepaugh
Adam Forepaugh (1831-1890), owner of the Adam Forepaugh Circus aka "4-Paws" and Topsy's first owner in America. Forepaugh was tough and rough-hewn, and proud of it. At the height of his fame and fortune in the 1880s, he and P.T. Barnum reigned supreme in the circus world, vying to outdo each other as the biggest, the most spectacular, the best. At one point Forepaugh's elephant herd numbered 25--or as his advertisements put it: "a quarter of a hundred elephants!"

elephant tricks
These are the sort of "Elephant Tricks" that Topsy and her kind were trained to perform. The Forepaugh Circus also featured an elephant band number, an elephant pyramid, and the elephant "dancing quadrille" in which Topsy and  the others did a square dance.

adam forepaugh circus train 1877
A lithograph depicting the trains used to transport "The Great Forepaugh Show" in 1877. The transition from wagons to trains allowed the Forepaugh Circus to travel much greater distances between engagements and skip the smaller towns in between. This greatly changed circus life for elephants like Topsy: instead of walking through the night to the next town and the next, they now went cooped up in rail cars.

adam forepaugh jr.
Adam Forepaugh Jr. (1861-1919), aka "Addie." He began performing in his father's circus with a horse act at the age of eleven and went on to assume control of the elephant herd, billed as the world's youngest elephant trainer. Addie wasn't as big or as tough as his father, but he was still pretty tough. To give an example from the Forepaugh Circus Route Book for 1880: "24th [June]; Lock Haven; Addie Forepaugh knocked a six-foot gawk out of time, 'winning the two events,' as the Clipper's red-headed fistic reporter would say, 'first blood,' 'first knock down;' he wouldn't give up his ticket, but he did." Addie is also the one who reportedly broke Topsy's tail, leaving it permanently kinked. It was on account of this that she was sometimes called Crooked-Tail Topsy.

forepaugh elephant pyramid
A detail from a July 1878 newspaper advertisement for the Forepaugh Circus, showing what seems to be a reasonably accurate depiction of the elephant pyramid, with young Addie Forepaugh perched on top.

forepaugh elephant pyramid
A detail from a May 1876 Forepaugh Circus advertisement, showing what would seem to be a more fanciful elephant pyramid with the height of the pedestals exaggerated.

forepaugh circus elephants
A Forepaugh Circus ad from the Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), May 8, 1878, with "A truthful Representation of the India Elephant Pyramid!"

eph thompson
Ephraim "Eph" Thompson, who began his career with the Adam Forepaugh Circus and went on to win fame and fortune in Europe as an elephant trainer. He appears in Bad Elephant Far Stream  as the character Eph Parker. I changed his name to avoid confusion with Luna Park co-owner Frederic Thompson, who appears later in the story.

forepaugh circus poster
A Forepaugh Circus poster from 1882, when Forepaugh's rivalry with P.T. Barnum was at its height. The show now featured "22 performing elephants" and "Adam Forepaugh Jr., the youngest trainer in the world." (Addie was 22 years old by this point, so the "youngest" billing was getting dated.) The elephant in the lead is Bolivar, not quite a tall at Barnum's Jumbo but weighing half a ton more. The scale of this illustration is of course exaggerated. Bolivar was certainly big, but not so big (note the guy out front) that a man on horseback could ride under his belly.

forepaugh giant elephant bolivar
Another Forepaugh advertisement depicting the elephant Bolivar as far bigger than he was.

adam forepaugh circus layout
The layout of the Forepaugh Circus in 1883, as illustrated in the route book for that year. The show required a space of eight acres. The black dots (i.e. the four in the main tent) are the center  poles supporting the canvas. Here's the breakdown: 1) three-ring main tent (364 feet long, 214 feet wide, seating for 12,000 people);2) menagerie tent (210 feet long, 80 feet wide); 3) elephant tent (160 feet long, 80 feet wide); 4) dressing tent; 5) side show tent; 6) blacksmith tent; 7) and 8) dining tents; 9) to 15) stable tents (each 70 feet long and 25 feet wide).

forepaugh elephant pyramid
Addie Forepaugh's elephant pyramid grows bigger. This illustration was used in a Quincy, Illinois newspaper advertisement in 1881.

Adam Forepaugh delighted in over-the-top self promotion. In this advertising poster from the 1880s, he is depicted as a giant looming over pygmy rivals like P.T. Barnum.

forepaugh barnum rivalry
Phineas T. Barnum could of course dish out as good as he got. In this poster, he is depicted as a big sturdy ox to Adam Forepaugh's puffed-up toad.

bad elephant far stream samuel hawley

Copyright 2013 Samuel Hawley