Thursday 28 February 2013

Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)

Directors: Edwin S Porter & Jacob Blair Smith
Star: Topsy the Elephant

As a piece of cinema, Electrocuting an Elephant is dire and disturbing. As a piece of history, it's an important document that graphically illustrates in an unforgettable manner a despicable period in modern America that is too often glossed over with bad education and deliberate misinformation. What we get is exactly what the title suggests we might get. A handler walks an elephant in some sort of harness towards the camera. After the only cut in the entire film, we see it standing on its own, secured by ropes. It clearly isn't happy, as it stamps its front right foot and shifts restlessly but, after a few brief seconds, great gouts of steam erupt from the ground and the creature goes rigid. It topples over onto its side and the camera pans to keep its body in frame. A few onlookers move around it, one of whom walks up to it to ensure that he's seen in the same frame, like a big game hunter standing over his kill. 80 seconds in and the whole thing is done.

Anyone stumbling upon this film without any background in its history is likely to be horrified and then wonder who would make such a film and why. Well, the who is inventor Thomas Edison, who had a very deliberate agenda. In the late nineteenth century, he'd pioneered the transmission of electric power using direct current, which prompts the why. He owned a host of patents in DC, so had a vested interest in its rapid adoption as the standard by which America would be powered. Unfortunately for him, while DC was a good technology for which there are still uses today, it was notably inferior in most respects, especially in providing power over distance, to the competing European standard of polyphase alternating current, invented by Nikola Tesla and licensed in the US to George Westinghouse. The ensuing War of Currents was much bigger than just Edison vs Westinghouse, but Edison's emphatically ruthless publicity campaign cannot be ignored.

He didn't just lobby for DC over AC in various state legislatures, though he did that. He tasked an assistant, Harold P Brown, with building an electric chair for the state of New York in order to tie AC to death in the headlines and thus in the minds of the public. When it was obvious that a word needed to be created to describe the act of killing someone through use of electricity, a word we know today as 'electrocution', he even campaigned for it to be known as 'being Westinghoused.' Surprisingly, he was personally opposed to capital punishment, at least of people. He didn't have that concern about animals, as he also tasked Brown, with another assistant, Arthur Kennelly, to conduct a number of public electrocutions of varied creatures with AC, all with the same goal in mind. Most were stray cats and dogs, but there were horses, cows, gorillas and an orangutan too. It must have felt like a godsend when he heard about Topsy the elephant.

Topsy was an Indian elephant, ten feet high and almost twenty long. She had been brought to the US by the Forepaugh Circus 28 years earlier and exhibited across the country, ending up in Coney Island's Luna Park. In 1901 she 'developed a bad temper' as the Commercial Advertiser phrased it in her obituary, and killed two keepers in Texas. She later killed a third in Brooklyn, a trainer trying to feed her a lit cigarette. A well publicised incident in Coney Island saw her ridden down Surf Ave by a drunken trainer, ending up battering her way into a police station. So Topsy was condemned to death. Initially she was going to be hanged, until the ASPCA protested and other methods were considered. Edison suggested electrocution with Westinghouse's AC, which, thanks to Edison, was used in electric chairs from the outset. As only the US used electric chairs and they all used AC, it had been responsible for all human executions by electrocution. Now it was the elephant's turn.

The event took place on an overcast January morning, though 1,500 onlookers braved the cold to watch it all happen. It was a park employee who led Topsy to the scaffold that had been originally built to hang her, at around 1.30pm. D P Sharkey, another one of Edison's assistants, attached a hawser and a set of electrodes to the elephant, who was already clad in sandals lined with copper and who had already been fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide. It wasn't until 2.45pm that the current was activated, sending 6,600 volts of AC through the creature, who died very quickly. Her legacy hasn't died yet, as Edison wasn't only interested in killing Topsy, he saw her death by AC as a banner for his cause, so he ensured that this film reached a wide audience. It may have converted some viewers, but AC had already won the War of Currents. Today, it serves more to highlight the sort of man Edison was, one who saw death merely as a propaganda tool.

Electrocuting an Elephant can be viewed for free on YouTube. If you don't want to sign in to get past the age restriction, here's another version that is stuck on a loop for ten minutes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This post is full of glaring errors and misstatements. I understand you did not originate these but the 'War of Currents' nonsense is just that; this film was made nearly TEN years after the so-called 'war' was decided for starters... And from watching this film, how would you even know what 'current' is used? This is an 'urban legend' with NO basis in historical fact. We'll discuss what is-- and much that isn't-- "known" about Topsy the elephant another time... And "D.P. Sharkey" for that matter. Why do you refer to him as an "Edison Assistant"? An assistant what?