Museum Holiday Schedule

The New-York Historical Society Museum will be open Wednesday, December 24, 10am-3pm and will reopen Friday, December 26, 10am-8pm. For details, please visit our calendar.

Who Was Topsy And What Did She Have To Do With the Electrification of NYC?

When Topsy, an elephant that had served as an attraction for visitors to Coney Island in the 1890s, killed several keepers (including an abusive trainer who tried to feed her a lighted cigarette), a decision was made to put her to death. Hoping to recapture their investment in this disappearing asset, her owner, the Forepaugh Circus, determined to perform the execution in public. Thomas Edison stepped in with a proposal to use the occasion to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current (AC), an electric-distribution technology favored by his rivals George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla, then being considered by New York City. Edison advocated the adoption of direct current (DC). Using techniques perfected during the course of his secret work on an execution tool for humans—the electric chair—he arranged to have Topsy fed carrots laced with sixteen ounces of potassium cyanide and then shod with wooden sandals lined with copper and draped with wires. After the switch was pulled, the elephant died in less than a minute.

Creative: Tronvig Group