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0 out of 50 out of 50 out of 50 out of 50 out of 5 0.00 (0 ratings) (rate this audio book) Author: Michael Daly Narrator: Mark Peckham Publisher: Blackstone Publishing Format: Unabridged Audiobook Delivery: Instant Download Audio Length: Release Date: July 2013 ISBN: 9781482986006
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In 1903 at the soon-to-open Luna Park on Coney Island, an elephant named Topsy was electrocuted, likely with advice from Thomas Edison, whose film crew recorded the horrible event. Over the past century, this bizarre, ghoulish execution has reverberated through popular culture with the ring of an urban legend. But it really happened, and today, Edison’s footage can be found on YouTube, where it has been viewed nearly two million times.

Many historical forces conspired to bring Topsy, Edison, and those 6,600 volts of alternating current together at Coney Island that day. Journalist Michael Daly’s Topsy is a fascinating popular history that traces them, from the rise of the circus in America and the lives of circus elephants, through Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the war of the currents, to the birth of Coney Island.

Daly’s book starts with the 1796 arrival of the first elephant to set foot in America. She was called simply the Elephant, and while her performance didn’t go far beyond uncapping bottles of beer with her trunk and drinking, she drew large paying crowds up and down the Eastern Seaboard—so large, in fact, that her owners walked her from town to town in the dark to avoid anyone getting a free look.

Other elephants followed but essentially as solo curiosities. It wasn’t until the years after the Civil War that the circus in America boomed, thanks especially to magnates P. T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh, who are major characters in Topsy. Their constant competition and efforts to outdo each other led Forepaugh to hatch an outlandish scheme in 1877. At an incredibly dynamic time in American history, with the country growing and immigration on the rise, Forepaugh understood that it was the first American-born child of an immigrant family that often offered a real anchor. So he smuggled in a baby elephant captured in the wild in Asia (most likely Ceylon, now Sri Lanka), and passed it off as a true American—the first elephant born in captivity. He said he wouldn’t sell her for $20,000. Barnum, who had been offered the same elephant from a dealer in Hamburg, called his bluff, saying he’d pay $100,000 for an American-born baby.

This was just one of the battles in the war of the elephants. Forepaugh went big, billing one of his herd as the largest, so Barnum went bigger, importing an elephant from England named Jumbo. Barnum claimed he’d been hunting for an elusive “holy” white elephant for years, so Forepaugh simply painted one of his and concocted an exotic backstory that involved Thai royalty.

Rich in fantastic detail, Topsy brings to life the world of the circus, the caravans and sideshows, the astonishing athletic spectacles, and the crooks. Daly highlights the differences between Forepaugh and Barnum. The latter was the gold standard, a master showman and spinner of humbug whose circus was nevertheless known as the Sunday School Show. Forepaugh played to a rougher crowd and even traveled with his own team of pickpockets, who paid a sort of daily licensing fee to work the crowd. They even stole clothes from laundry lines while the people in small towns watched the circus parade. And all circuses resorted to “rat bills,” slanderous advertisements pasted along the routes. When one circus made use of electric lights to brightly illuminate the previously dim tents, another warned the public of the lighting’s supposedly dire health risks.

Similar to the contrasting morals of the shows, elephant trainers had a striking dichotomy. Most resorted to horrible violence and cruelty to bend elephants to their will, to “tame” them. Occasionally, as happens later with Topsy, the elephants met violence with violence, killing trainers or breaking free, and were subsequently branded “bad” elephants.

In contrast were Stewart Craven and Eph Thompson, two trainers who are the heroes of this book. Craven was one of the most famous trainers in the country, and he was well paid for his work. Thompson, his protégé, being black, was slighted. Forepaugh maintained the fiction that his spoiled son trained the elephants, but it was really Thompson, who showed that kindness and care could achieve remarkable things. His elephants danced, stood on their heads, raced, balanced on a fake tightrope, and formed a “living pyramid”—one could even somersault. Topsy was among these elephants, but she also dealt with cruelty; Forepaugh himself beat her so badly that her tail was broken and left permanently crooked.

The war of the elephants was winding down just as the war of the currents took off. Thomas Edison, synonymous in the public eye with electricity, stubbornly held firm to a misguided belief in the superiority of direct current, which could only be transmitted short distances. Alternating current, favored by brilliant oddball Nikola Tesla and his backer George Westinghouse, could travel very far, but Edison argued that it was dangerous. To help win favor for DC, he maneuvered for New York to switch from hanging to electrocution, hoping that westinghoused would become a common term, like guillotined. And to prove how dangerous AC was, he backed dozens of inhumane experiments where dogs were electrocuted.

Despite his best efforts, the Wizard of Menlo Park lost the war, as well as control of his company. He remained embittered, even as his fame grew thanks to the increasing importance of electricity. Daly segues from Edison to what should have been his triumph: the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and its illuminated “White City.” Popular entertainment had exploded in America thanks to the circus, and the final main thread of Topsy is a discussion of this landmark event, followed by the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, at which President McKinley was assassinated, and the development of Coney Island.

It’s on Coney Island in January of 1903 that these strands all come together. Luna Park, which would go on to become iconic, was set to open that year, and the developers figured that an execution of the “bad” elephant Topsy would draw useful publicity. Though the war of the currents was lost, Edison was still involved—at the very least through his film crew, though likely more closely. Throughout the book, Daly traces Topsy’s picaresque life up to this point—from her capture, the roar of the crowd, life on the endless road, and the torments of her trainers—weaving her tale through the other big stories. It’s a touching and, above all, entertaining tale that brings life to this remarkable world and its characters; and it is impossible to read Topsy and look at the circus, elephants, or Thomas Edison the same way again.

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Quotes & Awards

  • “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 nineteenth-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

  • “Remarkable…Daly’s fascinating, nuanced portraits of the seedy sides of the circus’ heyday and the dawn of the electric age make for incredibly entertaining reading.”

    Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed review)

  • “The story of the sadly electrocuted elephant Topsy is actually two stories: one of circuses and one of the fight over electricity standards. Mark Peckham narrates the exploits of the two men who figure most in those stories with dramatic emphasis. He brings to life the boasting and trickery of P. T. Barnum and the strident statements of Thomas Edison with equal skill. Peckham creates mental pictures skillfully, re-creating a past era and the lives of two of its legends…A fascinating listen.”


  • “A fascinating and moving piece of American history and a meditation on the cost of entertainment and human progress.”

    Kirkus Reviews

  • “This book should be read by anyone who’s ever been to the circus…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.”

    James McBride, author of The Color of Water

  • A Barnes & Noble Best Book of June 2013
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About 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, which is about his friend, an FDNY chaplain who died in the 9/11 attack. In 2002 Daly was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. He lives in Brooklyn.

About the Narrator

Mark Peckham is an actor and director based in Rhode Island. In addition to working with Trinity Rep, Virginia Stage Co., and many Boston-area theaters, he was the voice of Joseph Smith in the award-winning PBS documentary American Prophet with Gregory Peck.