An Electrocuted Elephant Remembered

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Electrocution of Topsy the Elephant on Jan. 4, 1903
Source: Barry Denenberg, “AC/DC,”, Aug. 13, 2010

There have been 37 executions in the United States so far in 2011, and lethal injection was used in all of them.

Between 1977-2009, lethal injection accounted for 85.5% of all executions while electrocution ranked second with 13.1%. The gas chamber, hanging, and firing squad all had fewer than 1%. Between 1910-1959, 65% of all executions were done by electrocution – the most common method at the time.

The rise of electrocution as the preferred method of execution during the 20th century can be traced back to “The War of the Currents” in the late 1880s when inventor Thomas Edison, a proponent of direct current (DC), and entrepreneur George Westinghouse, a proponent of alternating current (AC), struggled over competing electricity distribution systems.

As part of a public campaign against Westinghouse’s alternating current, Edison demonstrated the dangers of AC by electrocuting dogs, cats, horses, cows, and even an orangutan. The demonstrations led some people to believe that electrocution was a valid form of execution. On Aug. 6, 1890, New York State performed the first execution by electrocution with the assistance of Thomas Edison’s engineers.

The Luna Park Zoo at Coney Island decided that 10-foot-high Indian elephant Topsy was a danger to visitors after she killed three trainers in three years, including one who tried to feed Topsy a lit cigarette. The zoo hired Thomas Edison to perform the execution by electrocution.

On Jan. 4, 1903, Edison filmed the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant. As a precaution in case the electrocution was ineffective, Topsy was fed cyanide-laced carrots before over 6,000 volts shot through her body in front of a crowd of 1,500 spectators. The precautions were unnecessary, as Topsy was killed instantly.

The story of Thomas Edison electrocuting Topsy the Elephant is featured in the first episode of’s “Critical Thinking Video Series.” The series highlights little known facts in the 42 controversial topics covered by


“Execution List 2011,” (accessed Oct. 5, 2011)

“War of the Currents,”, Dec. 12, 2000