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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.