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Electrocuting an Elephant1903

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  • 2.6
Topsy, the original "Baby Elephant," had been a featured attraction across the United States for 28 years. She had killed three men in her time, the last one after he gave her a lit cigarette butt as a treat, and for this last death she had to pay the ultimate price. The event was front-page news in the tabloids, and 1500 people came to Luna Park, Coney Island to see Topsy's execution.



Member Reviews (7)

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top reviewer

It's subject matter aside, this short silent shows an interesting (and still used) combination of a pan and a cut. The camera holds on Topsy as she comes into the foreground, then pans to follow her once her head fills the frame. Then there is a cut to a full frame shot of her in position for execution. One can think of many uses of this little trope where figures are followed as they enter a general area, for example, the entrance of a sports team into a stadium, and then a cut to the main event: to continue with the example of a sports team, the cut would be to the start of the game, eliding perhaps a lengthy period of time with two brief moments of great excitement into a single sustained moment of anticipation. In the case of the unfortunate Topsy, there is nothing to indicate how long it was between her entry into this area and how long before she was strapped into position for execution. It could have taken hours, but Porter and Smith eliminated all that and created a sustained (and for today's viewers, quite dreadful) period of anticipation. I wonder if the structure they used seemed as natural to viewers then as it seems to us now, or if it was the cause of some confusion (and perhaps charges of waste from Edison: "Why'd you waste the film on getting her coming into the area like that? What's that got to do with the execution? Do you think people will sit still for that, eh?")

As far as the subject matter goes, it is terrible and cruel by today's standards. However, the standard background given for this film—Topsy had killed three people; this was part of the current standard competition between DC backed by Edison and AC backed by Westinghouse—may be inaccurate and oversimplified. A recent book "Topsy" by Michael Daly asserts that Topsy had only killed one of her keepers, and that Edison had already lost the current standard war to AC by this time. A summary and excerpt from the book may be found at

How low can you go when trying to smear a competitor?

This low.

Made all the more horrible by the way anticipation was built up to the fatal moment, which had all the more impact because of the prologue. I'm guessing it was Porter that directed this documentary. He could give a scene real power.

One of the worst atrocities ever recorded on film.


Wow. Fascinating bit of history and something you just don't see every day.

Terrible...shows you that "the good old days" were anything but. Life was cheap, people were often racist and hateful, and animals were nothing to anyone. I will not watch this reason for it to be on Fandor. Terrible cruelty to animals.

By 1903 standards it might have been more logical to do it. Cheaper than transporting it back to the wild where it belonged in the first place. The movie was not gruesome or gory but merci-fully quick. The movie deserves watching so the elephant did not die totally in vain. If I was a family member of one of the three people who were killed by the elephant I might have a very different opinion.