Saturday, January 4, 2014

Review: Topsy by Michael Daly

Have you ever looked into an elephant's eyes? They are beautiful, fringed with lovely thick eyelashes. And they seem so very gentle and wise. So why on earth would anyone ever consider electrocuting an elephant? While this would be almost unfathomable today it wasn't once and the history of elephants in the US is intimately entwined with the rise of circuses, the birth of electricity, and the competition between Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla to produce the current that would light the world. Michael Daly, in his new book, Topsy, tells the story of elephants in US and the culture around them that led to the famous electrocution of one poor unfortunate elephant on Coney Island.

Opening with an account of how the ill-fated Topsy might have been born and captured for transport to the United States, this narrative non-fiction tells the tale of two competitions, between circuses intent on capturing the imagination and money of the average American, especially through exotic creatures like elephants, and between electrical giants Westinghouse and Edison intent on lighting the country, and how those competitions collided to the detriment of poor Topsy. As Daly traces what's known about the elephant, once intentionally and misleadingly billed as the first elephant born in America, he also traces the evolution of elephant training, circuses, and the battle for electrical primacy.

As gentle as we know elephants to be today, when they were first imported to this country, they were subjected to trainers who used pain and fear of pain to control them, leading some elephants to become unmanageable and to attack. These instances reflected on all elephants and unfortunately perpetuated the use of inhumane training tactics on the poor animals. Many of the elephant trainers used the methods they did purely out of ignorance but reading about their sustained and inventive cruelty is difficult. The trainers were, in many ways, as owned by the circus owners as the elephants themselves, responsible for maintaining the performances of these huge beasts that drew so many crowds to the big top. The owners? The famed P.T. Barnum was one and he was in the business to make money. Like his cohort Tom Forepaugh, he was not above lying and manipulating publicity to get butts in seats and he couldn't afford to keep an unpredictable elephant that could hurt those efforts.  Nor could any other owner. But what they could do with a rogue elephant, even one driven to bad behaviour by abuse, is to set up a spectacle and electrocute her, helping to offer proof of the efficacy of electrocution over hanging. That those involved filmed the electrocution, that that disturbing film exists to this day (in fact it drove Daly to research and write this book), and that there was no public outcry on behalf of Topsy says a lot about the time.

Daly has researched the book quite well, painting a vivid picture of the time, the beliefs, and understanding of the age. In splitting the focus three ways onto circuses in general, the rise and popularity of electricity for the general populace, and elephants and their treatment, he has drawn some broadly encompassing strokes. But occasionally all the factors leading to Topsy's death and the history behind them can get overwhelming. And as far as Topsy herself is concerned, she is not really in the center ring except for the blink of an eye, with the more weighty history and the race to outdo each other as circus owners or as electrical wizards in the spotlight far more often than the eponymous elephant. Interestingly, I found I appreciated the book more after I went to Chicago and saw the wonderful museum exhibit about the World's Colombian Exhibition of 1893 that is currently on display than I did immediately after finishing the book. Thanks to Daly's readable account, the history will stay with you, the animal abuse will break your heart, and you will be certain to never search for that YouTube video of Topsy's final seconds.

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