On the Media, 1903 Edition
Wednesday, January 04, 2012 - 01:50 PM
The history of the publicity stunt has never been proud, but if the recent tide of sham celebrity weddings and "leaked" private photos leaves you longing for something grander, stranger, more ghoulish, or more elephantine, look no further than January 4, 1903. Today marks the grim anniversary of Thomas Edison's electrocution of a Coney Island elephant named Topsy as part of a media campaign to discredit George Westinghouse and his alternating current. At the time, Edison's direct current reigned supreme, but AC was proving much more efficient and posed a significant threat to his dominance. Edison attempted to portray AC as extremely dangerous and first demonstrated its lethal effects by publicly roasting several stray cats and dogs. When Luna Park Zoo needed a way to dispose of Topsy, their increasingly violent elephant, Edison offered his assistance.
On the day of the execution, a crowd of spectators looked on as the elephant was hit with a 6,600 volt AC charge from a nearby power station through copper electrodes attached to her feet. Cyanide laced carrots provided added insurance that she would not survive the ordeal. Edison filmed the event and released the footage later that year. Yet, the publicity stunt ultimately failed to change popular perception and AC eventually became the standard.
Luna Park was destroyed in a fire known as "Topsy's Revenge" in 1944 and in 2003, a memorial to the elephant was put on display at the Coney Island Museum.