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Brooklyn journalist uncovers story of Topsy the elephant

Brooklyn-based journalist Michael Daly will discuss his new book “Topsy” at the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School on July 18. Photo by Bronagh Daly

Brooklyn BookBeat

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Brooklyn-based journalist Michael Daly has recently published “Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant, P. T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison" (Atlantic Monthly Press), in which he uncovers the truth surrounding the story of Topsy,  a baby elephant who was smuggled into the U.S. and fraudulently named the first American-born elephant.

Topsy was snatched from her home in the wild in 1877. Circus magnate Adam Forepaugh covertly transported her into the U.S., but his rival, P.T. Barnum, publicly accused Forepaugh of perpetrating a fraud. The elephant was ultimately electrocuted on Coney Island in 1903, and the urban myth about her fate has endured to haunt elephant-lovers.

In “Topsy,” Daly thoroughly investigates this story, illustrating in detail the great circus men who played a role in determining the elephant’s destiny. He unpacks the myth of Topsy’s birth, which was part of the War of the Elephants, during which Forepaugh and Barnum battled over whose elephants were superior. Daly brings to light the bizarre and intense competition, reveals the extent to which the circus was sensationalized during its heyday, and even explores the personalities of the elephants themselves.

Daly expertly leads his readers through this peculiar series of events, as well as the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo – where McKinley was assassinated -- and the development of Coney Island.

Complete with letters, photographs and newspaper accounts from the period, Daly enlivens a captivating popular history of this exceptional time. A poignant read, “Topsy” portrays the extraordinary world of the circus- the development of electricity, the feats of famous elephants, and the truth of poor Topsy’s tragic end.

Daly will appear at the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School on July 18 for a reading and signing. In celebration of the book’s release, Brooklyn Eagle spoke to the author. He tells us what prompted him to investigate Topsy’s history and speaks about the role Coney Island played in the story.

When you first started planning this book, were you more interested in this historical period or the particular story of Topsy?

Topsy. I had just written a biography of Mychal Judge, the FDNY chaplain who perished at the World Trade Center. He was a dear friend, as were several others who died that day, and I had a very difficult time writing the book. I was ready for something different and my editor suggested doing a murder case from earlier times.

I Googled New York executions and came across the clip of Topsy being electrocuted in 1903. I knew about her from time I had spent in Coney Island, but I was not sure it was a book until I came across a small New York Times clip from 1905 saying that two men had been fishing in the predawn darkness off Staten Island, when they heard a trumpeting and a large something began coming at them through the water. They rowed in a panic towards shore and the thing followed, coming up on the beach and revealing itself to be an elephant.

The mystery of where it had come from was solved when an elephant trainer arrived from Coney Island and identified the creature as Fanny, one of a group of performing elephants. The trainer said the elephants had been well-behaved until he took them to Coney Island. They had been particularly agitated when brought to a certain corner of an amusement park there. One of the owners of Luna Park made it all suddenly and poignantly understandable when he revealed that this was where Topsy’s head had been buried.

Anyway, that got me going on the book and I was further propelled into the project when I came to realize that Topsy was never the serial man-killer she was said to be and had in fact been wrongfully executed. In other words, Topsy was innocent.     

Did you have any prior interest in the circus or scientific inventions, or were you simply attracted by the huge personalities of people like Barnum and Edison?

I was hugely attracted by Barnum, a touch less so by Edison. But what interested me most were the elephants. I think part the fascination is that they are generally so gentle despite the brutality of their treatment. They are of a size to dispatch a tormentor at will, yet they remain far more likely to extend their trunk to caress than to hurt. To look at them towering over you without being at all threatening is to feel that perhaps nature is not all about tooth and the claw, that maybe it is not all just about survival of the fittest. It may be that I find this particularly interesting because I have spent so many years witnessing and chronicling the results of human violence. 

Did you uncover surprising similarities between the Barnum-Forepaugh and Edison-Westinghouse rivalries?

 I found numerous similarities, but none of them were all that surprising. It seemed pretty typical stuff of the human herd, though on a grander scale. One thing, Barnum did manage to bring a true sense of fun to the conflict, something otherwise missing in his time, as it is all the more so in ours.

Do you see any analogies between the "wars" of entertainment and technological advances of a century ago and those of today, such as reality shows and smartphones?

The dynamics are much the same, but nobody has the brass and brilliance of Barnum, though there was surely some of the great showman in Steve Jobs.  

Can you talk a bit about your examination of Coney Island and its role in “Topsy”?

I got my first real break in journalism with a piece I wrote about the Homicides street gang in Coney Island, and I learned something back then of its remarkable history. As I researched “Topsy” I found it interesting that the queen of early Coney Island, Lady Moody, was a matriarch very much like what is found in an elephant herd. And the Elephant Hotel seemed a mythic prelude to Topy’s arrival there and eventual demise. I am not sure if Topsy would ever have become a mythic figure or indeed if I would have ended up writing the book if she had been electrocuted in, say, Hoboken. And for me, the book is at its most poignant when Fanny flees Luna Park and charges across the beach and into the sea, swimming nearly five miles in the direction from whence she originally came, finally encountering the two men off Staten Island. Even in the “new” and “revived” Coney Island, a human who walks down a certain stretch of Surf Avenue is liable to feel the spirit of Topsy.

* * *

The July 18 event will begin at 7 p.m. The Brooklyn Heights Montessori School is located at 185 Court St. (entrance on Bergen St. off Court St.)

Michael Daly has been a newspaper journalist and columnist for many years, formerly with the New York Daily News and currently with Newsweek/The Daily Beast. In 2002, Daly was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. He is the author of “Under Ground” and “The Book of Mychal.”

Image courtesy of Grove Atlantic

July 16, 2013 - 10:00am


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