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Book review

‘Topsy’ by Michael Daly

When Thomas Edison’s film crew rolled its cameras on the triple-barreled execution of a circus elephant that combined cyanide poisoning, strangling, and 6,600 volts of electricity, the event, speculates journalist Michael Daly, represented “the culmination of an intensively personal and private drama” for the renowned inventor.

That may or not have been the case, but it most certainly marked the nadir of a scurrilous history of circus-animal abuse in America. In the decades preceding Topsy’s ghastly Coney Island extermination in January 1903, it was not uncommon for recalcitrant performing elephants to be put down as final punishment in a lifetime of punishments: being trapped and transported thousands of miles from home, tethered for years on end, and subjected to appalling methods of coercion that included having bull hooks (metal crooks with spikes) jabbed in their flesh or hot pokers stuffed up their trunks.

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