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.
The title and packaging of Daly’s combative true-life saga “Topsy,” whose frolicsome period cover art pictures a smiling elephant bursting through a big center ring flanked by diminutive photos of P.T. Barnum and Edison, is misleading on a couple of fronts. “Topsy” is only tangentially about an unruly pachyderm, and quite centrally a tale of American enterprising spirit gone amok. The subtitle, moreover, promises a “startling story,” an understatement that skirts false advertising. Descriptives on the order of outrageous, depressing, and profoundly upsetting would be more to the point.
The art of understatement would seem anomalous to “Topsy’s’’ quartet of protagonists, circus entrepreneurs Barnum and Adam Forepaugh and electricity pioneers Edison and George Westinghouse, whose gifts for invention and innovation were often upstaged by hyperbole and the defamatory lie. In the course of two overlapping narratives that converge in the cruel execution of an elephant, the men square off in professional battles for dominance whose stop-at-nothing stratagems suggest the cutthroat business of politics, American-style.
In circus annals, Forepaugh usually takes a back seat to Barnum, who launched his show-business career exhibiting an elderly black slave he reinvented as the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington (“The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World”). Barnum didn’t seem to mind terribly when an autopsy exposed the fraud, since he sold 1,500 tickets to view the procedure at 50 cents a pop.
Making hay out of grand deceit was second nature to Forepaugh, himself a scam artist par excellence who secured his initial capital buying up debilitated horses and selling them as freshly-minted to the Union army. When the circus Forepaugh built from his profits edged Barnum’s in popularity, he buttressed his fortune skimming the take from an elaborately-rigged pickpocketing scheme in which circus employees preyed upon paying customers.
The slanders and one-upmanship indulged by the two circus tycoons would be mirrored by Edison and Westinghouse in the competitive arena of electric power. When a study in using electricity for criminal executions favored Westinghouse’s system of alternating current over Edison’s direct current, Edison’s publicists endeavored to brand his rival as the Dr. Guillotin of the electric chair; at the same time, a dissimulating Edison made his lab available for macabre research on electricity as a death tool, using stray dogs as subjects.
The horror of those experiments, in which dozens of dogs (followed by two calves and a horse) were subjected to torturous fatal shocks, are relayed through actual journal entries whose deadpan lab-speak could move even the most canine-phobic of readers to gift their life savings to PETA.
For all its riveting anecdotes and eccentric period minutiae, the only section of “Topsy” that matches those journal outtakes for sheer emotional wallop is the opening chapter, in which Daly imagines with hauntingly sinuous prose how the titular elephant was captured in infancy and shipped to America. “She traveled in her solitude either between decks or deep in the hold, a dark, dank dungeon that rose and fell, leaving the baby without even the security of footing . . . . She would have been calling out to the mother from whom she had been fully weaned nearly six years too early, the mother whom she would never see again.”
Manipulative? Undeniably. But the manipulations are given heft by the author’s quiet outrage, which endows an off-the-radar circus story with the fatalistic gravitas of Aeschylus.Jan Stuart reviews fiction and is author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.