20. Coney Island’s Memorial For Topsy the Elephant

Photo courtesy Coney Island History Project Collection

Another Coney Island elephant didn’t have a happy ending (this time, she was a real one). Topsy was a female Asian elephant sold to Paul Boyton in 1902 after killing a spectator at the Forepaugh Circus. She was the used for shows at Sea-Lion Park and Luna Park. Just a year later, her handlers decided it would be a good idea to electrocute, poison and strangle her to death in front of select crowds and the press, likely to gain publicity for the newly opened Luna Park. Thomas Edison‘s company would film it and present it through a kinetoscope. He called the film, Electrocuting an Elephant (which still exists) and is currently viewable at the Brooklyn Museum exhibit, Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland.

The tragic story was forgotten for about 70 years after, until Topsy was commemorated in the 1999 Coney Island Mermaid Parade in the form of a float. In addition, artist Lee Deigaard created a memorial for her a few years after the parade: a sculpture incorporating a coin-operated, hand-cranked mutoscope that let’s viewers see images of Topsy’s execution while standing on copper plates (like Topsy did), surrounded by chains and cables to imply her confinement. Plans for a permanent memorial on the boardwalk have faltered.

In the past, the float was displayed at the Coney Island USA Museum, but it is no longer on display.