Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)
This short actuality from Edison is a fairly unpleasant film, which will upset some viewers. Fair warning: it does depict the actual death of an animal. It also has been frequently misinterpreted by modern viewers, and therefore is an important part of our study of the history of movies.
We see an elephant being led from an enclosure in the middle of what seems to be a construction site. Its trunk is bound in a complex harness that almost looks like a bondage garment. The camera pans to follow the elephant and we can see that there are crowds of spectators in the background. After a cut, we see the elephant is strapped in place, apparently roughly in the same place as it was before the edit. Suddenly the elephant stiffens, and you can see a puff of smoke from below its feet. After a few moments, it falls slowly over to the left. It twitches a few times on the ground before the end of the movie.
The story of Topsy the elephant is a tragic one, speaking to why laws regarding elephants in captivity have become increasingly restrictive in recent years. Topsy was a circus elephant who got a reputation for being “bad” after she killed a drunken spectator who deliberately burned her trunk with a lit cigar (classic movie fans will remember “Mighty Joe Young” when reading this story). She apparently became increasingly difficult to handle after this, and was sold by Forpaugh Circus to Luna Park, which was still under construction. There she encountered the abusive animal handler William “Whitey” Alt, who did nothing to improve her temperament. Finally, the owners decided that she would need to be put down, as she was no longer safe to display in a public environment. The original plan was to hang her, but the ASPCA objected, and the idea of electrocution (combined with poison and strangulation) was suggested as more “humane.” This movie depicts that event.
Now, you can find various places on the Internet that blame Thomas Edison for the death of this elephant. These claims are inaccurate, and result from poor historical study. Having heard that Edison waged a war against alternating current that inflated its dangers and suggested that people would be electrocuted by it, they have concluded that this movie was part of that campaign. It is not. The “war of the currents” was over for more than ten years by the time this was produced, and alternating current was already the standard at Edison’s remaining plants at the time. Because of the early date of the War of the Currents, no movies were produced to support it. The movie “Pan-American Exposition at Night” depicts a display of alternating current lights one year before this movie was made. In short, this movie represents a tragic execution of an animal in no way at fault for its inability to get along with human beings after they had systematically mistreated her, and it exploits the pain of that animal for purposes of spectacle, but Thomas Edison did not use it to make an argument regarding alternating current.
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Camera: Jacob Blair Smith
Starring: Topsy the elephant
Run Time: 10 Min
You can watch it for free: here (viewer discretion advised).