Did Thomas Edison Really Electrocute An Elephant To Death?

Though he had nearly 1,100 patents to his name, Thomas Edison is most often remembered as a bringer of light. So it's only appropriate that some detractors have practically depicted him as Lucifer with a light bulb filament for a pitchfork. True New Jersey summarized this dimmer view of the inventor, writing that that residents of Edison, New Jersey, a township that displays his creations and likeness, "might be distressed to hear that its namesake — an all-around knave and idiot — stole credit for inventions, smeared his competitors and killed his assistant in a stunning act of scientific ineptitude that typified his fraudulent career."

Wired writes that Edison electrocuted stray cats and dogs along with occasional horses and cattle to undercut the alternating current technology invented by Nikola Tesla, which was in direct competition with Edison's direct-current system. A site called The Oatmeal accused him of kidnapping household pets and shocking them to death. In 1903, this sinister Wizard of Menlo Park supposedly pulled off his largest act of animal cruelty: using alternating current to kill an elephant named Topsy just so he could stay on top. But was Edison really that dastardly?

Big top circuits

Some historians have dismissed the charges leveled against Edison as unfair or unfounded in many cases. For instance, Tesla biographer Bernard Carlson told True New Jersey that Edison was a legitimate inventor and not a talentless idea thief, noting that he earned his "Wizard of Menlo Park" moniker by inventing the phonograph. Moreover, Edison invented the first talking doll along with the first device that played recorded sounds. Biographer Paul Israel called it "nonsense" to suggest that Edison killed an assistant through incompetence, noting that the employee in question was Clarence Dally, the primary X-ray experimenter at Edison's lab and that other people tinkering with that technology also suffered ugly consequences.

But what about the pet and elephant electrocutions? Carlson said there was "no proof" that Edison snatched pets to kill them. However, Israel claimed members of Edison's team electrocuted dogs — possibly without his knowledge — and that household pets "conceivably" perished in the process. As for Topsy the elephant? There's certainly evidence that Edison's people were present to record an elephant getting electrocuted, and national newspapers covered the event. However, Rutgers University's Myth Buster publication says Edison had zero direct involvement with the actual execution.

Officials and Luna Park owned Topsy and planned to execute the elephant months before the electrocution took place. They originally intended to hang the pachyderm, but the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals intervened, calling the method "unnecessarily cruel." With the SPCA's blessing, the owners settled on a fatal trifecta: they would poison, strangle, and electrocute the elephant. In fact, the SPCA supplied at least some of the dogs that Edison electrocuted, viewing it as a "humane" way to euthanize the animals.