We’ve talked once before on this blog about nineteenth-century cruelty to elephants in my post about Jumbo, the Civil Disobedience Elephant, but that story don’t got NOTHIN’ on the two I’m about to tell you.
Triggers for issues of animal cruelty
We’ll start with (and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, given the story I’m about to recount) the less horrific of the two:
“In the early 1900s, Thomas Edison was locked in a historic ‘war of currents’ with George Westinghouse. Edison wanted the nation to use direct current; Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla wanted alternating current.
“That sounds like a pretty tame dispute, but Edison went to some horrific lengths to sway public opinion. To prove that AC was dangerous, he began electrocuting stray cats and dogs. He said they were being ‘Westinghoused.’ He also secretly funded the first electric chair, which ran on AC but was underpowered — its first use resulted in ‘an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging,’ in the words of one witness.
“Anyway, around this time a Coney Island elephant named Topsy was condemned to death for killing three men in three years. Hanging was out, thanks to the ASPCA, so Edison suggested they send 6,600 volts of AC through her. So on Jan. 4, 1903, 1,500 people gathered at the amusement park and watched as Topsy ate carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide and was Westinghoused. She died quickly, reportedly, but Edison recorded the whole thing on film, and later played Electrocuting an Elephant to audiences around the country.
“He lost the fight for DC power, though. There’s some justice.”
Are you ready for an even worse story?
“In 1826, the owners of a London menagerie decided to kill Chunee, their 5-ton Indian elephant. The animal had been docile for years — Lord Byron said ‘I wish he was my butler’ — but he grew violent toward the end of his life, perhaps aggravated by pain from a rotten tusk. When, on a rampage, he killed one of his keepers, it was decided he was too dangerous to keep.
“Unfortunately, Chunee wouldn’t eat poison. So a group of musketeers were summoned to his cage, a trusted keeper ordered him to kneel, and the soldiers began to fire volleys into his chest and legs. This continued for more than an hour, during which one witness reported that the sound of the elephant’s ‘agony had been much more alarming than that made by the soldier’s guns.’ Even with 152 musketballs in him, the elephant continued to live, kneeling in a cage full of blood, so they had to dispatch him, finally, with a sword.
“News of the slaughter inspired numerous poems and even a successful play, but owner Edward Cross sought a profit even in the animal’s death. He charged a shilling to see the body dissected; he sold the hide (which took nine butchers 12 hours to remove); and he put Chunee’s skeleton on display in his old cage — with the bullet holes in his skull clearly visible.”