Topsy: The Startling Story Of The Crooked-Tail Elephant, P.T. Barnum, And The American Wizard, Thomas Edison

By Michael Daly

Atlantic Monthly Press | 2013 | 369 pages

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

As a young reporter at the New York Daily News in the 1980s, I heard of the brilliance of columnist Michael Daly, his award-winning articles, his brash attitude, and his sudden fall from grace concerning a May 8, 1981 column which he wrote of a bloody clash between British soldiers and youths in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The London Daily Mail called it “a pack of lies” and “a work of pure imagination.” It turns out that Daly wasn’t even there. The British army said the soldiers in the column existed and none of the patrols remembered seeing an American reporter. Daly was forced to resign to save the paper from further embarrassment.

Like current scandal-ridden politicos, Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer, aiming their sights at civic redemption, Daly has positioned himself for a second act as well. He has shaken himself off like a literary Lazarus, moved past the criticism of his former tabloid past and a lackluster stint at New York Magazine, to become a special correspondent with Newsweek and The Daily Beast. His third book, Topsy, has just been published this summer.

First, let me say, Daly has done a commendable job researching the America at the turn of the last century, going into the heyday of the circus as a cultural institution, the nature of the media hoaxes, the gullible public obsessed with cheap thrills. However, the author focuses his energy on big-time circus entrepreneur Adam Forepaugh’s prize elephant, Topsy, named after the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Circus hype sold the crowds on the pachyderm being the America’s first-born native, but in reality, it was smuggled as a baby from Asia around 1875 and eventually featured as a prize attraction in Coney Island.

Some of the most intriguing sections of the book involve the no-holds-barred rivalry of ruthless master showmen P.T. Barnum and Forepaugh, who use every media and marketing trick in their “War of the Elephants,” a highly-contested campaign to present America with a younger, stronger, and “sacred” animal.

Using letters, newspaper accounts, and internal circus memos, Daly recreates the white-hot competition between the titans as they tried to draw crowds into their tents and drive the other out of business.

Although the first elephant arrived in the United States in 1796, it is the confrontation between Barnum and Forepaugh that brought the large mammal to the forefront. Daly takes no prisoners in drawing a realistic portrait of these men: Barnum who wanted everything his way and Forepaugh who would do anything for publicity. He also duplicates the heady atmosphere of the circus, the oddities, the freakish acts, the sideshows, and the sinister parasites surrounding the bustling enterprise.

But the elephant takes center stage. Daly, like bestselling author Irving Wallace in his 1959 The Fabulous Showman, is fascinated by Barnum, the super-salesman who thought of the elephant as the crown jewel of his enterprise.

In Wallace’s novel, the author quotes Barnum about the elephant’s importance from a letter: “He can draw the attention of twenty millions of American citizens to Barnum’s Museum…I studied ways to arrest public attention; to startle, to make people talk and wonder.”

Americans loved elephants at that time and still do. When Forepaugh’s circus began to attract larger crowds, Barnum called him a fraud and said Topsy,“the small and inferior Asiatic elephant,” was born in Philadelphia. However, he shrewdly offered $100,000 for any baby born in America.

A superb writer able to concoct magic with every sentence with telling detail, Daly repeatedly captures the excitement of the public witnessing the arrival of the circus for the first time: “The show’s perpetual goal on the road was for the elephants and the caged animals to arrive at the next destination in time to parade through the middle of town. The baggage train would have arrived far enough in advance to set up the tents. The exhausted workmen would sprawl around the perimeter of the big top during the shows, keeping a half-open eye out for kids trying to sneak in under the canvas while the elephants and other animals performed along with the acrobats and clowns.” (pp. 90-91)

Elephants are unpredictable yet loyal creatures. But when they are treated cruelly, they strike out, sometimes fatally. Some say Topsy killed three people. Daly writes the much beloved pachyderm only killed once, and that was only after decades of abuse. She only killed the man after he jabbed her with a lit cigar. Other accounts say the man threw it in her mouth. For that incident, her owner condemns her to death.

Here, Daly showcases his second big rivalry of the book, Thomas A. Edison and George Westinghouse, two inventors, who want to “electrify the nation” in the War of the Currents. Edison has the edge on manipulating the press, boosting the merits of his direct current (DC) over Westinghouse’s alternating current (AC), while jockeying for the franchise of New York’s executions. Topsy would be the unwitting victim for 6,000 volts of electrical current at Coney Island in 1903. Edison would film the pitiful killing, which can now be seen on YouTube, and the electrocution would be carried out by Westinghouse’s mighty alternating current.

It’s a very sad farewell.

But for all of the book’s glorious reconstructions of Americana, it is Daly’s sweeping, well-crafted panorama of class and privilege, bait-and-switch marketing, animal abuse, greed, and public deception that scores mightily. As always, his sure-footed storytelling skill is a strong selling point, told with both force and energy. This is memorable, readable entertainment capable of tugging at your heartstrings.

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