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Brooklyn-based journalist uncovers story of rare elephant Topsy

Brooklyn-based journalist Michael Daly will discuss his new book “Topsy” at Cobble Hill’s BookCourt on July 18. Photo by Bronagh Daly

Brooklyn BookBeat

From Grove Atlantic

In 1877, Topsy, a baby elephant stolen from her home in the wild, was smuggled into America in secret by circus magnate Adam Forepaugh and dishonestly billed as the first American-born elephant. Topsy might have easily vanished from popular culture after Forepaugh’s bitter rival, P. T. Barnum, publicly named her as a fraud, had it not been for 6,600 volts of alternating current and the strange forces that converged to bring Topsy to her untimely end by electrocution on Coney Island in 1903, securing her place as the figure of a gruesome urban myth whose very mention brings shudders from all those who love elephants.

In “Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant, P. T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison” (Atlantic Monthly Press), journalist Michael Daly unravels the truth from the legend in the first book to examine this astounding story. He paints vivid portraits of the great circus men of the day: P. T. Barnum, known as a supreme “humbugger,” and the constantly conniving Adam Forepaugh, or 4-Paw. In celebration of the book’s release, Daly will appear at BookCourt in Cobble Hill on July 18 for a reading and signing.

The myth of Topsy’s birth was part of the War of the Elephants, an epic battle over whose elephants were more spectacular, which resulted in outlandishly false claims and many elaborate publicity hoaxes, carried out by both men. Daly captures this eccentric rivalry and the extraordinary world of the circus during its great heyday: the odd acts and performers; the enraptured, thrill-seeking crowds; and the unique personalities of the elephants themselves.

The War of the Currents—which pitted Thomas Edison against George Westinghouse— would also play a major role in the life of Topsy.  Edison maneuvered to have the first electric chair powered by his rival’s alternating current, hoping that the executions would demonstrate the comparative danger of AC, and that electrocution would come to be known as being “westinghoused.”

Daly expertly guides the reader through this peculiar and enduring story, as well as the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and the development of Coney Island.

With vivid detail including fascinating letters and newspapers accounts from the period, Daly weaves a captivating popular history of this exceptional time. A touching and entertaining read, “Topsy” brings to light the remarkable world of the circus, the development of electricity, the feats of famous elephants, and the truth of poor Topsy’s tragic end.

The July 18 event will begin at 7 p.m. BookCourt is located at 163 Court St. in Cobble Hill.

Michael Daly has been a newspaper journalist and columnist for many years, formerly with the New York Daily News and currently with Newsweek/The Daily Beast. In 2002, Daly was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. He is the author of “Under Ground” and “The Book of Mychal.”

Image courtesy of Grove Atlantic

June 28, 2013 - 8:30am


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