Feature

Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant, P. T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison by Michael Daly

Michael Daly’s heartrending story about an elephant named Topsy is also a fascinating portrait of the Gilded Age—dark underbelly and all.

(Grove/Atlantic, $27)

You might just be inspired to swear off circuses forever, said William Kist in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Michael Daly’s heartrending true story about an elephant that paid the ultimate price to feed the Gilded Age’s appetite for reality entertainment is, with the exception of a few activists, “populated completely by villains.” Born in an Asian jungle in the 1870s, Topsy endured mistreatment by captors, trainers, and owners. And when she killed a man who allegedly had put out a cigar on her trunk, Thomas Edison himself hastened her execution by turning it into a publicity stunt. But Daly, a longtime news columnist, has done more than besmirch the circus trade. He’s created a moving tribute to all victims of forces bigger than themselves.

The events that led to Topsy’s filmed death become “simultaneously fascinating and horrifying,” said Harper Barnes in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Daly begins the book with a vivid, though speculative, dramatization of what Topsy’s capture might have looked like. But the story “really surges to life” when Topsy reaches an America where rivals P.T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh soon are vying to stage the most elaborate elephant spectacles imaginable. Forepaugh’s later decision to have Topsy put down inspired Edison to suggest electrocuting her. Edison’s angle? He was trying to become America’s king of electrical distribution, and he hoped to discredit his rival George Westinghouse by showing how fatally dangerous Westinghouse’s alternating current could be.

Daly’s narrative “leads readers on mesmerizing detours,” said Sam Roberts in The New York Times. Whenever there’s a pause in either “the War of the Elephants” or “the War of the Currents,” we encounter another fascinating tidbit about the pickpocket trade or the origin of pink lemonade. Even Topsy’s execution “does not dampen the book’s exuberance.” Daly’s portrait of the Gilded Age—dark underbelly and all—adds up to a delightful,
“summery” read.

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