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

Michael Daly, Author
Michael Daly. Atlantic Monthly, $25 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8021-1904-9
Paperback - 369 pages - 978-0-8021-4605-2
Compact Disc - 978-1-4821-0123-2
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In this bizarre and remarkable dual history, journalist Daly (The Book of Mychal) weaves together the stories of two turn-of-the-century rivalries. Circus entrepreneurs P.T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh wrangle over who will be the biggest in the big-top business by flaunting their best pachyderms, while Thomas Edison, a proponent of direct-current (DC) electricity, fights to convince New York state to conduct its electrocutions via alternating current (AC) in an attempt to smear his rival, AC advocate George Westinghouse. Set against the backdrop of a New York City busily building itself up to meet the demands of a new, electrified era—an evolution that included the construction of the famous Luna Park in Brooklyn and the renovation of Madison Square Garden—these two rivalries finally intersect in a horrifying and gruesome public execution on Coney Island in 1903. Having claimed three men’s lives over the course of her career, Forepaugh’s prized elephant, Topsy, was executed by poisoning, hanging, and electrocution (via AC current)—all at the same time. Edison proudly filmed it—“the first actual snuff film”—and used it as propaganda against Westinghouse. Daly’s fascinating, nuanced portraits of the seedy sides of the circus’s heyday and the dawn of the electric age makes for incredibly entertaining reading. Agent: Philippa Brophy, Sterling Lord Literistic. (July)
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