Electrocuting Elephants and Other Times History Took a Turn for the Bizarre

Topsy the elephant, being electrocuted to death in 1903 as a publicity stunt to scare the public off of alternating current, and promote Edison’s preferred direct current. Wikimedia

39. Electrocuting Elephants and Creating the Electric Chair For Publicity

Compared to alternating current, direct current is crappy because it is weaker, and can only be transported short distances. However, Edison had already invested millions in DC, and he was not about to let the upstart AC flush that down the drain if he could help it. So when a dentist named Alfred Southwick sought his help to develop a humane method of execution by electrocution, Edison decided to turn AC’s strength into a liability, by highlighting its ability to kill.

He talked Southwick into using AC in what became the electric chair. Also, to cement in the public’s mind the link between AC’s risks and its promoter, George Westinghouse, Edison came up with a catchy name for the new method of execution: “Westinghousing”. Edison then went on a whirlwind public tour to demonstrate AC’s deadliness, and used AC to publicly electrocute dozens of dogs, cows, horses, and a circus elephant named Topsy.