Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press


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

by Michael Daly

“Michael Daly vividly revives a rollicking pachydermal tale that riveted New Yorkers a century ago.” —New York Times

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 384
  • Publication Date June 10, 2014
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4605-2
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 368
  • Publication Date July 02, 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-1904-9
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $27.00

About The Book

In 1903, an elephant named Topsy was electrocuted on Coney Island, and ever since, this bizarre execution has reverberated through popular culture with the whiff of urban legend. But it really happened, and many historical forces conspired to bring Topsy, Thomas Edison, and those 6,600 volts of alternating current together. In Topsy, Michael Daly weaves them together into a fascinating popular history.

The first elephant arrived in America in 1796, but it wasn’t until after the Civil War that the circus entered its golden age, thanks especially to P. T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh (or 4-Paw). With fantastic detail, Daly brings this world to life: caravans, crooks, and side-shows. And he captures the life of the animals, both the cruelties they suffered and, when treated with kindness, their remarkable feats. Rich in period Americana, and full of larger-than-life characters—both human and elephant—Topsy is a touching, entertaining read.


“Step right up, folks, and read all about it! The amazing tale of elephants, electricity, Edison and Barnum, stunts, fights and ghastly events. Topsy is a 19th century reality show that boggles the mind as the pages fly by with events that have you laughing out loud one moment and gasping in disbelief the next.” —Tom Brokaw

“[Daly] invoke[s] these creatures . . . with grace and compassion.” —New York Times Book Review

“This book should be read by anyone who’s ever been to the circus. I read it and could not bring myself to put it down. Nor could I bring myself to look at the moment—preserved by Edison’s footage and now on YouTube—that this book illuminates so clearly. The story left me a little breathless, and I will never see an elephant in captivity again and not think about Topsy and the cruelty of which we humans are capable. I’ve always respected Michael Daly as a great New York writer. But here, he reaches out to the world beyond New York and goes deep. The results are extraordinary. He humanizes and speaks for those animals who cannot speak. He touches the hearts of those of us who are not animal activists. I’m not so proud to be a member of the human race today, but I am proud to know someone who should be.” —James McBride, author of The Color of Water

“[A] poignant, grim account of dueling impresarios and the American appetite for curiosities centered on one elephant’s life and death. . . . Topsy is a fascinating but disturbing story, a skillfully told and admirably researched reminder of a time not as long ago as we’d like to think.” —Wall Street Journal

“Bizarre and remarkable . . . 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.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Fascinating.” —AudioFile

“A fascinating and moving piece of American history and a meditation on the cost of entertainment and human progress.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Michael Daly vividly revives a rollicking pachydermal tale that riveted New Yorkers a century ago and still survives in a gruesome YouTube video. Daly . . . provides perceptive insights into circus and sideshow elephants and their huckster handlers . . . [and] leads readers on mesmerizing detours that reveal everything from the origins of pink lemonade to a brazen pickpocket’s trick. . . . Even [the] dark episode does not dampen the book’s exuberance. . . . A summery escape.” —Sam Roberts, The New York Times

“[A] tale of American enterprising spirit gone amok. . . . The author’s quiet outrage . . . endows an off-the-radar circus story with the fatalistic gravitas of Aeschylus.” —Jan Stuart, Boston Globe

“Heartbreaking.” —William Kist, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“A gripping popular history . . . Vivid . . . simultaneously fascinating and horrifying.” —Harper Barnes, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“A tragic tale of a circus elephant who fell victim to human competition and avarice. . . . Daly’s research is fleshed out in compelling prose that effectively draws out the macabre absurdity of a time when nothing seemed strange about an elephant being ‘sentenced to death.’” —Nicholas Mancusi, The Daily Beast

“However tragic, Topsy is also a tale of determination, invention, and hope. Readers will come away with an understanding of aspects of American history that include un-sugarcoated descriptions of animal abuse, glories of the circus, and the emergence of electricity.” —Baltimore City Paper

“Daly’s anecdotes will have readers laughing at the bad luck of the sometimes honest circus goers. . . . [and he] skillfully recreates several examples of animal brutality, the importance of the circus as one of the few affordable forms of entertainment, and the immoral actions of the leading characters.” —Karl Helicher, ForeWord

“After seeing Thomas Edison’s 1903 film Electrocuting an Elephant, author Michael Daly had to know more. The result is Topsy, a sad and fascinating story of a circus elephant at the turn of the last century, when America was flexing the new power of electricity. . . . While the tragic conclusion is known from the outset, the journey in Topsy offers continuous surprise.” —Maureen McCarthy, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

“In Topsy, Daly thoroughly investigates this story, illustrating in detail the great circus men who played a role in determining the elephant’s destiny. He unpacks the myth of Topsy’s birth, which was part of the War of the Elephants, during which Forepaugh and Barnum battled over whose elephants were superior. Daly brings to light the bizarre and intense competition, reveals the extent to which the circus was sensationalized during its heyday, and even explores the personalities of the elephants themselves. Daly expertly leads his readers through this peculiar series of events, as well as the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo—where McKinley was assassinated—and the development of Coney Island. Complete with letters, photographs and newspaper accounts from the period, Daly enlivens a captivating popular history of this exceptional time. A poignant read, Topsy portrays the extraordinary world of the circus—the development of electricity, the feats of famous elephants, and the truth of poor Topsy’s tragic end.” —Samantha Samel, Brooklyn Daily Eagle


An Amazon Best Book of the Month


Barnum was still Barnum and he continued to search for a new sensation in his perpetual effort to top the last one, his primary rival in fact being not Forepaugh, but Barnum. The question was what could be bigger show-wise than the elephant Jumbo? Barnum had to seek a measure other than physical size. Otherwise, he would be undercutting an attraction that by one estimate was drawing in more than $300,000 a year. He instead ventured into a realm he knew well from his museum days. The rare and exotic were, if anything, gaining more of a premium with the advent of mass production. And Barnum furthered the appeal with the assistance of a new press agent, Robert “Tody” Hamilton, who was “never known to tell a lie when the truth would do as well.” Hamilton also made a point of never actually seeing the show he promoted.

“He would not allow his conception of it to be distorted by contact with the details,” The New York Times noted.

With a press agent thus unfettered by fact, Barnum perpetuated a year-long saga in the newspapers.

The epic began in June of 1883, with a declaration from Barnum of a singular goal before he left this mortal life and passed on into eternity.

“Let thy servant depart in peace,” the showman said, “but before I go—and I hope to remain a long time yet—I want a white elephant.”