You may know Thomas Edison invented many things, like the lightbulb, sound recording, and the projecting kinetoscope, one of the earliest demonstrations of what we now call movies.
But did you know that Edison is also responsible for the first snuff film?
The stuff of urban legends, a snuff film is a genre of movie featuring a real murder that actually takes taking place in front of a rolling camera.
Edison Studios, based The Bronx, was scrambling to produce new content to keep the coins rolling into the Edison kinetoscope, a novel contraption featured at arcades around America at the turn of the century.
The viewing public would be amused for only so long with features like Fred Ott’s Sneeze, which depicts in detail Fred Ott’s sneeze, and What Happened on Twenty-third Street in New York City, where a rush of wind from a subway vent below blows a passing woman’s dress up above her knees revealing her knickers.
But these sequences, Edison knew, were too contrived.
The audience thirsted for ever unique “actualities”, short films that captured dramatic moments in a real world.
Then fate intervened.
The owners of Luna Park, a new amusement park in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, could no longer control Topsy, an ill-tempered elephant recently purchased from a local circus.
Topsy’s reputation had been infamous.
She had once killed a man who, belligerent and drunk, burnt her trunk with his smoldering cigar.
Mishandling by her trainer Whitey Alt further exasperated Topsy’s unpredictable behavior.
Luna Park’s owners, Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy, carnies through and through, needed to get rid of Topsy while at the same time cut their losses.
So, they created an event.
Topsy the elephant would be publicly hanged, and spectators could view the spectacle for an admission fee.
After an outcry from the ASPCA, Luna Park scaled back the event.
Only the press and special guests would be invited to witness the execution.
Luna Park also agreed to use more “humane” methods of execution like poison or electricity.
What happened off screen when the camera isn’t running is perhaps as interesting as what ended up in the final cut.
Written record of the event shows Electrocuting an Elephant is in fact composed of two cuts.
As it commences, Topsy is reluctantly guided towards the execution area, an island in the middle of a lagoon.
At this point the camera stops for an interval almost two hours during which Topsy, perhaps aware of her fate, refuses to cross the bridge to the island leading to certain death.
Hastily, Luna Park employees and Edison electrical engineers reconstruct the execution apparatus around the place where Topsy refused to budge.
As the handlers feed her cyanide-laced carrots and strap the elephant’s feet to copper cuffs, the camera again begins to roll as Topsy attempts to shake off the wiring moments before the switch is pulled.
6,600-Volts of pure Edison electricity course through Topsy’s body, smoking her to a crisp as a noose is tightened around her neck.
Of course, elephants are not people.
But they are exceptional in their intelligence, self-awareness, and ability to express empathy, traits all too familiarly human.
Furthermore, Topsy is not merely killed in a moment of passion, but murdered in the middle of Coney Island for exploitation and amusement.
Capitalizing on the newsworthiness of the happening, Edison released the film no less than two weeks later.
The original promotional material read like this:
ELECTROCUTING AN ELEPHANT
Topsy, the famous “Baby” elephant, was electrocuted at Coney Island on January 4, 1903. We secured an excellent picture of the execution. The scene opens with keeper leading Topsy to the place of execution. After copper plates or electrodes were fastened to her feet, 6,600 volts of electricity were turned on. The elephant is seen to become rigid, throwing her trunk in the air, and then is completely enveloped in smoke from the burning electrodes. The current is cut off and she falls forward to the ground dead.
Electrocuting an Elephant turned out to be not as popular as the Edison Film Company had anticipated, and they would soon turn to dramas and adaptations to build out their catalog.