In researching my first Coney Island webinar, about Coney up through the 1920s (tickets here), I've delved into the story of Topsy, the elephant that was unfortunately put to death in public in early 1903.
As we now know, elephants are soulful animals, and it's wrong to force them to perform in circuses, especially given the cruel techniques used to "train" them. But they didn't know that at the turn of the 20th century.
Articles in the local press, like the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, referred to Topsy as a "Bad Elephant" or an "Angry Elephant." The latter was surely true, though the former less so: Topsy was angry for a good reason: he was regularly maltreated by his handlers, so much so that he killed a man.
But the Dec. 13, 1902 Eagle article I've posted at right serves as an astonishing form of media criticism, and is--especially compared to other coverage--much more sympathetic. "Poor Tops," we're told, has caused the police "so much trouble of late, probably because of the alleged cruel treatment" by his attendant.
The Eagle describes how a “press agent has been busily engaged" with tales employees narrowly escaping the elephant's purported wrath. "“With the assistance of a few sensational stories that have been printed," the article notes, " the amusement managers now in possession of the elephant have secured considerable advertising and are, as a result, happy men.”
This is pretty sophisticated analysis of the way media stories often emerge, shaped by public relations people--"press agents," back then. And, yes, the next step, Topsy's ugly execution, was very much a media event, too.
Touring Brooklyn Blog
Observations and ephemera related to my tours and Brooklyn. Comments and questions are welcome--and moderated.