No Dumbo

How to Capture an Elephant: Excerpt from Michael Daly’s “Topsy”

The shocking story of how America’s most famous elephant was caught in 1875. An excerpt from Michael Daly’s new book, Topsy, about the life and horrific death of Topsy the show elephant.

In an Asian forest, circa 1875, the capture of the baby Topsy the elephant, destined to be electrocuted by Thomas Edison in Coney Island:

When the forest up ahead suddenly erupted with shouts and gunshots, the baby would have ducked between her mother’s legs. The clamor would have ceased as the matriarch led a retreat and the danger would have seemed to pass.

Tranquility would have appeared to return to the forest, but the elephants would not have been able to travel more than six miles in any direction without again encountering the shockingly sudden noise and fire. They likely kept trying, particularly at night, when there would have seemed a better chance of slipping past. Each time it would have been the same.

In the mornings, the elephants might have sensed movement through the forest. Their fanning ears might have detected sounds of chopping and then of trees falling until evening, when there would again have been a furtive rustling in the surrounding undergrowth.

The twin nostrils of their upraised trunks would have detected a scent foreign to the forest where they had harmoniously evolved over the ages, but they would not yet have understood the danger it signaled. The grown elephants might have leaned forward on a front foot to detect vibrations, what a scientist in a future time would term “listening with their feet.”

After maybe a fortnight would have come the morning when the shouts and gunshots and fire erupted simultaneously from every direction but one, forcing the elephants to flee the lone way open to them. The group would have been driven to a fifty-yard space between two opposing walls made with felled trees. The elephants may have sensed danger ahead and balked at continuing, but the terror was now almost right upon them and they would have proceeded on, a gray and thundering storm, the matriarch still in the lead, but the wisdom born of centuries suddenly for naught.

The terror would have kept coming and the group would have kept fleeing, trumpeting shrilly not as the baby would have first heard them at her birth, but in total fear as the walls converged on either side of them. The baby would have found herself in a fast-moving and quickly thickening forest of huge legs. Even in such panicked circumstances, the bigger elephants would have remained so sure-footed and aware of where they stepped that the baby and the other little ones would have been in no danger of being trampled.

After one hundred yards, the walls would have narrowed to a gap not much wider than the space for a grown elephant and a calf. The space beyond would have suddenly opened up and it might have momentarily seemed to the group that it had escaped.

But the group was trapped within the twelve-foot walls of a kheddah, more felled trees lashed together with cane into an enclosing stockade. Any elephant who sought to test her strength against the wall would have first come to a trench four feet wide and four feet deep. And on the far side of the wall would have been men who fired guns and waved torches and jabbed with spears.

Elephants seeking to turn back would have found the four-yard gap had been closed with a reinforced gate as soon as they passed through. The baby would have been sheltered under the mother as the adults formed a protective circle, facing outward. Most likely, they would have just been left there for several days without food or water. As the baby grew hungry, she would have discovered that captured mothers initially run dry of milk. Her plaintive cries and those of any other calves would likely have been joined by the adult elephants’ signal of apprehension and uncertainty, made by rapping the end of the trunk on the ground while exhaling sharply, a sound a nineteenth-century catcher compared to “a large sheet of tin rapidly doubled.”

When the captors deemed the time was right, the gate would have opened long enough to admit pairs of tame elephants called kookies. Each kookie would have had two men atop. One, a mahout, or tender, straddled the neck to guide the creature. The second, a roper, sat behind him.

The mahouts would have steered pairs of kookies so as to separate a grown elephant from the herd, squeezing in on either side. The two ropers would have slipped down, first slipping a rope hobble around the wild elephant’s rear legs, then looping a rope around her neck. The captors then would have used the ropes and the power of the kookies to drag a captive out of the stockade and into the forest, where she would be tied to a tree. The captives who struggled would have been liable to be beaten and stuck with spears. The unmanageable ones, particularly any adult males who happened to be with the herd at the moment of capture, were sometimes killed right then and there.

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When it came the mother’s turn to be straddled and hobbled, the captors would not have needed to bother with the baby. She would have come along wherever the mother was dragged. No rope was required to retain a baby after the mother was tethered to a tree.

Either in the forest or after the extended march to a market town, the baby and the mother would have been forcibly separated. The mother would have been kept in restraints, for the captors otherwise would have had to kill her as the baby was pulled away, vainly struggling and screaming, ever more desperate as the distance between them grew.

An excerpt from Michael Daly’s “Topsyjust published by Atlantic Monthly Press.