Westminster circus in September 1879 was, simply put, electrifying

There can be no doubt that at this time in 1879, folks in Carroll County were still talking about the circus that came to town that year on Sept. 3.

The circus was billed as "W.W. Cole's Famous New York and New Orleans Circus, Museum, Menagerie & Congress of Living Wonders," according to research for the Historical Society of Carroll County by Jay Graybeal.

Large advertisements appeared in the local paper for the circus: "Admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children," writes Graybeal.

Graybeal's research indicates the ad proclaimed that the event would be the first exhibition of the electric light in the city, noting that, "THE TENTS WILL BE ILLUMINATED with this new and greatest invention of the age."

Animals in the circus included "living Alaska Oceanic Lions." I'm guessing that was considered a better draw than "dead" Oceanic Lions. I'm just saying.

Also in the act were leopards, lions, camels, monkeys and a herd of adult and baby elephants.

"Mr. Cole went on to note that his circus was suitable for a family to attend," wrote Graybeal, noting that the ads stated, " 'This grand and classic entertainment is wholly exempt from the inelegances and coarseness too frequently permitted in most tent exhibitions.' "

Maybe, but about a week after the show, the local paper was less than kind in its review.

"Cole's circus exhibited here on Wednesday, the audience at both entertainments being large. The street parade was fine, as was the circus and menagerie.

However, "The peanut, candy and lemonade vendors should be abolished, and the clowns should be suppressed. The concert after the circus was a fraud."

Thank goodness the elephants behaved themselves. The 1879 account mixing the circus, elephants and electricity reminds me of another curious, true story.

In 1902, there was an elephant named "Topsy" at a park on Coney Island that was determined to be vicious and a dangerous. The elephant had been abused for years and had subsequently become violent.

Topsy was slated to be euthanized. Attempts to poison it failed. There were discussions of attempting to hang the animal, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals protested.

So it was decided to electrocute it. I'm not making this up.

It was none other than Thomas Edison who came up with the idea of electrocution. In the early years of electricity, a debate raged between the Edisonites and Westinghouse as to whether direct current or alternating current was the best way to distribute electricity.

Mr. Edison supported direct current because he felt that alternating current was dangerous. In the end, Topsy was killed by electrocution and Mr. Edison filmed the entire gruesome event on Jan. 4, 1903.

He then went about the country showing the film of the execution in a failed campaign to discredit alternating current.

If the circus comes to town this fall, please behave. These days, there are electric outlets all over town.

Kevin Dayhoff is always on his best behavior, and may be reached at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad