Creatures and men, larger than life


Michael Daly weaves together the rivalries of circus showmen and inventors of the 19th century.

The circus and sideshow business of the 19th century was largely the domain of con men, scam artists, pitchmen and charlatans. Business was based on hyperbole, especially for P.T. Barnum, who titled his circus “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Most circuses even traveled with their own set of pickpockets, who were encouraged to rob the patrons during performances and kick back a percentage to the circus owner.

In theory, there is a lot to love in Michael Daly’s new book about the history of elephants and trainers, the big top, showmen and technological innovation in the second half of the 19th century. But Topsy attempts to be four books in one, with decidedly mixed results.

For decades, Barnum and his rival, Adam Forepaugh, fielded dueling circuses that crisscrossed the nation, complete with herds of trained elephants.

Life was brutal for the elephants, which were hunted in Asia and Africa, then stuffed into the holds of ships for perilous voyages across the globe. Upon arrival, they were subjected to beatings by inexperienced, unscrupulous and sometimes drunk trainers, and shackled in pens and railroad cars for long stretches.

By detailing how elephants were mistreated in the 19th century, Daly flirts with a deeper exploration of the relationship between humans and show animals, but then, disappointingly, shies away from such depths. He does sing the praises of Stewart Craven, who pioneered a more compassionate style of training.

All of these circus men were known for their lies and outrageous publicity stunts, which reached new heights during the “White Elephant War” of 1883. To increase ticket sales, Barnum went seeking a rare white elephant. When it arrived, Barnum’s elephant was not white, but gray “save for pink splotches,” possibly because of a skin condition.

By the 1880s, the advent of electricity introduced a new set of business rivals — Thomas Alva Edison and George Westinghouse, whose vicious “War of Currents” paralleled those of the battling circus men.

Almost without warning, Daly’s narrative moves from the circus to this new arena, chronicling how Edison played a role in the creation of the electric chair, which was adopted by the state of New York in 1889. One wonders why the subject of the book has abruptly shifted, until the narrative threads come together as several famously rogue elephants are put to death using the new technology of electricity.

Daly is following a trend, writing historical nonfiction intended for a mass audience, in the tradition of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, which tells the sensational tale of a serial killer loose at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

But Daly’s story is far less dramatic than Larson’s, and his prose less gripping; he sometimes gets lost in his research, cataloging the endless travels of the circus troupes through decades of boom and bust.

One simply wants this book to be a lot more fun. Instead, the book feels scattered and a bit tedious, despite a slew of rich anecdotes, significant historical events and the kind of cast of wildly colorful characters, both human and pachyderm, that most authors can only dream of.

Nancy Kates reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.

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