Leon Czolgosz and Topsy

Leon Czolgosz was born in 1873 and sentenced to death in 1901 for the assassination of President William McKinley. His trial was swift. He plead guilty and put up no defense. On the 29th of October, the date Czologosz was slated to be executed, seven weeks after the assassination itself, Edwin Porter showed up at the Auburn Correctional Facility with a camera crew from the Edison Studio. Porter had already made a number of films about the assassination and trial, and he was hoping to finalize the project with a film documenting Czologosz’s execution. But Porter and his crew were turned away by security, and so he decided instead to shoot two panning shots of the prison grounds from outside the facility.

In the following days, Porter oversaw the production of two more shots; reenactments made in the Edison Studio of Czologosz’s execution, based on eye-witness accounts published in the newspaper. The first shot shows an actor playing Czolgosz being taken out of his cell by four guards. A seam in the brick-patterned wallpaper is visible. The next shot shows the same stage from the same angle with the same lighting, only with different wallpaper and the addition of a prop electric chair. The actor playing Czolgosz is strapped to it, his body flinches as a current of electricity is sent through it three times, and two doctors confirm his death. The film, titled Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison, was released on the 9th of November, just ten days after the execution took place.

Joyce E. Jesionowski tells me about the significance of the panoramic shots in this film. Until then, pans were only ever used in non-fictional nature films to show expansive views of landscapes. Porter’s film combined the pan, which established a real location, with a staged recreation of Czolgosz’s execution inside a studio, and thereby merged what had thus far been two distinct techniques into one film. A bit of documentation, a bit of recreation. The real and the imagined. I don’t know what it would be like for a style of shot to not just signify an aesthetic decision, but to demarcate a genre itself, and even more perplexing is the thought of what it would be like to experience these forms crossing over one another and intermingling for the first time ever, before they dissolved into a pastiche.




An elephant was born in 1875, two years after Leon Czolgosz, and was sentenced to death in 1903, two years after he was. She was named Topsy after a slave girl in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Topsy was smuggled as an infant from Southeast Asia into the States and forced to perform as a circus animal in Coney Island. She endured horrible abuse at the hands of sadistic drinkers. In 1902, a drunk wandered into the tent where she and a group of other elephants were tied up and tormented her, throwing sand in her eyes and burning the tip of her trunk with a cigar. In a fury of pain, she threw him to the ground and trampled him. She was then sold to another zoo, the Luna Park, and her trainer, also a drunk, followed her there. One day in a fit of anger he stabbed her with a pitchfork and then, after being confronted by a police officer, he let her run loose through the streets. A few months later the trainer rode her to the Coney Island Police Station, where she tried to ram through the doors and scared all the officers, who fled to the holding cells for safety.

After this incident her trainer was fired and the Luna Park decided to get rid of her, but because of the publicity her most recent stunt drew, no other zoo would take her in. So it was decided by the owners of the Luna Park that Topsy would be put to death, like Czolgosz, by electrocution. At first the they tried to make a spectacle of her death, and to charge the public a fee to attend the event, but an animal rights organization stepped in and prevented this from happening.

The date of her execution was scheduled for the 4th of January 1903. Porter, a parasite of death, was there, again, with his crew. The Edison Electric Company, another of Porter’s boss’s ventures, rigged power lines to direct a current through her body via copper plates fastened to her feet. Two mechanical wrenches were installed to choke her to death in the event that the electrical current didn’t prove lethal. And as a third measure, she was fed carrots laced with four-hundred and sixty grams of potassium cyanide.

The first shot of Porter’s film Electrocuting an Elephant shows the fatally poisoned Topsy being directed through the Luna Park. The plan was to bring her to an artificial lagoon, but she froze up before a bridge, and the crew, unable to move her, decided to relocate the execution to the place where she obstinately stood. Forty-five minutes after the first shot, the second shows her standing in place until a shock goes through her body, at which point she tenses up and her feet begin to smoke, she falls over and we see the wrenches begin to choke her neck. The New York Times reported that she met a „quick and painless death“ and died „without a trumpet or a groan.“




The technical proficiency of the spectacle and its documentation seems to prefigure the coming years of inflation and poison-gas warfare. But it’s also the rigged-up naivety on display in Topsy’s electrocution that makes it so sadistic: to see in posterity a record of a primitive death-machine wielded by an even more primitive society, whose barbarism could be measured in direct relation to its technological sophistication. Walter Benjamin wrote that the Lunaparks were a predecessor to the sanatoriums. They’re places for the body to reconcile itself with technology by submitting to its bewildering intensities, in the former through a dreamlike play and in the latter through a nightmarish coercion. The pharmaceutical industry that replaced the asylums and electro-shock therapies has only made this assimilation a bit more discreet. It’s very difficult to think of alterity with film; the medium tends only to affirm. And yet there is something so beautiful and imaginative in the fusion of shots in Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison, as though there was so much left to be discovered in the relationship between the real and the imagined, as though the world was ripe with potential for a transformation that film could give expression to.