Topsy the elephant incident remembered 100 years later
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - On Oct. 9th, 1922, the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus came to Wilmington. After the show, a four-ton Indian elephant named Topsy broke loose and headed toward downtown Wilmington.
She traversed all over the city, stomping through downtown, wading into Greenfield Lake, and even swimming across the Cape Fear River.
As you can imagine, people were terrified as Topsy rummaged through their yards and bulled her way into buildings. The community never thought it was a circus animal on the loose.
The Wilmington Star in 1922 quoted a few of the residents who were in disbelief. One man felt his house shake after Topsy tore a pillar from it. He ran into the street, screaming “earthquake!”
“It was some time before the frightened man was subdued into believing it was an elephant and not an earth shock that made his home quake,” the newspaper reported.
Hunter Ingram, Burgwin-Wright House assistant museum director, explained what might have been going through people’s minds back in 1922.
“People didn’t know what this large dark figure was and keep in mind there is not as much lighting in 1922. So, you hear things, you hear things crashing, you see your gardens get completely trampled. I mean people were fearful that this was a huge monster that had somehow arrived in Wilmington. Now they know the next day that it’s an elephant,” he said.
Ingram pointed out that back in 1922, people were not as familiar with elephants as we are now because there weren’t many opportunities to see them. They would have had to see the circus or watch silent movies.
Today, most people know what an elephant looks like thanks to our advanced technology and tourism opportunities.
Topsy caused about $5,000 in damages, with the biggest mess occurring at Eureka Dye Works, a dry-cleaning company. Topsy walked through the closed doors, filled up her trunk with a tub of dye and sprayed it all over. It wasn’t just sprayed on all the walls but on the clothes within the cleaners too, leaving people with ink-stained outfits.
After the town was able to wrangle Topsy and lead her to a railroad flat car awaiting her, she set off again for a second adventure.
She was captured for the second time as she walked through a swamp near Greenfield Lake.
Prior to her escape in Wilmington, Topsy already had a track record of such behavior, including a nine-day escape in Florida.
The Burgwin-Wright House and Dram Yard are teaming up to honor Topsy and the mark she’s made on our historical town. This Sunday, Oct. 9 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p. m., “A Toast to Topsy” will be held at Dram Yard at 101 S 2nd St., Wilmington.
There will be lively stories, trivia and toasts to Topsy. Free to attend, a portion of the proceeds made from drink sales will go towards preserving the Burgwin-Wright House.
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