Brooklyn Public Library


"They'll Say 'Aww, Topsy!' At My Autopsy!"

Dec 12, 2014 10:30 AM | 1 comment

Sometimes, all it takes is an episode of Bob's Burgers to ignite a historical research adventure!

In the episode aptly named "Topsy," Louise devises a scheme to take revenge on an obnoxious science teacher who is obsessed with Thomas Edison. While researching for her science project at the local library, Louise and her siblings stumble across a video of an elephant being electrocuted by the Edison Electric Company. Louise cackles with delight at the idea of smearing the reputation of her teacher's beloved hero in front of the entire class, "I'm going to tell everyone the truth about Thomas Edison, the Electro-cutioner!"

Was Thomas Edison present and responsible for Topsy electrocution? Was Topsy really a "bad" elephant? I needed answers, so I turned to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for accounts of what led to that fateful day in January 1903.

The headline that spelled the beginning of Topsy's demise in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on May 28, 1902.

Topsy did indeed kill a young circus-follower named J. Fielding Blount while in Brooklyn with the Forepaugh Circus in 1902. According to the Eagle's article, Blount snuck into the sleeping elephants' tent early one morning, offering nine other elephants whiskey from a glass before he reached Topsy.

As bizarre as this sounds, this was actually a common practice in the circus at this time that the elephants were accustomed to -- and even looked forward to -- before their first meal of the day. But, Blount was a stranger and a drunk one at that. When he offered Topsy the near-empty glass, seeing the lack of whiskey, she expressed her displeasure by tossing him up and throwing him fatally to the ground with her trunk.

An illustration of Topsy in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which accompanied the headline on May 28, 1902.

After that incident, Topsy began to be referred to as a "bad elephant" by the newspaper. (Other reports of killings by Topsy exist and are even mentioned in the Eagle, but cannot be confirmed directly by multiple sources.) She was put in chains and made to do "penance" for her lethal act. By the end of the year, Topsy had changed owners a couple times to end up in the hands of Luna Park, which was preparing to open to the public in the spring of 1903.

At Luna Park, her handler was arrested twice for animal cruelty and disorderly conduct. The third time he was arrested, Topsy followed him to the police station and poked her head inside. Perhaps it was out of some strange sense of loyalty to her handler or simply curiosity. Either way, the owners of Luna Park had gotten their fair share of publicity out of her antics and were done dealing with the drama of this "bad" elephant. Her owners fired her handler and, in December 1902, announced that the elephant would soon be put to death by electrocution.

There is in fact no mention in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle or the New York Times of Thomas Edison himself being present on the day of the electrocution. What is mentioned in the January 5, 1903 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article is that the, "Chief Electrician P. D. Sharkley of the Edison plant at Coney Island had been secured and with the assistance of Electrician Black of Luna Park several wires were strung from the plant, two blocks distant to the park."

From the evidence at hand, Thomas Edison was not present for the electrocution of Topsy. However, his company did send a film crew to record the event. (That video is the same video Louise and her siblings found over 100 years later on Youtube.) And it is here that we can begin to see the bigger picture -- wherein America's beloved inventor certainly played a role in Topsy and many other animals' demise.

A photograph of Topsy from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle taken moments after her death at Luna Park.

Beginning in the 1880s, Edison's direct current (DC) was threatened by the alternate current (AC) system, designed by Nikola Tesla and distributed by George Westinghouse, which was more powerful and could carry electricity for longer distances. Seeing the new technology as a danger to his business and his pride, Edison began advocating that AC was too dangerous to provide regular homes with electricity and should only be used for implementing the death penalty. This spurred the use of the electric chair as a common means of "humane" execution in the United States.

To prove AC's deadly nature to both experts and the public, Edison worked with an electrical engineer by the name of Harold P. Brown to carry out public demonstrations of electrocution with the AC system on dogs. Though many were horrified at these blatant acts of animal cruelty, experiments continued on various species over the years. Edison's Electric Copmany recorded many of them, including Topsy's, despite the fact that his opponent, Westinghouse, had already won the War of Currents by the early 1890s.

We can conclude, then, that Topsy's unfortunate death was most likely the result of her owners not wanting to deal with an animal too unruly to safely contain and not solely for the egomaniacal amusement of Thomas Edison, as Louise from Bob's Burgers would have us believe. That said, one doesn't have to dig too far into the annals of history to paint Edison as an evil cartoon villain either.

For more information on the unfortunate life and death of Topsy the elephant, check out this book by Michael Daly available at the Brooklyn Public Library.


"Manure Freely": The Floral Stylings of Julius J. Heinrich

Dec 2, 2014 12:05 PM | 0 comments

The Brooklyn Collection's ephemera files are pretty expansive, filled with an array of amazing (and sometimes random) documents tucked away into acid-free manila folders: programs, community newsletters, membership cards, and the like. We have a fair amount of newspapers and periodicals as well, including one well-loved booklet from 1889 entitled Henirch's Floral Instructor.

I was drawn to the book due to the filigree on the cover and the floral-themed typeface. It is pretty, yes? As I started to gently flip through the pages I began to get some scents (Pun! Bad pun!) of late 19th century floriculture, something I knew absolutely nothing about. Quite frankly, I didn't even know that floriculture was a word. I have since tried to use it in my daily life but it is a hard one to stick in there.

Folks have had gardens for a long time. There was that whole hanging one in Babylon a few thousand years ago, Versailles has a pretty one, etc. However, it was with the rise of floriculture in the late 1800s, essentially flower farming, that a wider swath of the population was able to fill indoor and outdoor gardens with flowering plants. The invention of new steam greenhouses replaced both the temperamental flume style houses with small fires that had to be constantly stoked and the outdated greenhouses that were heated with manure. During the Progressive Era of the late 1800s there was also a general desire to reconnect with nature as cities began to swell - the Fresh Air Fund has been sending low-income New Yorkers to the country since 1877 and both the New York Botanical Garden (1891) and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden (1910) came around during this movement to get folks to stop and smell the roses. 

Heinrich's Floral Instructor is, in fact, quite instructive. He begins with a discussion of the oft-undervalued grass plot. "Probably no part of the garden gets more abuse and less attention than a Grass Plot," Heinrich writes, "and if neglected, no part looks worse, and is noticed quicker than the Grass Plot." Even the finest home, he goes on, can be made uninviting by an uneven or spotty plot. His booklet has directions for planting, cutting, sowing, and general maintenance of grasses of all sorts. He doesn't stop at grass, though. 

When it comes to vegetables, Heinrich tells you exactly how deep and how far apart to plant the seeds. He also offers a vital piece of advice for the novice gardener: "manure freely." The more rotten the better. Your cabbages will thank you. 

As the title suggests, Heinrich was a seedsman and florist, thus, he specialized in flowers. The last few pages are devoted to window gardens and the care of individual plants, how to prep spring gardens, and which flowers should be paired with which. The drawings in the book are really detailed and quite lovely. Heinrich's flower shop was located at 121 Court Street or, if you couldn't make it in person, he'd send you a few seed packs for twenty-five cents. 

The back of the book displays some excellent ads (which also run throughout) for Heinrich's other floral services, the floral services of one Henderson, and one for a croup tonic distributed by someone named A. Bauer. Maybe it's just me, but the idea of drinking anything called 'tar syrup' to try to get rid of a cough seems counterintuitive. 

I took a chance and searched for Julius J. Heinrich in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and actually got a few hits, one of which, from March 28th, 1910, was a mention of one of his later books on a recommended reading list composed by none other than yours truly (the Brooklyn Public Library, not me). So, he had two books, huh? Interesting. 

In the Brooklyn Connections program, we always tell our students to look a little deeper. I decided to take my own advice. Using the resources available in the Brooklyn Collection, I wanted to try to discover as much as I could about this manure-loving seedman. From the booklet I had his name and his flower shop's address to start. 

And I found some things. And one or two of them may or may not be (read: may) be juicy...

...get excited!

Archival Adventure - Julius J. Heinrich! still to come!

Brooklyn Connections Professional Developments

Nov 17, 2014 4:31 PM | 0 comments

We are pleased to announce the Brooklyn Connections 2014/ 2015 teacher professional development schedule. To register for any of the workshops, please email or visit our website.


Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson--a great topic for this year's NHD theme: Leadership and Legacy

What: Creating a National History Day Project with the Brooklyn Collection and the Museum of the City of New York

When: Monday, December 1, 2014 from 5pm-7pm

Who should attend: Teachers and parents who have students or children participating in National History Day or those who want to know more about NHD

Why: National History Day is a highly regarded history contest in which students choose a historical topic related to the annual theme and conduct extensive primary and secondary research. After the research, students present their work in the form of a paper, website, exhibition, performance or documentary. 

At this session, participants will review the step-by-step process for creating a National History Day project, look at examples of projects in various categories, review evaluation criteria, and tour the Brooklyn Collection. Light refreshments will be served and all participants will receive a Brooklyn Connections National History Day guide to take home.


Beverly Leeds protesting Ebinger Bakery in 1961

What: Brooklyn and the Civil Rights Movement

When: Wednesday, January 14, 2015 from 9am-3pm

Who should attend: English and Social Studies Teachers, Administrators and Librarians

Why: Explore the Brooklyn Collection's original Civil Rights materials with expert historian Brian Purnell. Learn about the efforts of Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) which included protests, community clean-ups, marches, and a sit-in at the Brooklyn Board of Education. This workshop will provide teachers with the content knowledge and materials needed to help students explore Brooklyn's role in the Civil Rights Movement. Teachers will have time to connect with the CORE collection and will sample lessons, including the new Social Movement Project Packet: Civil Rights Movement in Brooklyn, funded by the David and Paula Weiner Memorial Grant and written by historian and NYU professor, Daniel J. Walkowitz and Brooklyn Connections staff. Each participant will take home an extensive packet of resources that can be used in the classroom.


What: Teaching LGBT Topics in Schools

When: Monday, February 9, 2015, 9am-12pm

Who should attend: All teachers

Why: Participants will hear from experts and discuss "people-first" language and how to address prejudice in schools. Participants will also get a chance to review our newest David and Paula Weiner Social Movement module: The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Movement. Participants will have an opportunity to connect with the Brooklyn Collection's materials as well as learn where to find other materials related to the topic. Finally, a guest panel of Brooklyn-based LGBT activists will recall experiences from the LGBT movement and talk more about constructive responses to prejudice.


What: A Bite of Brooklyn's History

When: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 from 9am-3pm

Who should attend: Teachers and librarians from all grades

Why: Explore the Brooklyn Collection's vast array of food-related primary source materials and learn the role food played in Brooklyn's history. From sugar refineries to hot dogs, historic photos to Chinese take-out menus, the workshop will offer a wealth of information and access to a meaty chuck of Brooklyn's past. Participants will be introduced to the holdings of the Brooklyn Collection followed by presentations from two food historians: historic gastronomist and author Sarah Lohman and pizza historian and educator Scott Weiner. Attendees will be provided with model lessons designed by our education staff. Each teacher will take home an extensive packet of resources that can be used in the classroom. 

If you cannot attend the workshops but would like a copy of the resources or if you would like to schedule a teacher workshop in your school, please contact us at

The Brooklyn Hellfighters

Nov 11, 2014 11:00 AM | 1 comment

The day was November 11th, 1919. At exactly 11:00am, on the one year anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting between the Allies and Germany, all school children in Brooklyn were asked to place their pencils on their desks for a ten minute silence so that they could "realize vividly the significance which that moment had for America's embattled armies." 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 11 Nov. 1919.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the events of the newly elected day of remembrance (not a national holiday until 1938 and not called Veteran's Day until 1954): parades, dinners, and memorial celebrations. President Woodrow Wilson's address to the nation was also framed prominently in the paper.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 11 Nov. 1919.

"To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations." 

The United States did fight for peace and justice in the global arena and all should be commemorated for their service and sacrifice during that time. However, a fair number of the soldiers fighting for those values -- values of democracy and equality that came to represent America during the global upheaval -- did not find those values waiting for them back home.

The 369th Infantry was first known as the 15th New York Colored Infantry. Today they are more commonly known by the name they were given by their German foes: the Harlem Hellfighters. The men of the 369th were fearless in battle, highly decorated, and bursting with patriotism. The kicker, however, is that the soldiers fought for America but not necessarily with America. Due, in part, to the aggressive segregation of the US military, the Hellfighters fought with the French troops. Many of the enlisted black servicemen were not sent to combat and suffered incredible discrimination within the ranks.  

For Brooklyn, a hero is a hero. The parade that marched through the streets of Brooklyn on that first Armistice Day contained "approximately 2,000 of the Negro warriors from Brooklyn who wore Uncle Sam's uniform in the trenches in France." At the culmination of the parade they were honored "when 10,000 of their relatives and friend's celebrated a big armistice day celebration... to commemorate their splendid fighting achievements." Thousands of people turned out to pay tribute to the soldiers (a parade in Harlem in February of that same year reportedly drew five million onlookers, said the New York Tribune) and "colored children, hundreds of them, from all over the borough who, hearing their heroes were going to march, hurried to the starting point." 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 12 Nov. 1919.

The men marched past veterans from both the Civil and Spanish-American Wars and, upon arrival at the 13th Regiment Armory, sat for a grand meal. Imagine the 13th Regiment Armory decorated to the nines with flags, wreaths, and garlands and packed with 10,000 people in their Sunday best. 

"13th Reg. Armory Interior." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1913. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection.

Mary Church Terrell, civil rights activist and suffragette, was in attendance and called for the heroic actions of the Hellfighters to propel the nation further toward racial equality. Congressmen James J. Delaney, referring to all of the black troops serving during World War I, said that " every citizen in the country, regardless of color, has every reason to be proud of the record these 400,000 brave colored defenders of liberty made for themselves." 

Setting aside the antiquated language, the citizens of Brooklyn welcomed these soldiers home and graciously thanked them for their service. On Veteran's Day we remember all those who fought and still fight for the freedoms that we hold dear, regardless of their race, creed, gender, or orientation. Staff at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library can't help but be reminded as to the sacrifice of America's soldiers, as every time we leave our office we see the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Grand Army Plaza. The arch is always a sight to see, but on Veteran's Day it seems to be all that much grander. 

Geller, Jules. Marchers on Armistice Day. 1952. Print. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. 

For more excellent images of Brooklyn and its vets, check out our Tumblr!

Golden City USA

Nov 4, 2014 11:29 AM | 0 comments

When New Yorkers dream of summer fun at an amusement park by the sea, most turn their thoughts to Coney Island. However, 100 years ago they might have been dreaming about Canarsie’s Golden City Park. The popular yet often forgotten amusement park opened in the summer of 1907 to a crowd of 25,000. Built on Jamaica Bay by Warner’s Canarsie Amusement Company, the park relied on the recently extended railroad system to deliver daytrippers from all over the city.

An undated rendering of the park in its heyday.

Golden City delighted attendees with amusement park staples such as a rollercoaster, carousels, arcades, a tunnel of love and a ferris wheel. The park also included more non-traditional rides such as the “Human Laundry” which took people though a wash cycle, including a spin dry and laundry chute. Games such as “Kill the Kat” allowed patrons to test their aim and win prizes by hurling baseballs at toy cats. Braver visitors could take a trip through the park’s funhouse, navigating by boat though dark tunnels where ghosts and devils were waiting.

Above and below, two views of Golden City rollercoasters.

Below, a 1929 Belcher Hyde desk atlas image of the park labels the various attractions, including a carousel, The Whip, circle swings, and fun house.

In addition to the rides, the park staged a number of live shows at “The Barbary Coast” amusement hall, allowing Broadway stars to try out new material before bringing the act to the major stages in Manhattan. The park’s most popular live action show, “The Robinson Crusoe Show” was a 22 minute telling of the Daniel Defoe novel that cost the park $60,000 to stage. It took 14 motors to move 60,000 square feet of scenery during the performance.

A May 19, 1907 ad from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle declares the many attractions on offer.

Wandering the park, one could stumble upon a live action Native American village, an animal oddities display or even a motorcycle show where daredevil drivers reached speeds of 80 miles an hour. The audience loved death-defying performers such as Arthur Holden, who twice a day dived from a height of 110 feet into a tub of water only 4 feet deep. Tamer acts such as King Pharaoh, a horse billed as an animal with “the intelligence of a human being”, wowed audiences by spelling and solving math problems.

A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from the park's opening summer highlighted this surprising feat -- an automobile rolling down a ski-jump track to turn a somersault in the air before landing safely on an adjacent ramp.

During Golden City’s nearly 30 years of operation it was plagued by a number of devastating fires. In 1909, a fire that began in one of the park’s restaurants quickly spread, causing $200,000 worth of damage and destroying the restaurant, dance hall, photography gallery and office. The park was able to resume normal operations, but was the victim of fire again in 1912 when the Tunnel of Love was destroyed. The park was already losing money when a 1934 fire damaged the park so badly that management refused to rebuild. Golden City sat unoccupied until 1939, when it was razed to clear space for the new Belt Parkway.

The park is long gone, but need not be forgotten. Next time you’re visiting Canarsie Pier or driving over the parkway, take a moment and turn your thoughts to Golden City. Think of the rides, shows and thousands of happy New Yorkers spending summer days at the city’s lost amusement park.