Kind of related to the question specific to Topsy the elephant, the (somewhat famous) Oatmeal comic about Tesla claims, among other things, that Edison would pay schoolboys to kidnap people's pets, after which he would publicly electrocute them.

Edison on animals

Verifying this claim is rather difficult; electrocuting animals was indeed a thing during the War of Currents and many articles cite more famous cases, like the one with Topsy. In addition, it seems it was actually Harold P. Brown and not Edison himself who advocated electrocuting animals (some accounts, however, suggest Edison hired him to do so).

That said, I found these two sources:

  1. Edison the Executioner claims Edison himself was "killing cats and dogs by luring them onto a metal plate wired to a 1,000 volt AC generator". It also later states that "Edison himself offered a bounty of 25 cents for every animal caught and delivered for the experiments".

  2. Myths and Mysteries of New Jersey: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained likewise claims that he himself "purchased stray cats and dogs from local schoolboys for 25 cents each". In addition, it claims that animals used were (ironically) initially provided by the ASPCA, before they were aware of his plans. While it also claims many of these were actually conducted by Brown, it clearly states Edison was orchestating the whole thing.

Neither of these, however, make any mention of Edison using people's pets. In addition, the Wikipedia page for Brown claims that "Brown would continually claim he had no actual association with Edison". My question here is therefore twofold:

  1. Is there any proof that Edison (or someone else on his behalf) kidnapped people's pets for use in his (cruel) demonstrations?

  2. How many of these public executions of animals were actually conducted by Edison himself, in person? While it's clear that Edison was supporting (financially and via other means) and in many cases even initiating these, I got the idea (which I failed to either prove or disprove) he was trying not to personally get involved in these (possibly as to avoid the reputation that goes with killing innocent animals).

  • Your image doesn't actually claim that Edison paid people to kidnap peoples' pets; it just seems that way due to the juxtaposition of the two (claimed) facts. (although, I imagine the image means for you to draw that conclusion yourself despite not claiming it outright) You might want to clarify whether you're specifically asking about Edison paying for kidnapping, or whether you're asking about the other facts.
    – user27389
    Nov 15, 2016 at 12:19
  • 1
    I really see no other way to interpret this; "people's pets disappearing near Edison's laboratory" followed by "Edison was paying to have animals kidnapped", especially in the context of an article about Edison (well, Tesla, but large parts of it are related to Edison), seems quite clear to me. Or am I missing something here? Either way, my questions are whether people's pets were kidnapped and then electrocuted by Edison or on his behalf and whether it was publicly known at the time that Edison was behind most of these demonstrations.
    – fstanis
    Nov 15, 2016 at 13:29
  • Note your other sources are also along these lines: "bounty .. for every animal caught", "purchased stray cats and dogs". The obvious alternative to consider is that, rather than conspiring to kidnap pets, Edison did exactly what these quotes claimed, and that whatever pet disappearances happened were for other reasons. (e.g. coincidence, or kids being the rapscallions they are, decided that strays were too hard to catch and kidnapped the domestic variety instead, and sold them pretending they were strays)
    – user27389
    Nov 15, 2016 at 13:38
  • Sure, that makes sense, that's why I became skeptical in the first place of the claim by Oatmeal (the one of disappearing pets) and was wondering whether it's backed by anything or was it just to make his point more dramatic.
    – fstanis
    Nov 15, 2016 at 13:58
  • 1
    The wikipedia page on Topsy states that this incident was 10 years after the "War of the Currents"
    – JimmyJames
    Nov 21, 2016 at 18:04

2 Answers 2


According to Matthew Josephson, Edison: A Biography, 1959, page 347

There, on any day in 1887, one might have found Edison and his assistants occupied in certain cruel and lugubrious experiments: the electrocution of stray cats and dogs...The feline and canine pets of the West Orange neighborhood were purchased from eager schoolboys at twenty-five cents each and executed in such numbers that the local animal population stood in danger of being decimated

Also, according to Thomas A. Edison: A Modern Olympian (1934) by May Childs Nerney:

[quoting Edison] "...to seek practical demonstration in support of such facts as have been developed and I have taken life - not human life - in the belief and full consciousness that the end justified the means."

Taking life was demonstrated in the Laboratory yard at Orange, which witnessed several massacres of innocents ... With a price of twenty-five cents on their heads not a pet pussy in the Oranges was safe from marauding boys, who lined up daily at the Laboratory gate with victims for the god Experiment. The strange resistance of cats, however, to the electric current made them less satisfactory subjects than dogs, which also had a price on their heads.

May Childs Nerney was hired by Edison Laboratory as secretary of historical research and had access to the lab's papers. This is a 1934 New York Times review of her book.

An earlier reference on this topic is the court record of People of the State of New York against William Kemmler (1889):

A. Dogs were found in the town : the boys brought them.

Q. Did the boys bring them in the interest of science , or for 50 cents apiece ?

A. The boys brought them for 25 cents apiece


Q. What was the object of them ?

A. The object was to gain information as to what kind of a current would kill a human being .

Q. How did you come to be interested in that ?

A. Because it was the World reporter, as far as I know. Mr. Edison can tell better than I can about that.


Q. Do you mean to say that Mr. Edison , as a rule , will furnish dogs at 25 cents a head and send out purveyors to get old horses - horses of some age - and bring them in for the purpose of experimenting as a courtesy to wayfaring experimentalists?

A. Mr. Edison did that in this case.


I have not been able to read the full text of the source quoted in DavePhD's answer. However, using Google Books page views, I did try to locate the sources cited for the relevant section of Matthew Josephson's biography:

541: Dickson, Life and Inventions of Edison, p. 330.

This is the citation for the paragraph preceding the one quoted in DavePhD's answer. It supports the statements made in that paragraph, which pertain to experiments in the electrocution of animals, but doesn't cover the topic of whether pets were kidnapped for these experiments.

Therefore, if there are sources supporting the statements in the paragraph included in DavePhD's answer, I would expect them to be found in the immediately following citations. Josephson's next two numbered citations are as follows:

542: Francis G. Leupp, George Westinghouse (New York, 1918), pp. 133, 145ff.

I did not find this exact printing of this book, but here is a scan of the same book as published in Boston in 1919: page 131, the first page of the chapter "The Contest of the Currents". I see information here about electrocution of dogs, but not information about whether any animals were involved that were pets.

543: T. A. Edison, "Dangers of Electric Lighting", North American Review, November, 1889.

Available on JSTOR.

Edison states "I have myself seen a large healthy dog killed instantly by the alternating current at a pressure of one hundred and sixty eight volts" (page 631) but does not as far as I can tell confess here to offering 25-cent bounties for animals.

Based on the location of the paragraph, I'm guessing there is no other source explicitly cited in Josephson's biography to support the statement that "feline and canine pets of the West Orange neighborhood were purchased from eager schoolboys at twenty-five cents each".

However, DavePhD has edited the answer to add additional sources that do support this statement.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .