Downtown Wilmington is an exciting place these days. But not even our newfangled breweries and big-name concert headliners can hold a candle to the excitement of Oct. 9, 1922.
On that date a century ago, an elephant named Topsy escaped from a visiting circus and made an 18-hour jaunt through the heart of Wilmington, alarming the populace and causing thousands of dollars in damages. The story was the talk of the town for days and even made national news.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Topsy's outsize tour of Wilmington, the Burgwin-Wright House & Gardens and the Dram Yard restaurant at Second and Dock streets are hosting an event, A Toast to Topsy, at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9, at the Dram Yard.
The event, which is being held in one of the very buildings Topsy damaged, will feature themed cocktails, some Topsy trivia, and a brief history talk by Hunter Ingram, assistant museum director of the Burgwin-Wright House. A Toast to Topsy is free to attend, with a portion of proceeds going to the preservation of the Burgwin-Wright.
"She was an interesting story," Ingram said of Topsy. "She also scared the crap out of people."
Ingram first came across the story of Topsy in 2019 when he was a reporter for StarNews. He did an episode on the elephant's big day for local history podcast Cape Fear Unearthed.
Even after he left the paper the story stayed with him, Ingram said, and in his new job at the Burgwin-Wright, which is the only public colonial site in Wilmington (there are eight colonial sites total), he saw an opportunity to celebrate local history while raising some money for his employer.
"Topsy almost certainly walked right past here" in 1922 on her way to Dram Yard, which is "where she did her damage," Ingram said.
Back then, the building that now hosts the Dram Yard was home to the Eureka Dye Company. A plaque on the building from the Historic Wilmington Foundation chronicles Topsy's visit: Eureka "sustained heavy losses when a four-ton elephant escaped from the Hagenback-Wallace Circus, busted into the building and hurled large quantities of dye, destroying clothing and expensive equipment. The company sued the circus for $5,000."
To this day, a crack in the back wall of the building is said to have been caused by Topsy, although Ingram notes this could be a fanciful exaggeration. What's for sure is that the Eureka Dye Co. had some fun with the incident, taking out a tongue-in-cheek ad in the Morning Star (a predecessor of the StarNews) suggesting that readers beat a path to their door much like Topsy had done.
Ingram said Topsy escaped from the circus at 13th and Anne streets, which was in those days the outskirts of town.
Walking through people's backyards in the middle of the night (police received numerous reports of disturbances), Topsy walked for about a mile to get to Eureka, where she forced her way into the rear of the building and spilled gallons of purple dye.
She then headed to Greenfield Lake, where she was eventually recaptured and taken back to 13th and Anne, where she briefly escaped again.
"She was stubborn," Ingram said. "I tell people, she just wanted to see Wilmington."
As it turns out, Wilmington wasn't the first town where Topsy did a little sightseeing. She had previously escaped in Florida, that time for several days.
Stories of circus elephants running into trouble with humans appeared regularly in newspapers in the early 20th century. During a time before TV or the widespread consumption of radio broadcasts, traveling circuses were one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the country.
In 1916 in Erwin, Tennessee, an elephant named Mary was hung by its neck from a crane until dead after it killed its abusive trainer. In 1903 on New York City's Coney Island, the public electrocution of a circus elephant, also named Topsy, who had killed a man who burned her trunk with a cigar, was the subject of a documentary film by Thomas Edison.
Thankfully, Wilmington's Topsy escaped a similarly gruesome fate, although, given the standards of the times it's likely her treatment at the hands of her captors was less than gentle.
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Chances are, Topsy wouldn't recognize the old Eureka Dye Co. these days. The Dram Yard restaurant is a trendy spot, with such well-known actors as Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon, who were recently in town for the "George & Tammy" country music mini-series, having been spotted dining there.
Chastain even shot an impromptu video at Dram Yard earlier this year when she found out she'd been nominated for an Oscar.
But while Chastain is a pretty big star, she'll never be as big as Topsy.
WANT TO GO?
What: A Toast to Topsy
When: 5:30-7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9
Where: The Dram Yard, Second and Dock streets, Wilmington
Info: Free to attend. A portion of the proceeds goes to support the Burgwin-Wright House & Gardens.
This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: A Toast to Topsy will celebrate elephant's Wilmington rampage