Memorial to America’s First Circus Elephant
This high-perched pachyderm marks the memory of not one, but two elephants gunned down in small New England towns.
Many stories have been told about Old Bet, one of the first elephants (if not THE first) to have set foot in the United States. One thing we do know for certain: She was murdered in Maine in the cold, cold summer of 1816.
There’s a striking memorial to Old Bet in Somers, New York, 45 minutes north of Manhattan, outside a lovely brick building called the Elephant Hotel. Now home to the town offices, it was once an inn and tavern built by Hachaliah (that’s “heck-a-LIE-uh”) Bailey, one of the fathers of the American Circus.
Bailey (a distant relative of the more famous James Bailey of Barnum & Bailey) was a local farmer who also traded in livestock. In 1805 he was at a cattle auction when he ran across an unusually large creature for the venue: an elephant, at the time rarely seen in the western hemisphere. It’s said he was “smitten” with the big girl, so he bought her, named her “Old Bet,” and took her home to work the farm in Somers.
How this particular elephant came to the U.S. is a story with a lot of shading over the years, but she may possibly be the very first pachyderm to have landed in America. So rare a creature piqued the neighbors’ curiosity, and Bailey quickly realized he could make a buck by giving folks a peek.
Bailey toured the northeast with Old Bet, charging 25 cents a head. Fearful that people might get a free look, Bailey made Bet walk from town to town under the cover of night. Making the rounds of New England this way was particularly punishing in July of 1816. It was unusually frigid summer that year, when temperatures across the northern hemisphere plummeted and crops routinely failed. It led to food shortages, widespread desperation and short fuses, including one man in the small town of Alfred, Maine.
A sawmill operator named Daniel Davis may have been angry that his neighbors were wasting their money, he may have seen Bet as the real-life incarnation of the Biblical “behemoth,” or he may have simply been drunk and looking for a fight. Whatever his motive, Davis took to his musket and fired two shots into the defenseless animal. She died on the side of the road, where today the spot is marked with an honorary plaque.
Davis spent just two days in jail for his crime, and Bailey claimed a $30,000 loss. Undeterred, he bought a second elephant and named her “Little Bet,” and kept on touring. Ten years after the first loss, Bailey lost Little Bet in much the same way, when she, too, was shot down under mysterious circumstances in a small New England town.
Bailey stayed in the menagerie business for a while, continuing to tour in tent shows with other acts and attractions, a foreshadowing of the grand days of the American circus to come. In 1827 he erected the monument to Old and Little Bet back at his Somers hotel—a wooden carving of an elephant on top of a granite obelisk. It’s a small reminder of the majestic animals who died cold and alone a long way from home.
Know Before You Go
Somers is 45 miles north of New York City. Take the 684 north, and take Exit 7 to the NY 116 West. The 116 turns into the 202; the Elephant Hotel is at the intersection of the 202 and 100. Old Bet’s memorial is easily visible from the road outside the "Elephant Hotel," a National Historic Landmark. Downstairs is now the Somers Town Hall. On the third floor is the Somers Historical Society and the Museum of the Early American Circus. They are open Thursday afternoons from 2 to 4, on some special holidays, and by appointment.
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