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Old Bet: The first circus elephant brought to the US was killed by a religious fanatic

Tijana Radeska
Old Bet

Old Bet was the first circus elephant and the second elephant brought to the United States. There are reports of an elephant brought to the United States in 1796, but it is not known for certain that this was the elephant that was later named Old Bet. She was then known as Betty and was being exhibited when she was spotted by a farmer named Hachaliah Bailey, who was apparently smitten.

Statue of Old Bet in front of the Elephant Hotel, in Somers, New York.By Daniel Case at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3748664

Statue of Old Bet in front of the Elephant Hotel, in Somers, New York. Source by Daniel Case

However, Old Bet was very popular and is credited with having established the circus tradition of the animal menagerie. Old Bet was owned by Hackaliah Bailey of Somers, New York. Between 1809 and 1816 Bailey toured with the elephant, walking with the animal from town to town under cover of night to prevent anyone from having a free look at the beast. Old Bet’s popularity inspired Bailey’s farmer neighbors to set out with menageries of their own. In a very short time, there were noteworthy traveling collections of wild animals, such as the Zoological Institute of the June brothers. June, Titus & Angevine and Van Amburgh’s Menagerie also set up permanent establishments in the larger cities. Similar exhibitions developed in England which led to such famous traveling menageries as Bostock & Wombwell’s. Some menageries were as large as full traveling zoos, although most of them could be contained within two or three wagons.

The Elephant Hotel photographed for the Historic American Buildings Survey in the 1930s. Wikipedia/Public Domain

The Elephant Hotel photographed for the Historic American Buildings Survey in the 1930s. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Hachaliah decided to take his animals on the road in search of greater profits. It proved to be a fatal decision for Old Bet. On July 24, 1816, while on tour near Alfred, Maine, she was shot and killed. The farmer who murdered her – Daniel Davis, was a religious fanatic and thought that it was sinful for poor people to spend money to see an elephant. While many people believe that this was the reason why the farmer killed the animal, others suspected he was motivated by jealousy.

Old John laying a wreath at the monument to Old Bet in Somers, New York. PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11916406

Old John laying a wreath at the monument to Old Bet in Somers, New York. Source

Marker of site in Alfred, ME where Old Bet was killed. By Faertehmonkey - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15064527

Marker of the site in Alfred, ME where Old Bet was killed. Source by Faertehmonkey

In 1821, the Barnum’s American Museum in New York announced that they had bought the hide and bones of Old Bet and would mount the remains at the museum. The elephant was memorialized in 1825 with a statue and the Elephant Hotel in Somers, New York. In 1922 the elephant John L. Sullivan walked 53 miles to lay a wreath in memory of Old Bet at her memorial statue.