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Setting The Record Straight On Old Bet

September 2020

Our article about P. T. Barnum’s Jumbo in the August, 1973, issue has elicited this scholarly response from Clifford L. Snyder, president of the Somers Historical Society of Somers, New York, which makes its headquarters, appropriately, in the Elephant Hotel there:
I was especially pleased that you elected to give additional information about other elephants, and particularly that you quoted Mr. James Agee’s last letter, in which he told about Old Bet [page 68].
Mr. Agee unfortunately displayed more emotion than knowledge, but he can easily be forgiven. Those of us who share his feelings for the great beasts appreciate the fact that a man of such recognized literary talent would be concerned with elephant lore.
It is not an established fact that Old Bet was the first elephant to arrive in America, and quite possibly she was second. An April, 1796, publication, Greenleaf’s New York , mentions an elephant journeying to our shores aboard the ship America. A few days later an elephant was exhibited around Beaver Street and Broadway, according to an advertisement in The Argus , April 23, 1796. This area was the location of the Bull’s Head Tavern, a place frequented by ships’ captains, drovers, and a variety of businessmen. Hachaliah Bailey of Somers, New York, regularly stayed at the Bull’s Head when he took his cattle to the abattoir, which was located nearby.
The newspaper reports that the first elephant was sold to a “Mister Owen.” Unfortunately, they gave no other information about the man, nor did they tell what he did with the elephant he bought, but Hachaliah Bailey’s business partner and brother-in-law was named Owen.
During the months following this first arrival elephants were reportedly shown in Philadelphia, Baltimore, York, Pennsylvania, and Asheboro, North Carolina.
The first documented proof of Old Bet’s existence is a bill of sale drawn up in Somers, New York, dated August 13, 1808. That document, on file at the Somers Historical Society Museum, details the sale by Hachaliah Bailey “for $1200, equal two-thirds use of an elephant for one year.” Mr. Owen witnessed the bill of sale, which was made out to Andrew Brown and Benjamin Lent, Somers men who went on to circus fame along with Bailey.
After 1808 we have reasonably good documentation of Old Bet’s activities, which ended with her tragic death in Alfred, Maine, on July 26, 1816—an event documented by newspaper accounts and court records. The farmer who shot and killed her was convicted of the crime.
Mr. Agee stated that Old Bet arrived in America in 1824, a date well after her death. By 1824 several show elephants were in the United States, one named Columbus, another confusingly called Little Bet. Bailey’s Old Bet was buried in Alfred, Maine, where she died, not Somers, New York, the home of her owner. A statue was erected in her memory in Somers in front of the Elephant Hotel, built by Hachaliah Bailey, 1820-25.
P. T. Barnum, not often cited for his honesty, nevertheless made an accurate statement when he called Hach Bailey “the father of the American circus.” As a boy Barnum had worked as a ticket seller for the Somers drover turned showman. Old Bet was the first circus elephant in America whose existence is documented by name. We of the Somers Historical Society would like to believe that she was the same elephant that arrived in 1796, but we would prefer to have an accurate record of the facts reported than to hold an unverified claim to being “first known.”

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