The Crowninshield Elephant

The surprising story of Old Bet, the first elephant ever to be brought to America

“Old Bet” seems to have been the name that was applied to this elephant, and the animal was eventually acquired by Hackaliah Bailey, who got together the first American circus and became the Bailey of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame. He was originally a farmer at Somers, N. Y. At this point, the record becomes a bit confusing, perhaps because there may have been another “Old Bet” fifteen or twenty years later. Or, as suggested above, repeated returns of the original elephant from the South may have been heralded by careless reporters as the arrival of the first elephant ever to reach America.

Suffice it to say that the Bailey Circus consisted of four wagons, a trained dog, several pigs, a horse, and of course the elephant. Bailey toured the country for several years with Old Bet as his chief attraction, and when he returned to Somers in 1824, he built the hotel that is still standing, known as the Elephant Hotel. He also promoted what was called the Zoological Institute.

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE'S FATHER, evidently an officer on board America, wrote this entry in the ship’s logbook. His handwriting grew large when he referred to the first elephant ever to come to America.

The diarist William Bentley saw Bet at the Market House in Salem on August 30, 1797, and described the elephant in detail. From his narrative there is no doubt that this was Crowninshield’s elephant.

What, we ask, became of Old Bet? Bentley was at the exhibit of 1816 when an elephant was killed, and he mentions the killing of the poor beast by a crank in Maine who felt that the animal was taking money from the public. “A boy was induced,” he writes, “to secrete himself as she passed on the road and to test the story that her hide was bullet proof. He did so, the shot hit her in the eye and instantly killed her.” However, the Boston Herald of December 30, 1895, claims that Old Bet was maliciously killed in Rhode Island in 1816. This is based on a statement in a catalogue of Barnum’s American Museum in New York, where Old Bet’s remains were viewed by hundreds of thousands of people. If this was Old Bet, she was apparently twenty years old when killed. It is questionable whether a boy with the ammunition of those days could kill a twenty-year-old elephant by shooting it in the eye. Certainly death would not be instantaneous. To complicate matters further, a writer in the Boston Herald on December 22, 1895, claimed that Old Bet was killed in North Carolina in 1827. The stories of the Maine and/or Rhode Island killings, though apparently true, may have applied to another elephant.

In any case, Bailey erected a a monument to Old Bet on the green in front of his Elephant Hotel at Somers, New York, about fifteen miles east of Peekskill. The image is carved in wood and stands on a shaft of dressed granite. Here, one can still see one of the most remarkable statues in existence—the figure of an elephant on a tall column.

In 1922, about a century after Old Bet’s death, “Old John,” the star performing elephant of the herd of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, took a wreath on his trunk and placed it on the monument of Old Bet at Somers Village, while “the children had a holiday and sang the Star Spangled Banner.”

Other elephants came and went. There seem to have been additional Old Bets; there was also a famous big fellow named Mogul, and, of course, Jumbo. But the original Old Bet was the first to arrive in America and the only elephant to have been given such a memorial.

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