Off The Path Revisited: The Elephant Man

May 29, 2020

Off the Path is slowing down a bit for the summer (as are we all.) In the meantime, we're revisiting some classic stories. This episode originally aired February 1, 2018.

There’s a statue of an elephant on a 30-foot pole in the town green of Somers, a small town in Westchester County.

“Most people have a fallen war hero,” says town historian Doris Jane Smith, walking me around the nearby town hall. “We have the elephant.”

That elephant was America’s first famous elephant. Her owner was Somers native Hachaliah Bailey. He’d later become a mentor of Barnum and he was a great-uncle of James Bailey. So in a way, this guy was the granddaddy of the American circus.

Somers Town Hall, just behind the elephant statue, has big white letters on the front that say “Elephant Hotel.” And this was originally a hotel – just not for elephants.

The top floor is a museum dedicated to the history of the circus. There's a gigantic miniature circus that fills an entire room. Another has a stuffed tiger and a manacle that once held down an elephant. And it has the one existing picture of Hachaliah Bailey. He doesn’t have the mischievous grin of, say, P.T. Barnum.

“Hachaliah was not a pleasant-looking man,” Smith says. “But Hachaliah had a lot of perseverance and a lot of Barnum in him. He knew how to make money. Sometimes in a way people thought was a little strange.”

Like the time he realized there was a lot of traffic going by his house on Somers’ main street.

“So he put up a toll booth,” Smith says. “But he didn’t tell anybody ‘til the sun came up and everybody realized in order to go down past Hachaliah’s house you had to pay a toll. That’s the kind of a guy he was.”

Hachaliah and his buddies went to New York City to try to make a buck. Their million-dollar idea came to them in 1808 as they hung around Manhattan’s South Street Seaport.

“They went to a tavern and they would sit and listen to the sea captains bringing in odd and unusual animals people of wealth wanted to have,” Smith says.

“They decided they would purchase an elephant.”

They weren’t a hundred percent sure what an elephant looked like, but they pooled together their money and they bought one. Hachaliah named her Old Bet. His original idea was to use her as a plow animal.

“After they take it off the boat and start walking it, they realized most people had never seen an elephant,” Smith says. “So they start to a charge a small amount of money. People would then start to line up, and by the time he made it back to Somers the three of them agreed, this animal was not gonna plow ground.”

Hachaliah set up a menagerie. (That’s a kind of traveling zoo, and it was the precursor to the circus.) He paraded his menagerie up and down the East Coast. He got other animals, like zebras, tigers and parrots, but Old Bet was the star. She inspired posters, paintings and even children’s books.

Hachaliah and his crew traveled at night to keep a low profile. They would roll into a new town and set up their tents, then waited for amazed locals to show up.

Then, one Sunday afternoon in Alfred, Maine, a local farmer got angry at Old Bet. No one’s exactly sure why. Doris Jane Smith says the man might have felt like Hachaliah was swindling money from other poor local farmers.

“Or was it the fact that the Blue Laws on a Sunday said there should be no entertainment and here comes into town this elephant?” she says.

The farmer came out of the woods and he shot Old Bet right in front of Hachaliah. The showman watched his livelihood die before his eyes. Smith says from what she’s read of Hachaliah’s letters, she suspects he came to love Old Bet.

“I always felt, after the elephant started to get old or crotchety, I always felt he would keep it on the farm until he died naturally,” Smith says. “And then to have that taken away – it is a loss, a terrible loss. And you try to empathize, but I’ve never owned an elephant.”

You might think the story ends here. But a guy like Hachaliah Bailey doesn’t give up that easily. So he bought another elephant, and he named her Little Bet. And to find her story, I left Somers and travel to Chepachet, Rhode Island. That’s where I met the town historian Edna Kent.

She told me that in the spring of 1826, Little Bet and the rest of the menagerie got to Chepachet in the middle of the night and set up camp in a field next to an apple orchard.

“Well, what’s an elephant to do?” Kent says. “In May, the apple blossoms are out. It’s night. She senses there’s some sweetness there. The trees are beginning to bloom and put out leaf. She’s hungry. She probably took down a lot of branches. And those branches would have been someone’s next winter’s food supply.”

The owner of the orchard swore to get revenge on Little Bet. He hired some local ruffians to assassinate the elephant.

Edna Kent says Little Bet’s last performance was on a beautiful day. The whole town turned out. Then the trainers packed up for their nightly journey. The ruffians hid in a barn with a rifle and waited for Little Bet to cross Chepachet’s main bridge.

“The moon was full,” she says. “It was quite bright. The man with the rifle was a good shot. He was able to get a bead on that animal as she came through. Shot her in the eye and killed her right there on the bridge.”

Hachaliah and other promoters decided that was enough. They sat down to figure a way to keep their elephants from getting shot.

“It took them a while to realize they couldn’t go out with small shows, just two or three people, a couple of horseback riders, and exotic animals and the trainer and be safe. It wasn’t safe,” she says.

They decided to travel in larger groups, with multiple wagons and sometimes even by train. Those groups became the American circus we know today.

Little Bet’s story became part of the history of the town of Chepachet. In 1976, the town memorialized the bridge where she died. They even brought in an elephant for the ceremony. Edna Kent says some people were worried.

“They were afraid it was going to happen again. Some nut was gonna kill another elephant.”

“In 1976?” I ask.

“Yes,” she laughs. “Memory has long roots.”

Circus elephants have a long history of abuse. Animal rights groups criticized Barnum and Bailey for decades over mistreatment and cramped quarters. Barnum and Bailey showcased their last elephant in 2016. A year later, the Greatest Show on Earth closed up shop for good.