By Peter Rae
Recently the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that after 145 years of featuring elephants in its productions, its 13 traveling Asian elephants would be retired to its Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida. That’s a better fate than befell America’s first circus elephant, named “Old Bet”, who was, according to some of the newspapers of the time, “murdered”.
Old Bet is commemorated today in Somers, New York, where, in the early 1800s, the Danbury and Croton Turnpikes intersected, and Routes 202 and 100 still do. The means of commemoration is unusual, as it consists of a large brick building with the name “The Elephant Hotel” emblazoned across its front. Outside the hotel, next to a traditional flagpole, is a fifteen-foot obelisk, atop of which is a three-foot-high wooden elephant. That elephant is Old Bet. Inside the hotel is the Somers Town Historian, Doris Jane Smith, with lots of stories to tell about Old Bet and its owner, Hachaliah Bailey.
Born in 1774, “Hack” Bailey was a farmer and cattleman living in Somers near the site of what was later would be The Elephant Hotel. Hack was also a drover, meaning that he herded the cattle he raised from Somers to Croton, where they were shipped down the Hudson River by boat to New York City’s stockyards to help feed the city’s growing population. He even acquired an interest in a cattle boat, reducing his own costs while increasing revenue by shipping others’ cattle. (Ever the entrepreneur, Hack also set up his own toll booth along one of the turnpikes, charging others fees for using it, a practice that was both legal and common at the time.)
Finding Old Bet
Old Bet is thought to be the second elephant ever imported to the United States. The story goes that while on a trip to Boston in 1804, Bailey saw the elephant, a female, performing at a show, and was intrigued. Two or three years later he saw Old Bet again, this time in New York City, and was able to purchase her for the sum of $1200 – a princely sum at the time. His intention was for her to help out with farming activities such as plowing. But as Old Bet trudged along the turnpike from Croton to Somers, Hack quickly learned that passersby were fascinated by his prize pet, and would pay to see her.
Bailey put together a menagerie – in addition to Old Bet, it included “a trained dog, several pigs, a horse, and four wagons” – and toured the immediate vicinity. People would pay a quarter each to see Old Bet and the rest of the “Bailey Menagerie”. There were also group rates – “A coin, or a two-gallon jug of rum” could get an entire family in.
The Bailey Menagerie fascinated the public, which of course spawned competition. Others in the area’s towns, including Carmel, Brewster and North Salem, started their own menageries, and Somers became known as “The Cradle of the American Circus”. But they didn’t all have elephants, and the Bailey Menagerie, with Old Bet, toured in ever widening circles, ranging as far south as Georgia and as far north as Maine, for about eight years. Typically the menagerie would travel from town to town at night so as to limit opportunities to see Old Bet for free.
It was in Maine in 1816 that the final curtain came down abruptly for Old Bet. Following a show in Alfred, a small town in York County, one Daniel Davis, whose family operated a sawmill there, shot Old Bet, killing her with two shots. Davis was arrested and jailed while the authorities pondered what to do. Local newspapers wrote it up as a “murder”, and the story (in today’s jargon) quickly “went viral” nationally. Davis was said to be upset that poor people were wasting money better spent elsewhere to see Old Bet.
What subsequently happened to Davis is unclear. According to some, he was tried and convicted. Others say no charges were ever brought and three days afterward Davis was released, following which he quickly disappeared and was never seen again.
What happened to Old Bet is equally unclear. One report has her buried in Alfred, Maine, where she died. Another places her remains in the front yard of the Elephant Hotel. Some say her stuffed remains toured as an exhibit for a number of years. Doris Smith, the Somers Town Historian, thinks she may have been exhibited at P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City, until the museum was consumed by fire in 1865.
Bailey continued in the menagerie business for a time, owning two more elephants. His other businesses prospered and he served for a time in the state legislature. In 1837 he and his family moved to Virginia, to a town that was later named Bailey’s Corners. He died during a visit to Somers in 1847, and is buried in Ivandell Cemetery, not far from The Elephant Hotel.
Building the Hotel
Before heading south, Hachaliah Bailey himself built the hotel, naming it The Elephant Hotel to commemorate Old Bet. He added the obelisk several years later. Over the years the hotel has functioned as an inn, a teahouse, a private residence and a post office. It became a stagecoach stop for travelers between New York City and points north and east. In 1835, the Zoological Institute, a kind of trade association for the menagerie and circus business, was incorporated at the Elephant Hotel, and the hotel also became the principal meeting place for members. The Farmers and Drovers Bank, chartered in 1830, adjoined the hotel, as did a dance hall that became the focal point in Somers for fun, frolic and business transactions for farmers, travelers and hotel guests.
In 1927 the Town of Somers purchased the hotel from the Bailey family. The building now houses to Town’s administrative offices and the Somers Historical Society. In 2005, the Elephant Hotel was named a National Historic Landmark.
The Bailey Question
If you’re wondering about the name Bailey appearing in two different contexts in this article, the answer is no – Hachaliah Bailey is not that Bailey. As mentioned earlier, menageries became something of a cottage industry in and near Somers, and some of its practitioners were Baileys. Indeed, two were the children of Hachaliah and his wife, Mary. Daughter Maria performed as an equestrian while son Lewis performed as a clown in addition to managing a traveling menagerie.
Other Baileys in the circus business included Hack’s nephew, Fred H. Bailey. While traveling as manager for Bailey Circus in Michigan after the Civil War, Fred hired a young, enthusiastic assistant named James A. McGuiniss. Fred was so impressed with his young employee’s work ethic and business expertise that he adopted him as a son, and James A. McGuiniss became James A. Bailey.
Fred ultimately turned the business over to James, who continued to run it for another thirty years. During that time, James met P. T. Barnum and the two subsequently became partners: James ran the business while P. T. focused on the shows themselves. Later they merged with another successful circus, Ringling Brothers, and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus – “The Greatest Show on Earth” - was born.
So as an iconic American business plans to move on without its elephants, one of the foundations of its success, it’s good to recall Old Bet, the elephant that played a primary role in making the circus a successful enterprise so many years earlier.