Elephant Hotel, Old Bet on the left.
Elephant Hotel, with Old Bet on the left.

Old Bet the Elephant

Field review by the editors.

Somers, New York

Died 1816

Old Bet the elephant.
Monument topper: Old Bet.

Pet Cemetery.

Most towns have war heroes or politicians on their monuments.

Somers, New York, has an elephant.

According to local lore, the elephant is an effigy of Old Bet, purchased by Somers farmer Hachaliah Bailey in 1806, and named in contrast to "Young Bet," Hachaliah's infant daughter Elizabeth. The pachyderm-topped pillar has stood at the main intersection in Somers for nearly 200 years, longer than any bronze U.S. president or military man.

Hachaliah (hek-a-LIE-a) may have acquired the elephant as a kind of giant plowhorse -- his motives are murky -- but soon realized that he could make more money by just standing Old Bet around and charging a fee to neighbors who wanted a look (Most Americans back then had never seen an elephant). When Hachaliah ran out of neighbors, he began taking Old Bet on road trips to other towns, and then to other states. This, say historians, was the beginning of the American traveling circus.

Hachaliah and Old Bet would move at night. The generous view is that this was done to avoid frightening horses. More likely it was Hachaliah's way of sneaking Old Bet to her latest destination -- usually a rented barn -- without giving anyone a free peek. Hachaliah charged 25 cents, and enough people were willing to pay to make him a wealthy man.

Elephant Hotel circa 1900. Inset: only known portrait of Hachaliah Bailey; newspaper ad for Old Bet.
Elephant Hotel and monument c. 1900. Inset: only known portrait of Hachaliah Bailey; newspaper ad for Old Bet.

Old John pays tribute to Old Bet.
Old John pays tribute to Old Bet in 1922.

Life went on like this until July 24, 1816. Old Bet was in Alfred, Maine -- 250 miles from Somers -- when she was shot dead by someone named Daniel Davis. No one really knows why, but the most popular theory is that Davis was angry that farmers were spending their hard-earned money to see an elephant.

Old Bet's success spawned imitators among Hachaliah's friends, and turned Somers into a hub for exotic animals, which were sheltered in local barns and pastured in surrounding fields. Hachaliah used his profits to buy at least two more elephants (One, Little Bett, also ended up shot and killed). He served two terms in the New York State Legislature, purchased a stagecoach line, and in 1825 opened the Elephant Hotel (no, not this elephant hotel) in Somers. It was frequented by celebrities such as author Washington Irving and politician Aaron Burr (who had also murdered with a gun), and by a lot of early circus folk.

Across the street, in 1827, Hachaliah erected his elephant monument, a 15-foot-high pillar of dressed granite topped with a scrollwork of wrought iron and a small wooden elephant, gilded in gold. It was humble in comparison to some later American monuments, but was an extravagant gesture for the time.

Although the monument has no plaque or inscription, most people believe that it is Hachaliah's tribute to Old Bet, the elephant that made his fortune. Ringing Bros. even sent a delegation of circus luminaries to the monument in 1922, including an elephant ("Old John"), who used his trunk to place a wreath in honor of Old Bet.

Cartoon of the U.S. Post Office proclamation.
Cartoon commemorates Postmaster General's 1966 proclamation.

The citizens of Somers continue to embrace their pachyderm pedigree, improving the grounds around the monument with plantings (and a rerouted street) and repeatedly patching or replacing the monument's elephant when it wears out. The town was christened "Cradle of the American Circus" by President Lyndon Johnson's postmaster general, the local sports teams are called The Tuskers, the school newspaper The Trunkline, the Elephant Hotel is now Somers' city hall, and the image of Old Bet atop the monument is the official town logo, appearing on everything from welcome signs to fire trucks. Somers plans to place a permanent bronze Old Bet atop the monument -- possibly in 2022 -- and then display the current elephant somewhere in town as a revered relic.

Hachaliah Bailey sold the Elephant Hotel and retired to Virginia. In 1845 he came back to Somers for a visit -- and was killed when he was kicked by a horse. Maybe the horse was spooked by an elephant.

Also see: Elephant Burial Ground | Roadside Pet Cemetery

Old Bet the Elephant

Elephant Hotel

Address:
335 US-202, Somers, NY
Directions:
Downtown, at the corner of US-202/Somers Rd and NY-100/Somerstown Tpke.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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