Elephant figure on a pole.

Old Bet the Elephant

Field review by the editors.

Somers, New York

Died 1816

Pet Cemetery.

One of the oldest memorials in America honors one the first elephants brought to America. This was Old Bet, later ennobled as "the mother of America's carnival business."

Old Bet was an African elephant who arrived in Boston in 1804. She was then known as Betty, and was being exhibited when she was spotted by a farmer named Hachaliah Bailey, who apparently was smitten. Imagine his shock when, four years later, he discovered her for sale in one of New York City's meat markets. Hachaliah, who saw her as something more than three tons of ambulatory steak, ribs, and brisket, purchased the elephant and brought her back to his home town of Somers. He originally tried to use her for farm work, then realized she could make more money by simply standing around, while he charged his neighbors to take a peek.

The newly named Old Bet was a hit. Within a few years Hachaliah had become much less a farmer and much more a circus showman, exhibiting a ragged menagerie of animals that included a trained dog, several pigs, a horse, and Old Bet, who was the main draw.

Elephant Hotel.

Hachaliah decided to take his animals on the road in search of greater profits. It proved to be a fatal decision for Old Bet. On July 24, 1816, while on tour near Alfred, Maine, she was shot and killed. The farmer who murdered her thought that it was sinful for hard-working farm people to spend money to see an elephant.

Five years later, back in Somers, Hachaliah started building the Elephant Hotel -- despite its name it was designed for people, not elephants -- then in 1827 he built the Old Bet memorial out front, topped with a small version of the assassinated elephant. It has outlasted several versions of Old Bet. The first two were wood, the current one is reinforced concrete, likely dating to when the memorial got a new granite pillar in 1935.

Somers now embraces its pachyderm pedigree, calling itself, "Cradle of the American Circus" (so does Baraboo, Wisconsin). The local sports teams are The Tuskers, and on the third floor of the Hotel, which is now city hall, is the Museum of the Early American Circus, whose artifacts include one of Tom Thumb's stage outfits and a trunk from one of the wooden Old Bets.

By early 2020 large cracks had formed in three of Old Bet's concrete legs. The town hopes to replace her with a permanent bronze version -- maybe in 2021? -- and then display the concrete elephant somewhere in Somers as a historical artifact.

Also see: Elephant Burial Ground | Roadside Pet Cemetery

Old Bet the Elephant

Somers Town Hall

Address:
335 U.S. 202, Somers, NY
Directions:
Museum of the Early American Circus in the Somers Town Hall. West of I-684 at Somerstown Tpke/Hwy 100 and US Hwy 202.
Hours:
Museum Th 2-4; 2nd, 4th Su each month, 1-4. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
914-277-4977
Admission:
Free.
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August 11, 2020

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