The only American elephant in 1816 once roamed the Androscoggin River



A drawing of Old Bet was included in an advertisement for his appearances in New York in 1812. New York Post

There wasn’t much in Lewiston or Auburn in 1816, just a few wood-frame houses and a few paltry businesses.

The year will be remembered for a long time because, thanks to the explosion of a volcano on the other side of the globe, it was so cold that summer hardly arrived and the harvests failed everywhere. Some Mainers got so fed up that they moved west.

But it was also the year an elephant played in the Androscoggin River.

Esther Moody, born in Auburn in 1816, learned everything from her mother and told the story among her many memories to a reporter for the Lewiston Evening Journal 75 years later.

The nearly 5,000-pound, 7-foot-tall elephant named Old Bet came to town with a traveling show that had wandered the streets of Maine trying to collect enough coins to make the trip worth it.

Its owners tried to get Old Bet across the wooden bridge that spanned the river between Lewiston and what would one day be called Auburn. But the elephant didn’t have it. She didn’t trust the rickety structure.

Having no other choice, they let her swim across the river.

Old Bet must have loved her, according to Moody’s, because “she refused to get out of the water for a long time.”

“She was swimming and throwing the water in all directions,” Moody told the reporter.

Naturally, the sight caused “great excitement” all around “for nothing of the sort had ever been seen there before”.

Moody remembered his mother calling the elephant Bess, but the creature was actually called Old Bet and was probably the first elephant to arrive in the United States.

She was surely the first to reach Maine, however, as part of a show hosted by Hachaliah Bailey, called the Father of the American Circus by PT Barnum. Bailey’s primitive little circus featured four wagons, a trained dog, several pigs, a horse, and the elephant, the obvious star of the show.

In newspaper advertisements, it was said that she was born in 1800, friendly and docile. But more than likely, she arrived in the United States in 1796 aboard the America ship after a long voyage from India, the first time ever to arrive in the country.

A poster printed in 1797 announcing a Boston appearance of “The Elephant” which probably received the name Old Bet a few years later. Salem Streets Blog

The ship’s captain, Jacob Crowninshield of Salem, Massachusetts, wrote to his brothers in India before the start of his voyage to inform them that he had purchased a 2-year-old elephant for $ 450 which he planned to take home. , according to a 1925 account in the Journal of Mammalogy.

“He’s almost as big as a really big ox, and I dare say we’ll get him home safe and sound,” Crowninshield wrote, assuming it would earn Americans “at least $ 5,000” willing to pay. to see the pachyderm in person.

“I guess you’re going to laugh at this scheme,” Crowninshield wrote, but if he succeeds, “I should also have all the credit and honor; of course you know it will be a good thing to transport the first elephant to America.

The father of the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, an officer aboard the ship, noted in his logbook during the trip from Calcutta to New York that the ship had stopped at Saint Helena, the future home of a Napoleon in exile, that they had loaded “several pumpkins and cabbages, fresh fish for the boat and green vegetables for the elephant.” Then in big letters, as if he had just realized novelty, he printed “ELEPHANT ON BOARD”.

He arrived in time for the elephant to make an appearance at the Harvard College opening ceremony in Cambridge in 1796.

Keeping track of certain elephants is nearly impossible given that new owners have often changed the creature’s name and constructed elaborate and deceptive stories about them to attract crowds. But it’s likely that Bailey bought that first elephant and began to research how to maximize the income Old Bet could bring in.

In those days before the railroad, Old Bet walked between Philadelphia and New England for years, where people would pay more than a quarter to see her, and sometimes a lion too. Children entered at half price.

One of his much-vaunted skills was removing a cork from a bottle with his trunk and then drinking from the container. One account said she could drink 30 bottles of porter, a strong, dark style of beer popular in the 1700s.

A 1797 poster for an appearance in Boston told potential customers it was safe, but warned them that “the elephant has destroyed many important papers”, so they should be careful not to have any within reach. .

In 1816, Old Bet arrived in Maine by boat for a tour that included Belfast and Augusta. She drew crowds in Warren on June 20, just west of Rockland. In mid-July, she was walking south to Lewiston, often traveling after dark so people could not easily see her without paying for this privilege.

She must have headed to Boston because Neal Dow, a temperance leader-turned-mayor of Portland, recalled in his memoir that he saw Old Bet on display in his hometown that summer.

“It was a great wonder,” he wrote, “and people gathered in Portland for many miles around, on foot, on horseback and in every kind of transportation imaginable” to see the elephant on display in the courtyard of a tavern.

Reverend Joseph Stockbridge related in a story from North Yarmouth that he also saw the elephant that summer, in “a very large barn” at Captain Samuel Larrabee’s tavern, not far from a stable and school.

Everything went well until July 24, when Old Bet entered the town of Alfred, a little west of Kennebunk. There, a failed farmer named Daniel Davis, hidden in the greenery along the road, shot the elephant twice.

Old Bet fell dead on what would one day become National Highway 4.

The Boston Gazette spared a few adjectives by calling the aggressor an “evil disbeliever”, “scoundrel of his country” and “vile monster” who “can be rightly compared to the reptiles that crawl the earth and vermin. who infest us on earth “. each side.

He said that “the poor black man” who took care of the elephant for Bailey felt “the agony of grief and despair” as he watched her struggle to breathe.

Many others were angry and upset too.

“We learn that the elephant exhibited as a curiosity in this city lately, was shot on an open house by a villain in Alfred, Maine. We have such wretches in our country, ”wrote Dr. William Bentley of Salem, Massachusetts, in his diary a few days later.

The United States Gazette in Philadelphia called Davis a “miserable wanderer” and reported that Bailey would not bother to sue him.

Davis’ motives have never been clear. He seemed to think that asking people to pay to see an elephant was unfair to the poor, and unseemly on a Sunday in particular. But killing the creature was hardly a reasonable solution to his worries.

It looks particularly horrific if the Essex Register’s crime report was correct. He said the owner deliberately brought Old Bet to town during the day because its residents didn’t have the money to pay to see it. The Gazette said a crowd of 20 gathered around it when Davis opened fire.

Davis bypassed jail for his act and quickly disappeared. No one knows what happened to him.

A small statue of the Old Bet sits atop a tall pole outside the Elephant Hotel in Westchester County, New York. Photo from the Library of Congress

In any case, Old Bet has never been forgotten. Bailey erected a small wooden statue of her outside her Elephant Hotel in Somers, New York, which still stands atop a high pole, although it was carved again a century later when the original has decayed.

A historic monument, erected in Alfred in 1963, marks the site of the assassination.

Bailey then showed his skin at his exhibits, and Barnum claimed decades later that he had his remains to display in one of his museums in New York City.

Whatever happened to Old Bet, there is a lot to be said about the day she frolicked in the Androscoggin, enjoying a rare moment of fun and freedom, much to the joy of the former. settlers in the area.


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