The story of 'Old Bet' the circus elephant

Published:

Sunday, 5/27/2012 8:50am

Ever wanted to see an exotic animal up close and personal, and would you pay for the privilege?

In the early 1800’s Hackaliah Bailey figured – correctly – that many people would pay for just such an experience. He purchased an elephant named “Old Bet” and soon started one of America’s first touring circuses. If the name Bailey sounds vaguely familiar, just add Barnum and voila, you get the famous Barnum & Bailey circus.

Old Bet was brought to Boston in 1804, one of the first elephants to come to this country. It was there that Hackaliah, who was at the time a farmer here in Westchester County, saw her and was fascinated. When he found she was for sale several years later, he bought her for the princely fee of about $1,000 - approximately $26,900 in today’s dollars. At the time, he thought she would make a fine farm draught animal. But what he found was that neighbors clamored to see her and were willing to pay a fee ($.50 to $1) for a sneak peak.

Bailey started traveling through the area with Old Bet, then added other animals and the “Bailey’s Traveling Show and Menagerie” was born.

This story, like so many others involving animals and circuses, does not have a happy ending. In 1816, a local farmer in Alfred, Maine murdered poor Old Bet because he thought it sinful to ask poor farmers to pay to see her. Bailey memorialized his beloved Old Bet with a statue that can be seen today at the Elephant Hotel in Somers.

Today, at an event like Animals & Acrobats, the exotic animals you can see are not sideshow curiosities, but orphaned and rescued “ambassador” animals taken care of by conservation groups such as Two by Two Zoo, the Wolf Conservation Center, and Flight of the Raptor. These ambassadors help educate the public about issues like habitat loss and conservation while making empathetic connections between humans and other species.

Animals & Acrobats, which continues today and tomorrow at Van Cortlandt Manor, of course also features a gaggle of circus performers. Ringmaster Jonathan Kruk will lead a colorful cast of jugglers, acrobats, tightrope walkers, mimes, and magicians through their paces, reminding us moderns what fun folks had at the circus some 200 years ago.

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