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

There wasn’t a whole lot in Lewiston or Auburn back in 1816, just a few frame houses and a few paltry businesses.

The year was long remembered even so because, thanks to the explosion of a volcano on the far side of the globe, it got so cold that summer barely arrived and harvests failed most everywhere. Some Mainers got so fed up they moved west.

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

Esther Moody, born in 1816 in Auburn, heard all about it from her mother and recounted the tale among her many memories to a Lewiston Evening Journal reporter 75 years later.

The nearly 5,000-pound, 7-foot-high elephant named Old Bet came to town with a traveling show that had wandered the byways of Maine trying to pick up enough coins to make the journey worthwhile.

Her owners tried to get Old Bet to cross the wooden bridge that spanned the river between Lewiston and what would someday be called Auburn. But the elephant was not having it. She didn’t trust the rickety structure.

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

Old Bet must have loved it, in Moody’s telling, because “she refused to come out of the water for a long time.”

“She would swim around and squirt the water in all directions,” Moody told the reporter.

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

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

She was surely the first to reach Maine, though, part of a show put together by Hachaliah Bailey, called the father of the American circus by P.T. Barnum. Bailey’s primitive little circus included four wagons, a trained dog, several pigs, a horse and the elephant, the obvious star of the show.

In newspaper advertisements, she was said to have been born in 1800, friendly and docile. But more than likely she actually arrived in the United States in 1796 aboard the ship America after a long journey from India, the first time one arrived in the country.

A poster printed in 1797 advertising an appearance in Boston by “The Elephant” that likely got the name Old Bet some years later. Streets of Salem Blog

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

“It is almost as large as a very large ox, and I dare say we shall get it home safe,” Crowninshield wrote, guessing it will bring “at least $5,000” from Americans willing to pay to see the pachyderm in person.

“I suppose you will laugh at this scheme,” Crowninshield wrote, but if it succeeds “I ought to have the whole credit and honor, too; of course you know it will be a great thing to carry the first elephant to America.”

Novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne’s father, an officer on the ship, noted in his log during the voyage from Calcutta for New York that the ship had stopped at St. Helena, future home of an exiled Napoleon, that they’d taken on board “several pumpkins and cabbages, some fresh fish for ship’s use, and greens for the elephant.” Then in large letters, as if he’d just become aware of the novelty, he printed “ELEPHANT ON BOARD.”

It arrived in time for the elephant to make an appearance at Harvard College’s 1796 commencement ceremony in Cambridge.

Keeping track of particular elephants is well nigh impossible given that new owners often changed the creature’s name and built elaborate and misleading stories about them to help attract crowds. But it is likely that Bailey bought that first elephant and began figuring out how to maximize the revenue Old Bet could bring in.

In those pre-railroad days, Old Bet trudged around on foot between Philadelphia and New England for years, where people would fork over a quarter to see her, and sometimes a lion as well. Children got in for half price.

One of her much-touted skills was to remove a cork from a bottle with her trunk and then drink 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 patrons that she posed no danger but warned them “the elephant has destroyed many papers of consequence,” so they should be careful not to have any within her 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. By mid-July, she was walking south to Lewiston, often traveling after dark so people couldn’t see her easily without paying for the privilege.

She must have moved on toward Boston because Neal Dow, a temperance leader who became mayor of Portland, recalled in his memoirs that he saw Old Bet exhibited in his hometown that summer.

“It was a great wonder,” he wrote, “and people thronged into Portland from many miles around, on foot, on horseback, and in every conceivable kind of conveyance” to see the elephant exhibited in the stable yard of a tavern.

The Rev. Joseph Stockbridge recorded in a history of North Yarmouth that he saw the elephant as well that summer, in “a very large barn” at Capt. Samuel Larrabee’s tavern, not far from a stable and a schoolhouse.

Everything went smoothly until July 24 when Old Bet walked into the town of Alfred, a bit west of Kennebunk. There, a failing farmer named Daniel Davis, hidden in the greenery alongside the road, shot the elephant twice.

Old Bet fell dead on what would one day become state Route 4.

The Boston Gazette spared few adjectives in calling the perpetrator a “diabolical miscreant,” “a scoundrel to his country” and a “vile monster” who “may justly be compared to the reptiles that crawl upon the earth and the vermin that infest us on every side.”

It said “the poor black” man who cared for the elephant for Bailey felt “the agony of grief and despair” as he watched her struggling to breathe.

Plenty of others were angry and upset as well.

“We learn that the Elephant exhibited as a curiosity in this town lately, was shot in open day by a villain at Alfred, Maine. We have such wretches in our country,” Dr. William Bentley of Salem, Massachusetts, recorded in his diary a few days later.

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

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

It seems especially awful if the Essex Register’s report on the crime was correct. It said the owner had deliberately brought Old Bet to town during daylight because its residents didn’t have the money to pay to see her. The Gazette said a crowd of up to 20 people were gathered about her when Davis opened fire.

Davis skirted jail for his deed and promptly vanished. Nobody knows what happened to him.

A small statue of Old Bet stands atop a large pole outside the Elephant Hotel in Westchester County, New York. Library of Congress photo

In any case, Old Bet has never been forgotten. Bailey erected a little wooden statue of her outside his Elephant Hotel in Somers, New York, that still stands atop a high pole, though it was carved anew a century later when the original rotted away.

A historical marker, erected in Alfred in 1963, marks the site of the slaying.

Bailey later showed her hide at his shows and Barnum claimed decades afterward that he had her remains for display at one of his museums in New York City.

Whatever became of Old Bet, there’s much to be said for remembering the day she frolicked in the Androscoggin, enjoying a rare moment of fun and freedom, to the joy of the area’s early settlers.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.