Podcast 189 – The Slaying of Old Bet

In 1816, an Alfred, Maine, farmer gunned down New England’s first elephant as she approached town.


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In Episode 189, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger visit a memorial off the side of the road in Alfred, Maine, that marks the site where America’s first elephant was gunned down in cold blood back in 1816. The elephant named Old Bet had toured throughout New England for eight years before a jealous farmer named Daniel Davis gunned her down as she approached the town of Alfred. Old Bet was part of one of America’s earliest circuses, and if not for the tiny memorial along Route 4, her legend may be lost forever.

Read the episode transcript.

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Edited by: Ray Auger
Theme Music by: John Judd

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The Alfred, Maine, memorial to the slaying of the elephant Old Bet.

The Alfred, Maine, memorial to the slaying of the elephant Old Bet.

Old Bet may have been the first elephant on American soil.

Old Bet may have been the first elephant on American soil. She toured New England for eight years.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

[DRIVING]

JEFF: Okay, what we’re looking for is right off of Route 4. Once we see the York County Jail, we’re getting close to the memorial to a murder.

RAY: Okay, I think that’s the Jail sign coming up on the right.

JEFF: Yup, that’s it! Okay, we’re close. Keep looking on the side of the road…

RAY: Okay, there’s a one-story commercial building coming up next, I see some houses, a lot of woods on the other side of Route 4.

JEFF: Oh shoot! I think we just passed it. Hold on, let me turn around.

[BLINKER]

JEFF: Okay, we’ll pull off of Swetts Bridge Road and park the car.

[CAR STOPS DOORS CLOSE]

RAY: I still don’t see anything, Jeff. There’s a memorial to a murder around here? Wait… I see a small rock over there by the intersection. It almost looks like a short headstone. It’s easy to miss!

JEFF: That’s what we’re looking for, Ray! It was right here that a local Alfred, Maine, man shot and killed America’s first elephant. An elephant they called Old Bet.

[INTRO]

JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to episode 189 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.

RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Alfred, Maine, is the next stop on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. So many of our stories come from you legendary listeners. We love it when you reach out to us through social media, through our Web site, our free smart phone app, our super secret facebook group, or when you call or text our legend line anytime at 617-444-9683.

JEFF: Please also be sure to subscribe and review our podcast on Apple Podcasts. It helps others find us.

RAY: Before we explore this elephant murder in Maine, we’d like to take a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals.

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RAY: Okay, Jeff, I’ve heard of elephant graveyards before. But they don’t look like this. We’re standing on a lawn right at the intersection Swetts Bridge Road and Route 4. This stone marker is maybe knee-high right by a telephone pole. No wonder we drove right by it the first time.

JEFF: Go ahead and give this a read, Ray.

RAY: It says July 24, 1816. Site of slaying of elephant exhibited by Hachaliah (Heck-a-LIE-uh) Bailey and George Brown Company of Somers, New York.

JEFF: To figure out how the elephant got here, and why it was gunned down in cold blood, let’s head back to 1804, and set this up.

[TRANSITION]

[OCEAN SEA GULLS]

RAY: It’s the summer of 1804, and a ship has just pulled into the docks at Boston Harbor. As they’re unloading the cargo, suddenly a giant beast comes lumbering onto the deck.

[ELEPHANT BURST]

RAY: A creature no one in Boston has ever seen before. This thing is huge! She’s gray in color, she has big, floppy ears, and she’s walking off of the ship.

JEFF: It’s an elephant. They say it’s the first one to ever stand on American soil. As you can imagine, it’s drawing a crowd.

RAY: This elephant is from some foreign land, obviously, but no one is really sure which land she’s from.

JEFF: We know elephants are mammals. They’re the largest living land animal, and they come from tropical and sub-tropical regions of Africa and Asia. But this elephant in Boston didn’t come with a birth certificate, or if it did, no one knows where it is now. The elephant soon joins a menagerie in Boston where visitors can pay to see the animals.

RAY: As you might guess, this elephant is a draw. People are lining up to see her. For four years, that’s her fate, until the giant pachyderm finds herself in a New York City cattle market. She’s gentle and good-natured, and even does a trick. She can un-cork AND chug a beer bottle.

[CROWD APPLAUDS]

JEFF: I do that all the time! No one cheers when I pop a beer and chug it!

RAY: In fairness, the elephant performs this trick a lot less often than YOU do, Jeff. This elephant catches the attention of a New York farmer who has big dreams. A famer named Hachaliah Bailey. Bailey drops $1000 dollars for this elephant and names her Old Bet. Maybe because he’s betting on enough people paying to see her so he can earn his money back.

JEFF: Bailey takes Old Bet on a tour through New England where he charges 25 cents to look at her. Old Bet is displayed in barns and behind taverns. Always the capitalist, Bailey walks Old Bet to the next town at night so no one can get any free looks.

RAY: It’s not the greatest life for Old Bet and Bailey, but it’s a living. Over the years, Bailey is making a handsome profit on his large investment. An investment that eats quite a lot of hay each day. One problem with a display like this is that at some point, folks in a particular town have seen the elephant. They’re not going to pay again. So you have to keep the show moving.

JEFF: It’s now 1816, and Bailey is loading Old Bet along with a caged lion on a boat heading north to visit some Maine seaports. The ship sails as far north as Belfast, Maine, then they travel on to Augusta, then to Lewiston, New Gloucester, and finally to the town of Alfred Maine.

RAY: The thing about 1816 is, it’s the year without a summer. The frosts that usually stop around April or May, are still happening in June and July. It even snowed a couple of weeks ago! Crops aren’t happening across the state. It’s making life difficult for those who earn a living growing and selling food.

JEFF: Here in Alfred, Maine, few have it as bad as Daniel Davis. Daniel and his brother mortgaged their farms recently in order to buy a sawmill. But then Daniel’s brother died unexpectedly. And now Daniel Davis is trying to take care of not just his family and farm, but his brother’s as well. Given all the frost and all the debt, Daniel Davis is scared he could lose everything.

[ELEPHANT BURST]

RAY: Enter Old Bet, Hachaliah Bailey, and his traveling menagerie. It’s a cold night considering it’s mid-July. But the group are making their way into town thinking about the next show, the local awaiting crowds, and getting some much-needed rest after their long walk. What they don’t know is that just up ahead, Daniel Davis is hiding in some bushes.

[COCK OF GUN]

RAY: Just as Old Bet passes the bushes, Davis rushes out and fires twice.

[MUSKET FIRE]

RAY: Right into Old Bet, just behind her shoulder.

[ELEPHANT BURST]

RAY: Old Bet cries out in pain, charges down the road to try and get away, but soon collapses. The elephant is dead.

JEFF: The newspapers use the word “murder,” to describe the heartless, cold-blooded act. The people of Alfred are appalled. Their town will now forever be known as the town that killed New England’s only elephant. Still, Hachaliah Bailey didn’t get to where he is by being a fool. He employs some locals to help remove the hide and bones from Old Bet, so he can bring them back to him home in New York and get them taxidermied into a full-scale elephant who can continue to tour, but never needs to be fed.

RAY: Meanwhile, in Alfred, Maine, Daniel Davis is arrested for killing the elephant. Davis only spends three days in jail, then pays his bond before he’s free to go.

JEFF: That hardly seems fair.

RAY: Davis is quoted as saying he didn’t think it was right to charge people 25 cents to see an elephant when some of those folks need the money more than Hachaliah Bailey. And that brings us back to today.

[TRANSITION]

JEFF: Hachaliah Bailey is credited with establishing one of the earliest circuses in the United States. Back in those early days, Bailey employed a young boy from Connecticut to sell tickets as they traveled through New England. That boy’s name was P.T. Barnum, who was no doubt inspired to see the kinds of things people would pay money to see.

RAY: This stone monument was placed here in Alfred, Maine, July 24, 1963 to commemorate the slaying of Old Bet. A dark day for America’s first elephant.

JEFF: So here’s the thing. We’re not totally positive Old Bet was the first elephant in America. In 1796, an elephant arrived in New York aboard a ship called America. The ship came from Calcutta. So there was an elephant in the country before Old Bet shows up in Boston in 1804. However, it’s possible that elephant in New York is the same one who eventually came to Boston in 1804. So maybe there are two elephants, or maybe we’re talking about the same one. It’s been lost to history. It’s worth noting that elephants can live between 40 and 70 years in the wild… unless of course they’re gunned down in cold blood.

RAY: As if elephants needed another reminder to stay away from Maine, in 1836, a ship called the Royal Tar sank off the coast of Vinalhaven, carrying a menagerie of animals including an elephant who drowned in the disaster. We actually explored this story back in episode 145 of the podcast.

JEFF: So if you’re an elephant, it’s best to steer clear of Maine. Got it. I still can’t believe Daniel Davis only got three days in jail and a fine for killing such a majestic animal.

RAY: He also got his name dragged through the mud. At some point Davis claimed it was religious reasons that he killed Old Bet, because he viewed it as sinful that people would spend money to see an animal, but in reality, it was most likely jealousy that this out-of-towner was coming here with a literal cash cow while Davis was struggling.

JEFF: And today there’s this small stone marker commemorating where the murder took place. It’s interesting that Daniel Davis’s name is NOT on this plaque. On the one hand, it would be nice to shame him for as long as this stone stands, but maybe on the other hand, his name doesn’t deserve to be mentioned. That’s the struggle with any tragic legend. We want to honor the fallen, and not celebrate the villains.

[OUTTRO]

RAY: That IS the struggle. And of course sometimes it’s not always clear who the villains are. But we know who our friends are! I’m talking of course about our patreon patrons who spend $3 bucks per month with us to get early access to new episodes plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. If you can help us continue to grow this community and movement, head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.

JEFF: My latest book, The Call of Kilimanjaro: Finding Hope Above the Clouds is now available wherever books and eBooks are sold. I appreciate all of the great feedback so far. I’m also giving a series of virtual talks on this book, you can find dates and links on our Web site.

RAY: We’d like to thank our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals, and our theme music is by John Judd.

VOICEMAIL: Hello, this is Joy Holhut from Conway, Massachusetts. Until next time remember the bizarre is closer than you think.

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