By R. J. Brown
The only surviving accounts of the circus in Colonial American history are news articles and ads found in contemporary newspapers. The circus, as we know it today, was long in evolving. At first, in Colonial America, individual wild animals were put on display and an admission charged. As time went by, to beat the competition, exhibitors began adding more animals to their show. By the early 1800's, full fledge menageries were the trend. Displaying a single animal no longer had a drawing power.
Boston Gazette, September 26, 1720) and soon after, (Boston Gazette, October 2, 9, 23, 1721) the most successful and longest running exhibition of a single animal was an elephant.
Captain Jacob Crowninshield arrived in New York on April 12, 1796 with a two year-old elephant. Upon speculation, he had purchased the pachyderm in India and brought it to America. The entire venture cost him $450.
The elephant was exhibited in New York at the corner of Beaver Street and Broadway on April 23, 1796. At that exhibition, a Welshman named Owen offered to buy it for $10,000. From there, it seems the elephant went of tour constantly for many years.
It is advertised in the Aurora of August 12, 1796 as being on the way to Charleston and Baltimore. It could be seen on High Street for 50¢. On November 7, 1796 we now find the elephant on exhibit in Philadelphia on Market Street "from eight in the morning until sundown", but this time only 25 cents admission. The pachyderm stayed on exhibition in Philadelphia throughout the winter. An article in the Boston Gazette of April 25, 1797 states that "he has grown considerably since her arrival" last year. The Columbian Centinel of Boston announced in its July 26, 1797 edition that "The elephant is just arrived in town and may be seen at Mr. Valentine's, Market Square... The greatest natural curiosity ever presented to the public. He so far surpassed all description that has ever been given him that we shall not attempt it here. Admittance half a dollar."
By reading an article in the same paper a few days later, it is apparent that not many people were willing to pay 50 cents to see the elephant. The article states "By the desire of the proprietor in Philadelphia, the elephant is now to be seen for a quarter of a dollar." Lowering the price must have worked, as the pachyderm stayed there on exhibition for almost a full month.
From there, through newspaper accounts and advertisements, we can learn that the elephant for the next dozen years was almost constantly on tour throughout New England, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas'. The last recorded exhibition of the elephant is an account of its exhibition in York, Pennsylvania on July 25 and 25, 1818. The pachyderm never was given a name and constantly referred to as "the elephant" or "he". (As a side note, as evidenced by an entry in a Reverend's diary, who had seen the animal, "he" was actually a "she.")
Old Bet was the second elephant, imported into Boston by Edward Savage in 1804, and acquired by Hachaliah Bailey of Somers within the following few years. A document in the Somers Historical Society shows that by 1808 Hachaliah Bailey was selling off shares in his elephant to two other partners for $1200 each. Old Bet was killed in Maine in 1816, and her skelton and hide were exhibited in New York the following year.
The third elephant, Little Bet, also owned by Hachaliah Bailey and imported in 1817, was killed in Chepachet, Rhode Island by a group of men. Hachaliah also imported Columbus the elephant in 1817. In 1825 his three story brick "Elephant Hotel" was completed in Somers New York, with a granite pillar supporting a statue of an elephant. Today the building houses the Town Hall and a museum about the Early American Circus. The Elephant Hotel was awarded National Historic Landmark Status in April of 2005.
Needing a rest, Bailey later leased the animal to Nathan Howes. Both became wealthy from the venture and their success was the imputes to become circus showmen -- The Great Howe Circus and the Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Old Bet was moved from town to town on foot by night -- so curiosity seekers could not see her for free -- and displayed in tavern yards and barns during the day. Unfortunately, while in Maine, Old Bet was killed. Some staunch supporters of the Blue Laws (sinful to be entertained on a Sunday) decided to end the matter once and for all. As the elephant was being led into town just before daylight, on July 26, 1816, the group waylaid the party and fired a half dozen shots that killed her.
Old Bets' death did not stop her from going on exhibition. A mere 9 months later, advertisements started appearing in New York newspapers that relate that the owners had the remains of Old Bet stuffed and preserved. For the next four years, Old Bets' remains toured New England. In 1821, the American Museum in New York announced that they had bought Old Bet and she would now be on permanent display at the museum.
According to the Massachusetts Spy of July 15, 1818, another elephant was brought to America and was named Columbus. This pachyderm was on constant display until 1847.
Up until this point, none of the elephants that had been on display in America could not do tricks to entertain or amuse their viewers. This changed in September, 1821. The Learned Elephant, Little Bet went on tour and could perform many tricks. Among them, kneel, balance her body alternately on each pair of legs, present her right foot to permit her keeper or any other person to mount her trunk, carry them about the room and safely return them, draw a cork from a filled bottle and drink the contents and then present the empty bottle and cork to the keeper. She could lie down, sit up and rise at command, bow and whistle on request, and answer to the call of her keeper.
While Old Bet was intelligent, its owner made a dumb mistake in the manner that he promoted her. As part of the publicity, the owner was constantly reminding the crowd that Little Bet's hide was so tough and thick that even a bullet couldn't penetrate it. Under the category of "boys will be boys", five youths decided to test it out. On July 31, 1822, after a performance, they fired at her from behind an Elm tree, the bullet struck her in the eye and she fell dead in her tracks. In doing so, the owner was proved a liar, but at the expense of losing the first well trained pachyderm in America.
By 1824 elephants were no longer being displayed as a single-attraction. Rather, menageries emerged in a great scale with many having dozens of different animals, including an elephant, on display under one roof. It wasn't until 1882 that another elephant in America would become famous as a single attraction.
In 1882, P.T. Barnum offered the London Zoo $10,000 to buy their elephant named Jumbo. The elephant was the largest in the world and measured 10 feet 10 inches tall, weighed 8 tons, and had a trunk 27 and a half inches in circumference.
Jumbo was first shown at Barnums' Hippodrome that same year. The animal traveled in an especially designed palace car. Millions of people paid to see Jumbo. On September 15, 1885, while on a layover in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, Jumbo was standing on the train track when a train rushed upon him. Jumbo was caught between the line of circus cars and the oncoming train and killed. His hide was preserved and later given to Tufts College, while the skeleton was given to the Museum of Natural History.
Jumbo was loved by so many people that, after his death, people automatically began referring to anything larger than normal as being "jumbo-sized." To this day, over a hundred years later, the term has stayed a part of the English language.
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