May 25th is solemnly recognized as “Elephant Day” in Chepachet, for it was on May 25, 1826 that Betty, The Learned Elephant, was shot and killed in the village.
Betty’s first appearance in Chepachet was July 31, 1822 and she won the hearts of amazed onlookers with her intelligence and size. People here, as well as those up and down the eastern seaboard, were seeing the elephant from Calcutta, India for the very first time. Betty, or Little Bett as she was affectionately called by her owner, was only the second elephant to walk on the North American continent.
The first Indian elephant was Big Bett, who arrived aboard Jacob Crowninshield’s ship, America, at New York Harbor during 1796. Soon she was purchased by Hakaliah Bailey, the predecessor of the Bailey of the famous Barnum & Bailey Circus, which was yet to be created many years later. In those early days, Big Bett was displayed in coastal cities and towns by a keeper who might lease her for the season, then return her to Hakaliah Bailey at his home in Somers, New York to winter over in the shelter of his enormous barn.
Elephants are very long-lived and exhibit a high degree of social complexity. Their social network is unusually large, radiating out from the natal family through bond groups, clans, and independent adult males and beyond to strangers. The close and enduring cooperative social relationships operating between in dividuals and families within this fluid multi-tiered society is rare in the animal kingdom.ELEPHANT VOICES
Exotic animals from foreign lands across the ocean became a tremendous attraction and drew people away from church-going. Such diversion from the study of the Scriptures was considerred by the religious community as the work of the devil. And still the crowds came to see these marvelous creatures.
In the summer of 1816, Big Bett and her keeper were in Alfred, Maine and made the mistake of walking across the farmland of a religious fanatic on a Sunday. The farmer shot her. Poor Mr Bailey was heartbroken and, in Big Bett’s memory, he erected an elephant statue in his home town of Somers, New York which stands today in front of Elephant Hotel.
Mr Bailey’s determination to have a replacement for the precious pet he had lost resulted in the arrival of a ship from India with his Little Bett, who became well known from Charlestown to Portland as the fabulous Learned Elephant, also known as Betty.
By 1822 a broadside proclaimed the arrival of the talented 12-year-old pachyderm in Rhode Island and Betty lumbered into Chepachet under cover of darkness on July 31. Her keeper and guards raised the tent sides so that, by morning’s early light, the 6,000 pond elephant was concealed from view. To see the wondrous celebrity there was an admission fee of 12 1/2 cents – children under 12 half-price.
Following the warmth of the spring sun northward, Little Bett walked for four more years, satisfying the curiosity of villagers from the Carolinas to Maine.
Upon Betty’s reurn to Chepachet, cruel fate dealt her a lethal blow on May 25, 1826 at the old wooden bridge that spanned Chepachet River. Hakaliah Bailey had lost yet another marvelous elephant.
Then the realization began to dawn among those with exotic animal traveling shows that they must improve their public image and unify to protect themselves and their valuable animals. Circus Fans of America now recognize this incident nearly 200 years ago as the deciding factor that led to the formation of the American circus as we know it today.
On the 150th anniversary of Betty’s death, Chepachet’s historian decided that it was time for the village to honor the Learned Elephant. After convincing the Rhode Island General Assembly to proclaim May 25, 1976 “Elephant Day,” the citizens of Chepachet placed a commemorative plaque on the bridge to mark the spot where Little Bett had fallen. Commemorative ceremonies of one sort or another have been held each year since.
Edna M. Kent