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Elephants Will Retire From Barnum And Bailey Circus


The greatest show on Earth will no longer feature one of its most iconic acts. Starting in 2018, elephants will not be performing in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Elephants have drawn crowds from the very beginning, ever since an enterprising farmer encountered one of the first elephants to live in this country. Nate DiMeo, host of "The Memory Palace" podcast, picks up the story.


NATE DIMEO: Hachaliah Bailey raised cattle in what is now a bedroom community about an hour and change from Manhattan on the Metro-North commuter line. He'd take his cattle into the city to sell. And at some point during one of his trips, he became enthralled with one of the animals that lived in the stockyard downtown. We don't know how she came to live with the cattle and pigs and sheep and goats or how long she'd lived there. But we read that around 1806, Hachaliah Bailey bought an elephant for $1,000 and brought her home to live in a farm in Somers, NY. He called her Betty.


DIMEO: He planned to put her to work. Bailey never liked farming. It was too monotonous. It took forever for things to grow. It took forever to plow a field with a team of mules. But with an elephant - we don't know how well that went. What we do know is that an elephant in rural America draws a crowd, especially in 1806. And Bailey soon figured out that there was more money to be made by drawing a crowd than by increasing agricultural output through elephant-based efficiencies. So Hachaliah Bailey and the elephant he now affectionately called Old Bet hit the road. For the better part of the decade, they toured the Northeast, commandeering town squares and barns and charging people to see her. After a while, he expanded the operation, turned it into a full-on traveling circus with a horse and a mule and a dog, which everyone had - but an elephant was something else entirely.


DIMEO: Here were farmers and candlestick makers and coopers and their wives and their neighbors, people who hadn't left their fields or their towns since they had first emigrated or since they'd got back from the war. Here were children who'd never been anywhere, never seen anything beyond the world of their farm, their town and their woods and their streams. And into that world walks this creature, into that world walks the world.

We don't know how much money Hachaliah Bailey made off Old Bet. We know he started walking her from town to town in the middle of the night so people wouldn't get a free look along the way. We know that he was successful enough to sell two shares of Old Bet for $1,200 apiece. We know those things. And we know, and are sad to report, that Old Bet died in Alford, Maine, in 1816. She was about 20. She was shot by a farmer who felt it was a sin to charge people to see an animal.

We of course don't know how Old Bet felt about anything. But here are some things we do know. An elephant in the wild can live up to 70 years. Evolution has made them fundamentally social animals. They eat; they breathe; they find water; they protect themselves and their young and each other from predators by working together as a group. They communicate; they growl and stamp and trumpet and shriek and emit sounds or frequencies so low that they can't be heard by humans. But they can vibrate through the ground to be picked up by other elephants, as many as 20 miles away. We know that their social order and group and individual survival hinge upon their famous memories. We know they can remember which watering holes are filled during times of drought, even decades later, and can remember 200 individual elephants. So which did Old Bet remember?


DIMEO: Which did she look for among the cattle and hogs in the Manhattan stockyards, into which did she send subsonic messages to radiate out through New England granite, only to fall 7,000 miles short? And what did she remember of the ship that brought her, of the salt air, of the ocean and of the mouth of the Hudson, of the nights walking under stars and quarter moons and North American elms to yet another strange place with no elephants?


MARTIN: Nate DiMeo. You can hear more stories from America's past at thememorypalace.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nate DiMeo