Elephant on Board

I suppose every town has unique and quirky history, but Salem sure seems to have more than its fair share.  Salemites have been involved in so many aspects of American history, including legal process, navigation, trade, literature, education, and abolition.  And then there are the quirky stories that catch our attention – streakers, souvenir spoons, lead pencils, American flags, and elephants.

It is said that the first elephant in America came through Salem in 1796.  She was purchased in Calcutta by Captain Jacob Crowninshield, who was a member of the hugely successful Crowninshield & Sons of Salem shipping company.

The elephant came to America aboard the ship, America.  She was 2 years old and they called her Old Bet. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s father, Nathaniel Hathorne, was apparently an officer on board, and he is credited with writing, “Elephant on Board” in the ship log.

As the story goes, the crew of the America realized quickly after setting sail with this elephant that she was drinking all of the water on board. They quickly switched her diet to beer, and when she arrived stateside she was, well, drunk.  That did not diminish Old Bet’s popularity, though. She was eventually sold to Bailey (of Barnum & Bailey) and taken on tour with the circus. She was exhibited in Salem, Beverly, Marblehead, Boston, and New York.

The promotional poster from Boston has a few gems in its copy: “He eats 130 weight a day, and drinks all kinds of spiritous liquors; some days he has drank 30 bottles of porter, drawing the corks with his trunk,” and “The elephant having destroyed many papers of consequence, it is recommended to visitors not to come near him with such papers.”

Admission to see the elephant cost just one quarter of a dollar (children, nine pence).