A Lively Experiment

Notes on collections at the RIHS

The Elephant

Unfortunately, this post just missed Elephant Appreciation Day, but better late than never.

“The Elephant”* is a broadside advertising the display in Providence of “the most respectable Animal in the World,” a friendly (but paper-of-consequence-stealing) elephant on its way from Philadelphia to celebrate the Harvard Commencement. Displays like this one were certainly nothing new in an Age of Wonder like the late eighteenth-century: Providence residents had been entertained by an automaton the previous November. And many aspects of the November performance are in place here: once again children get half-price on the $.25 admission, and every effort has been made not to offend the “genteel Company”.

A place was apparently “fitted up” for the elephant in a store behind the Coffee House, which was located where the RISD Auditorium now stands. This also happened to be the location of the publishers of the broadside, John Carter and William Wilkinson, and the broadside offers an interesting example of the goings-on of a print shop of the time. A variant of the broadside depicted here also exists**, but in place of the woodcut illustration of the elephant is a line of type decorations, and the text describing the duration of the elephant’s stay (“till the 8th of July only”) reads simply, “where he will remain a few Days only….”

Thanks to a 1951 article by George G. Goodwin, we also know a lot more about the elephant itself: Her name (Old Bet)***, the fact that she was a two-year-old elephant brought from India and that she was the first elephant ever brought to America. We have Nathaniel Hawthorne’s father to thank, in part, for the account of Bet’s journey to America, as he was a passenger on the ship that made the months-long voyage, and he recorded the experience in a journal.

The end of Bet’s story in America is uncertain, but there is the possibility she was shot by a boy (possibly in Rhode Island) and killed. Whatever the case, Bet’s story is parallel in many ways to a much earlier travelling celebrity pachyderm:

Dürer rhino full


Like Bet, the rhinoceros that was the basis for Durer’s famous illustration made a lengthy water voyage, in this case travelling from India to Spain in 1515. The rhinoceros became an international sensation, and for those who couldn’t travel to see it in person, Durer’s impressive (if not entirely accurate) woodcut illustration conveyed a sense of its strength and power. (Perhaps our elephant broadside filled a similar purpose in addition to its advertising role.) While on its way to the Pope, the ship carrying the Rhinoceros wrecked, and the rhinoceros was killed. (Listen to the full story in one of the BBC’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects” podcasts: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00tn9vp .)

Shipwrecks, gunshots and a host of other maladies have been the unfortunate side-effect of human interaction with astonishing  and impressive members of the animal world. Among many such cases is the story of the elephant whose difficulties were “heightened by the great quantity of ale the spectators continually gave it”:****

UPDATE: We should have mentioned this great documentary film project to tell “the story of what happens when elephants and Rhode Islanders meet”.

* Broadsides, 1797. Alden #1532.


** Alden #1531.

*** Although the broadside refers to the elephant as male.

**** “An Antiquary of the Last Century,” Littell’s Living Age, 6th ser., vol. 2 (14 April 1894): 94-106.

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This entry was posted on 22 October 2010 by in Collection Notes and tagged , , , , , , .

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