Hachaliah Bailey

The "Other" Westchester Bailey

Most people who drive through Somers, New York, or see a photograph of the Somers' Elephant Hotel and hear that a man named Bailey built the hotel, are likely to jump to the conclusion that Somers and the Barnum & Bailey circus are somehow connected. This is an understandable assumption, and this is the perfect time to explain about the elephant-owning Bailey who lived in Somers, and how that elephant came to be depicted outside a hotel.

Elephant Hotel

Photograph of the Elephant Hotel, ca. 1885, photographer unknown. Photograph courtesy of the Somers Historical Society.

A farmer by the name of Bailey purchased land just outside the small village of Somers in 1773. A son, Hachaliah, was born in 1774, and like his father, Hachaliah became a farmer. Most farmers in the area farmed the land but also raised cattle. At the proper time, they drove the cattle south to be slaughtered at the stockyards in New York City. In addition to farming and raising cattle, Hachaliah Bailey found many ways to turn a profit. He was one of the directors of the Croton Turnpike Company, which eventually created a toll road through Somers that became a major route for drovers getting the cattle to the Hudson for a trip down river. Bailey also was part-owner of a sloop that was used to transport cattle.

According to an account by Terry Ariano in The Westchester Historian (summer 2008), Hachaliah likely bought his first elephant (the second elephant ever brought to the United States) at a tavern near the New York City stockyards in the Bowery, probably in 1805 or '06. The purchase price is believed to have been $1,000, and Hachaliah called her "Old Bet," which may have been in contrast to "young" Bet, Bailey's daughter Elizabeth. Bailey may have intended to use the elephant as a draft animal. It is believed that Old Bet was taken to Somers via Bailey's sloop, and then he walked her to the farm where he kept her in his barn.

It did not take long for him to realize that Americans were fascinated by exotic animals. He soon began traveling (under cover of night so people could not get free glimpses of Bet), first through Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties and then further afield—from Georgia to Maine. Bailey charged 25 cents to anyone who wanted to see her. Hachaliah went on to take partners and permitted Old Bet to appear in a circus, although it was not anything like the one that grew into the Barnum & Bailey circus many years later. As a result of Bailey's success in displaying Old Bet, his neighbors took to importing and exhibiting exotic animals, and soon Somers, along with North Salem, became known for its menageries. Bailey owned two more elephants after Old Bet was shot by a farmer who was angry that people were spending their hard-earned money to see the animal.

The Elephant Hotel, which became a National Historic Landmark in 2005, was built by Bailey over a five-year period, from 1820-25. The completed façade read, "ELEPHANT HOTEL" and the granite pole with the small carved wooden elephant on top dates to its completion. Its location was at the intersection of the Croton and Danbury turnpikes, an important stagecoach stop.

Elephant Hotel Painting

The Elephant Hotel, by O.J. Denny, painted as it was in 1885. 1975. Courtesy of the Somers Historical Society.

Bailey served two terms in the New York State Legislature. In 1836 he sold the hotel to another family, and moved his family to Virginia. Several of the next generation of Baileys performed in circuses. (The Frederick Bailey for whom James Bailey worked and from whom he took the name, was a distant relative of Hachaliah.) In 1845 Hachaliah returned to Somers for a visit and died while there. He is buried in Somers' Ivandell Cemetery.

Thanks to Terry Ariano for her wonderful article, "Beasts & Ballyhoo: The Menagerie Men of Somers," which appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of The Westchester Historian.