The first known elephant was Big Bett, who may have arrived onboard the America in New York Harbor in 1796. Purchased by one Hachaliah Bailey, who would later be called the “father of the American circus,” she was leased out to keepers up and down the East Coast who would show her to curiosity-seekers for a price.
In the summer of 1816, a keeper made the mistake of walking Big Bett across the land of a particularly religious farmer in Alfred, Maine. The display of exotic animals was viewed, in some quarters, as an ungodly distraction from prayer. And the farmer shot and killed the beast.
Bailey’s second pachyderm, Betty the Learned Elephant — or Little Bett — also went on tour. But she was destined to meet the same sad end. On the night of May 25, 1826, for reasons that are not entirely clear, she was shot by musket as she crossed the Chepachet River on a wooden bridge.
On the 150th anniversary of the assassination, the town unveiled a plaque commemorating the event on the bridge that presently spans the river. And in 2000, as part of an ill-fated tourism campaign sponsored by the state in partnership with Hasbro — “Rhode Island: The Birthplace of Fun” was the tagline — communities around the state sponsored 47 Mr. Potato Head statues.
Glocester’s Potato Head spent some time at the Manton Free Public Library before moving over to the Town Hall’s front lawn. A landscaping project a couple of years ago sent the Potato Head over to the Highway Department, where it still sits.
Workers there say the statue gets an occasional visitor. But it lives mostly in memory. One story has the statue disappearing from the Town Hall lawn one day, with only a “Gone Fishin’ ” sign in its place.
Town employees found Betty at the Spring Grove swimming hole, a beer in one hand and a fishing pole in the other.
David Scharfenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.