April 13th Holidays and Observances

First Elephant Comes to America, ????

If you had to guess when the first elephant came to America, what would you say? End of the 19th century? Earlier? If I’d been guessing, I would probably have said somewhere between 1830 and 1860.

Actually, it was much earlier than that. The first elephant arrived in America on April 13, 1796. It was the property of Captain Jacob Crowninshield. He had purchased it in India for $450 and brought it with him to New York on the ship America.

Captain Crowninshield was one of five brothers who ran the company of George Crowninshield and Sons of Salem, Massachusetts. All the brothers were in the business, which did trade with India. We know about the elephant’s arrival from two sources. The first is a series of letters that Crowninshield wrote to his brothers about the venture. He was excited about the project, and hoped to make some money exhibiting the elephant, as well as achieving fame as the first person to bring an elephant to America.

The second source of information is the ship’s logs, which were written by an officer of the ship, Nathaniel Hathorne. His son would later add a w to his surname, and achieve lasting fame for writing The Scarlet Letter.

Crowninshield’s elephant was a female, about two years old when she arrived in America. She was never given a name, and Crowninshield always referred to her as a “him”. Through period newspapers and public notices, we can trace the elephant’s travels. She was exhibited in New York for awhile, and then went on tour for at least a dozen years.

The second elephant in American became even more famous. Old Bet, as she was called, was owned by Hachaliah Bailey, whose nephew-by-adoption was the Bailey of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. You can read the story of Old Bet and her tragic demise here.

Handel’s Messiah Premieres, 1742

The premiere of Messiah took place in Dublin as part of a series of charity concerns. Proceeds from the event went to local hospitals for the mentally ill. Handel himself led the performance from the harpsichord.

The most famous portion of Messiah is Hallelujah Chorus. It is a common tradition today for the audience to rise when this portion is performed. The tradition is thought to have arisen from the first London performance of the work, which was attended by King George II. When the Chorus began, the King rose to his feet, and remained standing until the end. Since the king was on his feet, everyone else was required to rise, too.

The question that has never been answered is, why did the King rise to his feet? Was he moved by the performance? Was he responding to the line “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”, indicating his fealty to the ultimate King? Or was he just uncomfortable from being in his seat so long?

Thomas Jefferson’s Birthday, 1826

It’s not possible to even touch on all of Jefferson’s achievements in a short article, and I’m not arrogant enough to think I can summarize his life. I would like to touch on some of his extra-curricular interests, though — the things Thomas Jefferson did when he wasn’t busy forming a new country, or writing the Declaration of Independence, or founding the University of Virginia, or serving in the many government positions he occupied during his life.

Jefferson was a reader. He had a lifelong love of learning and collected thousands of books. In fact, when he sold his library to the Library of Congress in 1815 it contained about 6700 books.

Jefferson was a gardener. Of course, he was also a farmer, and as such he strove for self-sufficiency, raising wheat, vegetables, flax, corn, and livestock. But he also loved his flower gardens, and grew all kinds of ornamental plants from all over the world, often experimenting with creating new strains. He also grew over 330 vegetable varieties, as well as 170 fruit varieties in his orchards. He kept careful notes and records of everything.

Jefferson was an architect. He had studied the classical orders and the work of Andrea Palladio, and believed that Greek and Roman architectural standards were appropriate for the new democracy of America. He was responsible for the planning of Monticello, his beautiful home, as well as the grounds of the University of Virginia.

Jefferson was an inventor. Among his inventions (or perfections of others’ inventions) were an improved plow, a type of folding ladder, a clock operating by gravity, and a polygraph — an instrument for making an automatic copy as one wrote a document. He also invented a revolving bookstand that could simultaneously hold five books, open, for reading or reference.

Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/April_13th; http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/editors_pick/1928_05-06_pick.html; http://chuckstraub.com/Letterboxing/firstelephant.htm; http://www.historybuff.com/library/refelephant.html; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messiah_(Handel); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Jefferson; http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson; http://cti.itc.virginia.edu/~meg3c/classes/tcc313/200Rprojs/jefferson_invent/invent.html.