The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Baker and the Bear

In a previous post here on the Beehive, I introduced readers to William Emerson Baker and his estate called Ridge Hill Farms, highlighting his affinity for all things porcine. As mentioned before, the MHS recently acquired a handful of items that relate to Ridge Hill Farms, including documents, artifacts, and photographs. Today, we return to the estate once more, but for a different sort of affair.


 

You've lost your bear, so bear your loss,

Of all your hopes the ruin;

And while you drain the bitter draught,

          Reflect--'twas your own "bruin."

                                                "A.M.H"

 

William E. Baker purchased Billy Bruin - a two and a half year old black Labrador bear - from a Boston showman. On 15 July 1874, Billy was delivered to Baker's estate at Ridge Hill Farm, and promptly escaped three hours later. Over the next ten days, Billy roamed the area, frightening parishioners in Dedham, Selectmen in Needham, and Irish quarrymen in Quincy, among others. With a sizable reward offered for his capture, Billy was pursued as far as Weymouth. Sadly, a starving Billy was shot and fatally wounded while crossing a river in that town, then carried on the current into Boston Harbor, finally washing ashore in the town of Hull about 25 July.

Upon Baker's request, the body of Billy Bruin was returned to Ridge Hill Farms. The hide was mounted by a taxidermist and the remains were buried in a $2,000 solid copper casket on 8 August 1874. And while this was a somber affair, Baker, in his usual style, took the opportunity to make it a grand and remarkable event. As with an event to lay the conerstone of his new piggery, Baker sent formal invitations to the funeral of his departed bear. It is said that over 1,000 invited guests and several hundred others showed up for the affair. And as with the other party, those who could not attend sent their regrets along with bits of inspired poetry, published and shared with guests that day. No less a personage than Oliver Wendell Holmes extended his regrets to Baker:

Dear Sir,

Many thanks for your polite invitation to attend the obsequies of the lamented plantigrade. I am sorry that it will not be in my power to attend upon the melancholy occasion. I have a great respect for bears since those two femal one taught the little children of Bethel and Belial that they must not be rude to elderly persons. I think a loose bear or two might be of service in our community, and I regret much the loss of an animal who might have done so much as a moral teacher for the young of this city and its suburbs.

I am, dear Sir, yours very truly,

O. W. Holmes

269 Beacon Street, August 1, 1874.

 

Among the recently-acquired items now at the MHS is a watercolor painting which shows the funeral procession for the ill-fated Billy Bruin.

The Funeral of Billy Bruin / [landscape] by an unidentified artist

 

From a distance, the image fairly clearly shows a procession, of sorts, but it is on closer inspection that the wonderful idiosyncrasies of a Baker-hosted event start to show.

Detail. The Funeral of Billy Bruin

 

Here we can see a segment of the procession, with the stuffed hide of Billy at the center. With him are members of a marching band, various costumed individuals including the pallbearers, and sundry other onlookers. In seeking more information online, I found a piece over at the Wellesley History blog (titled "Billy Bruin and his festive funeral") which thankfully sheds some more light on this colorful cast of characters. To wit:

What follows is a partial list of the participants: the Grand Marshall (Baker) a la cheval, the stuffed corpse of Billy Bruin on a bier carried by four men wearing animal skins to represent the Bulls and Bears of the Financial District, 5-month-old bear cub Topsy, the 20-piece Natick Cornet Band, men dressed as frogs to symbolize the greenbacks of American finance, someone dressed as a monkey as a nod to the wise heads who thought they knew how to catch Billy, Native American hunters, a "black man turned white with bare fright," and following up at the rear, a handful of babies that supposedly had been swallowed by the bear.

 

And to that, I know not what to add...

 

To find what other items here at the MHS are related to Ridge Hill Farms and William Emerson Baker ,or to read the full story of Billy Bruin consider Visiting the Library!


Sources

- Crumbaker, Leslie G., The Baker Estate, or Ridge Hill Farms of Needham, Needham, Mass.: Needham Historical Society, 1975.

- "Billy Bruin and his festive funeral," Wellesley History, accessed 10 April 2018 at https://wellesleyhistory.wordpress.com/townsman-articles/billy-bruin-and-his-festive-funeral/

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 11 April, 2018, 3:51 PM

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