We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby – Revisionist Popular Culture

Photographs are not to be reused or reprinted without permission
bull and bear baiting ring

Theall Street, Sonora California

Back in the 1850’s this little hollowed out piece of ground was the bull and bear baiting ring.

Now it is just a lot adjoining a Pacific Gas & Electric electric transformer substation.

Back in the 1850’s this place was a gold rush town and the popular amusements among the miners were none too genteel.

In bull and bear baiting, the animal, a bull or a bear, is either placed in a hole in the ground (a pit, as in “pit bull”), or chained to a stake, whereupon specially trained dogs are set upon the animal in a fight to the death. The dogs would be replaced as they were injured or killed, until the death of the bait animal. This practice was finally outlawed in England in 1835, but was practiced in California at least as late as the 1850’s.

It has been told that the original Grizzly Adams and his bear Ben came around and gave an exhibition or two at this very spot. You older kids may remember a television series entitled “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams”. It featured Dan Haggarty as the namesake of the series, and co-starred Adams’ bear, “Gentle Ben”. Well, in the show, Adams’ bear was a comical and friendly sort.

However in real life, another bear companion of Adams’, “General Fremont” (Adams placed “Gentle Ben” in his zoo in San Francisco where the animal eventually died), took to taking swipes at Grizzly Adams’ head with his huge claws. In fact it happened so often that the top of Adams’ brain-pan was gone, with only a waxy bandage covering his otherwise exposed organ. This was apparently Adams’ condition when he made his appearance here.

Adams abandoned his wife and children after repeated business failures, and took to capturing animals for circuses, animal baiting shows and his own exhibitions.

The long-standing, infection-prone wound eventually contributed to doing Grizzly Adams in. In 1853 Adams died of meningitis when the wound was reopened by a monkey he was training for P.T. Barnum’s traveling show.

So the bottom line was Adams was a failure who was killed while exploiting captured animals. But other than that inconvenient fact, the premise of the the television show was basically true. There was a guy named Adams who made his living off of a bear he named “Ben.”

Why do we do these things? Because we can, and we feel entitled. Why do we cover them up with revisionist popular culture?

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