Needham History Center & Museum

Smarter than the Average Bear

Among the many attractions on Baker’s estate were his animals – some as commonplace as raccoons; others exotic, like tropical birds. Among these were his bears, Adam, Eve, and Billy – until Billy went on the lam.


Sometimes we all just need to get away from our lives and experience a little weirdness. And where better to find Weird than the Baker Estate?

Don’t get me wrong – William Emerson Baker was both smart and clever, and he did a lot of important things.  His ideas about public health and nutrition were decades ahead of their time.  He invested much wealth in the public benefit – the first Boston aquarium, the first Boston natural history museum (later the Museum of Science), the origins of MIT.  He was a successful businessman, and also had a formidable understanding of technology, mechanics, and animal husbandry.

That said, there is also no question that he was rather, well, eccentric.  As one contemporary noted, Baker was “a gentleman who had accumulated a large fortune by the exercise of the qualities which compel success in every day affairs; and yet part of his life was lived amid surroundings as grotesque and in occupations as little reasonable as those which obtain in the world on the other side of the looking glass.  He spent a great deal of money and a great deal of ingenious effort in the adornment of his estate; and in the countless inventions of a fantastic and extravagant imagination without a parallel, so far as we are aware, among the solid citizens of this Republic. [His estate] was a gentleman’s country place, a dime museum, a junk shop and a perpetual April Fool’s-day combined.”

Among the many attractions on his estate were Baker’s animals. Some were as commonplace as raccoons; others more exotic, like his tropical birds. Among these were his bears, housed in the Circular Bear Pit and the Octagonal Bear Pit.  The Octagonal Bear Pit was the home of a pair of Seneca bears, Adam and Eve. The Circular Bear Pit was intended for Billy.

In July 1874 Baker took delivery of a 2-year-old black Labrador bear, which he called Billy Bruin.  Billy was said to weigh more than 500 pounds and stand some 8 feet tall.  Baker owned Billy for approximately three hours – that’s how long it took the bear to escape (Billy was – well – smarter than the average bear).  Billy spent his first night of freedom in Dedham under the porch of the Congregational Church, then wandered back to Needham where he spent some time in the High Rock woods and other locations in Needham, terrorizing John Wing’s piggery.  He was then spotted in Quincy several days later, and got as far as Weymouth before he was finally shot and killed while trying to swim the river.  His body washed up in Hull, and was returned to Baker, who had the skin stuffed and put on display.  The rest of Billy was buried in a solid-copper coffin and buried overlooking Sabrina Lake. 

A stuffed bear outside of the Union Chapel on Baker’s estate. The bear is said to be Billy, but looks too small.
A stuffed bear outside of the Union Chapel on Baker’s estate. The bear is said to be Billy, but looks too small.

Billy’s funeral was an excuse for Baker to hold one of his extravagant parties.  More than 1000 guests were invited to Billy’s funeral. Regrets had to be expressed in the form of poetry, and a small volume of these responses was printed as a gift to attendees.  The honored guests came from among the political, military, and business elite. The poetry is, uniformly, bad. 

A.M.H. of Boston wrote:

“You’ve lost you bear, so bear your loss, Of all your hopes the ruin.

And while you drain the bitter draught, Reflect – ‘twas your own ‘bruin.’ ”

Mrs. Milton Whitney of Baltimore really got into the spirit –

“Paws, traveler, and forebear to go farther, Poor Bruin’s wanderings had a fatal bearing on His end… so goes the tail.

The garden bears his hide and the Grave hides the bear…  Consequently the tail bears a sad end.

With the regards of one who was bearly his friend, Mrs. Milton Whitney.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes was unable to attend, and sent the following tribute, albeit in prose: “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 be present upon the melancholy occasion. I have a great respect for bears since those two female ones taught the little children of Bethel and of 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.”

Featured at the funeral in processions and tableaux were children, dressed in long white robes and wearing masks of blank human faces, or of animals.  The cart leading the procession carried several stuffed birds – a raven, a dove, and Billy’s friend Leander the Swan – as well as a small girl dressed as an angel. The cart is pulled by robed and masked children, and led by Father Time – ‘the Great Destroyer’ – with his hourglass and scythe. 

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum