No one can argue Jumbo the Elephant's larger-than-life stature both as an animal and as a legendary performer.
Jumbo the Elephant brought joy to the children he saw throughout his life, whether it was in a zoo in London or touring all over North America. Jumbo’s interactions with humans caused his meteoric rise and untimely fall.
Arabian hunters first spotted Jumbo in 1861 near a watering hole along the scorched plains of Ethiopia. At the time, the African elephant was just two and a half years old and he stood 40 inches tall.
Animal collector Johann Schmidt, realizing an opportunity, bought the elephant from the hunters. Schmidt passed the pachyderm to Jardin de Plantes in Paris. In 1865, a Parisian zoo traded Jumbo to the Royal Zoological Society of London.
Zookeeper Matthew Scott cared for Jumbo in London as if he was a national treasure. Scott recorded that at the age of seven, Jumbo consumed a whopping 200 pounds of hay, a barrel of potatoes, two bushels of oats, 15 loaves of bread, many onions and several pails of water – every day.
Eventually Jumbo the elephant topped out at 11 feet, six inches tall and 13,000 pounds.
The elephant was a gentle soul with children who earned the nickname “Children’s Giant Pet.” Jumbo lived a relatively happy life in London for 17 years until an enterprising American by the name of P.T. Barnum came looking for his next big act.
Greatest Show on Earth
Barnum made an offer to the London Zoo that superintendent A.D. Bartlett could not refuse in 1880. Jumbo was off to become a celebrity in America for the sum of $10,000. By today’s standards, Barnum forked over more than $227,000 for the world’s largest elephant in captivity.
Britons protested the sale and Barnum’s purchase faced legal hurdles before he was given permission to export Jumbo overseas. Money talked louder than words and Barnum left London with Jumbo in tow in the spring of 1882.
Legend has it that Jumbo was as stubborn as he was big. He wouldn’t budge when Barnum’s handlers tried to get the elephant loaded onto a cart for a transfer to the ship that took him to America. The behemoth laid down in the road where he stayed for an entire day. It finally took hours of coaxing by Scott, Jumbo the Elephant’s caretaker of several years, to get the pachyderm to move.
New Life and Tragic Death
Jumbo the elephant arrived in New York on April 9, 1882, and the reception was a large as his reputation. Crowds of people watched a team of horses and elephants guide Jumbo’s carriage to the Hippodrome, the precursor to today’s Madison Square Garden. It was here that Jumbo stayed for several months while throngs of New Yorkers paid money for just a glimpse of the gentle giant.
Finally, it was time to tour the country as part of the Greatest Show on Earth and it was the constant traveling that caused Jumbo’s ultimate demise.
On Sept. 15, 1885, Jumbo was out for a walk to get some exercise along some railroad tracks in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada. Not used to the footing, the giant tripped, fell, and impaled himself on his own tusks. Jumbo died instantly next to Scott, his most loyal and faithful human companion. An oncoming train couldn’t stop in time, and it hit the already-dead elephant as if to add insult to his injuries. Jumbo was 26 years old, far short of the 60 to 70 year lifespan of African elephants in the wild.
Barnum perpetuated a different story about Jumbo’s death. The entrepreneur, always a showman, said Jumbo the Elephant died while pushing a small elephant, named Tom Thumb, out of the way of an oncoming train. Witnesses of the accident refuted that story. Jumbo’s unassuming death, by tripping and falling under his own weight, seemed an ignominious way to go for such as graceful, loving creature.
It took 150 men to move the corpse out of the way of the train tracks. Circus workers gathered around him to take a photo of the pale elephant laying in a motionless heap.
The Legendary Status Of Jumbo The Elephant
Barnum refused to let Jumbo’s death lessen thwart his $10,000 investment. The businessman quickly had a taxidermist repair the corpse and stuff his skin. The elephant, made to look even taller at 13 feet, toured with the circus until 1889. Barnum then donated the display to Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Jumbo’s entire skeleton went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Even after death, Jumbo’s corpse couldn’t find peace. The museum hall at Tufts University burned down in 1975. A few relics, including Jumbo’s ashes and a part of his tail, remain with Tufts University. Legend also has it that Barnum served some of his guests gelatin made from Jumbo’s ground-up tusks.
Jumbo is still the official mascot of Tufts. A statue sits in St. Thomas, Ontario, close to where Jumbo met his untimely demise. An exhibition at a new Barnum Museum in Massachusetts memorializes the circus elephant.
None of these monuments seem fitting to honor the life of one of the world’s great entertainers who had a mammoth body but an even bigger heart. If only the humans who handled him (save for Scott) treated Jumbo with equal amounts of respect and love.
Next, learn about Murderous Mary – the circus elephant hanged by a Tennessee town. Then, read the infuriating story of New York City’s human exhibit at the Bronx Zoo.