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1882 One Hundred Years Ago

May 2024
2min read

On March 15 Jumbo’s cage was lowered into the hold of the Assyrian Monarch , and the biggest elephant ever exhibited began his journey from England to America.

He did not leave London unnoticed; Britons had been protesting his loss with mounting ferocity. For years the elephant had placidly carried children around Regent’s Park, but now the directors of the London Zoo were quietly worried that the twenty-one-year-old beast’s disposition might turn sour, with catastrophic effects. P. T. Barnum got wind of this and offered ten thousand dollars for the animal.

The Royal Zoological Society’s acceptance sparked fierce protest, though it is entirely possible that Barnum himself initially helped fuel it for publicity’s sake. In any event, John Ruskin deplored the sale, the Prince of Wales condemned it publicly, and his mother, Queen Victoria, in a startling if momentary lapse of royal rectitude, privately suggested that the contract be violated and Jumbo withheld from his new owner. “No more quiet garden strolls, no shady trees, green lawns, and flowery thickets,” lamented the London Telegraph . “Our amiable monster must dwell in a tent, take part in the routine of a circus, and, instead of his by-gone friendly trots with British girls and boys, and perpetual luncheon on buns and oranges, must amuse a Yankee mob, and put up with peanuts and waffles.” Finally some Fellows of the Royal Zoological Society brought an action in chancery against Jumbo’s departure.

But it all came to nought. Barnum bided his time, deeply pleased by the growing furor, and at last carried his massive charge off to the land of peanuts and waffles, where Jumbo earned his new owner ten times his purchase price during his first six weeks on exhibition.

In the otherwise little-noted town of Mississippi City, Mississippi, young John L. Sullivan met Paddy Ryan in a bare-knuckle fight on February 7. At stake was the American heavyweight championship—Ryan the current champion, Sullivan the challenger. Ryan didn’t stand a chance.

Sullivan, the son of sturdy Irish immigrants (his mother weighed 180 pounds), had been punching people out of rings and off exhibition-match stages ever since his first bout in 1877 at the age of nineteen. He could, it was said, “hit hard enough to knock a horse down,” an attribute that had earned him the billing of “the Boston Strong Boy.” Ryan had reason to believe it. After being battered relentlessly for eight rounds, the champion was finally pummeled senseless in the ninth. Sullivan’s purse in that innocent time: twenty-five hundred dollars.

In a story datelined Richmond, Virginia, February 9, The New York Times told of the decision of the Virginia Senate to abolish the whipping post in that state. The legislators’ concern was not, apparently, based on a distaste for barbarism. Instead, according to the Times , whipping-post opponents argued that “it is class legislation and does not affect all alike. The negroes were accustomed to the lash during slavery time, and rather got to liking it, and now oftentimes select it in preference to imprisonment.” On the other hand, they said, “White men look upon the stripe with the most perfect horror, and in many instances would as lief be branded with a hot iron.” The clincher was that whipping—of blacks or whites—didn’t seem to deter crime, or as the Times story summed it up: “This mode of punishment has been fully tested in Virginia and has been found wanting.”

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