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The Colossus Of His Kind: Jumbo

June 2024
23min read

Pried loose from a furious Great Britain to meet a tragic death in the New World, this huge elephant made a fortune for his owner, delighted millions, and added a new superlative to our language

It is a warm summer evening in 1882, in a small town in New England, and the circus of Messrs. Barnum, Bailey, and Hutchinson has come to town for a one-day stand. The “Greatest Show on Earth ” is suitably canopied : three huge tents in a meadow on the outskirts of town—one tent each for the museum and the freak collections, and the big one, the one with four rings that seats thirty thousand people, towers in the middle. In this big top the smell of sawdust hangs thick in the air, and although as the evening wears on some of the ladies begin to wish the brass band would not play quite so loudly, their men and children lighten the sweltering heat with cheers—cheers for the lion tamers and trapeze artists and clowns in the middle three rings and forthestunningbarebackriders in the outer ring, the Roman hippodrome.

The displays continue unabated until, suddenly, there is a hush as the splendidly dressed ringmaster, with the accompaniment of a heavy drum roll, begins his introduction, drawling in the unmistakable circus accent the traditional “ LADEEZ AND GENTLEMEN !” The people know what he is announcing. They have read the papers, and they know that Phineas Taylor Barnum has recently acquired from the British, by hook and crook, the hugest animal on the face of the earth, the largest elephant seen by modern man, the mighty Jumbo. They have seen the posters that bill him as a “Feature Crushing All Attempts At Fraud / The Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race / Whose Like the World will never See Again.”

That’s a tall order to fill, and they wonder if any beast could truly reach the size claimed by the showman Barnum; but as the drum roll reaches a crescendo and the giant African bull elephant begins slowly to pace the circle of the hippodrome, they sit up and gasp. Words fail them —he is unbelievable, yet there he is, striding before them with untold power and magnificent grace, literally dwarfing every living creature within the range of visual comparison.

Jumbo’s capsule biography would read that he was the largest elephant ever kept in captivity, a record undisputed to the present day; no animal in history has had so much written about him (with such a large portion of it pure nonsense) as P. T. Barnum’s celebrated Jumbo. Yet when people today are asked what they know about Jumbo, perhaps half of them recall that he was a circus elephant from past days who was called Jumbo because he was so big. This is an error at the outset. It was the giant animal whose name was given to outsized objects, not the other way around. He himself was christened Jumbo when he was less than five feet tall.

Of the many “authorities” who have written on Jumbo, nearly every one contradicts some others on points of his life, character, and death. One of the few things that all sources agree upon is that Jumbo was captured as a baby in Africa, most probably by Hamran Arabs somewhere in Ethiopia. The infant beast spent some time in Cairo, where he was taken, along with another baby elephant, by the Bavarian animal collector Johann Schmidt. Although most writers maintain that Schmidt sold the animals directly to the Jardin des Plantes, or Paris zoo, Dr. Guy Chauvier, current assistant director, says that both elephants were received on October 20, 1863, not from Schmidt but from the viceroy of Egypt.

About a year and a half later the Jardin des Plantes found itself overstocked with elephants but wanted to acquire a rhinoceros, while at the same time the London Zoo was trying to locate another elephant to join its herd of five and happened to have an extra rhino on hand. When London suggested a swap, Paris was “delighted” and even threw in two spiny anteaters.

On his arrival in London the “elephantine toddler,”as one newspaper referred to him, was the first African elephant to be shown in England, and he was given the name Jumbo, a shortened form of Mumbo Jumbo, after a kind of priest who allegedly protects west African villages from evil spirits. Jumbo, as it turned out, needed protection himself; when his crate was opened, he was found to be half starved, severely ill, and near death. Assigned as one of Jumbo’s caretakers was Matthew Scott, an underkeeper who, with some others, spent months nursing the infant to glowing health. Thereafter Jumbo and “Scotty” became inseparable.

As the years passed, Jumbo grew steadily, both in height and in the esteem of the British people. He was totally devoted to his keeper and was so gentle he became the favorite riding animal in the zoo. As he grew to eleven feet in height, the managers of the London Zoo realized that their young charge had become the largest animal in captivity in the world. Jumbo was something of an institution, a national pet, said Harper’s Weekly , and “as gentle with children as the best trained poodle dog, taking the proffered biscuit or lump of sugar with an almost incredible delicacy of touch. … The most nervous child, having once overcome his alarm, never hesitated to hand a morsel to his waving trunk a second time. ” Any day of the week he could be seen quietly plodding the gravel paths of the zoo in Regent’s Park, the topless howdah strapped to the broad back filled with six or eight goggle-eyed children. By the early l88o’s the total number carried was in the hundreds of thousands.


Among Jumbo’s admirers was the greatest showman of all time, Phineas Taylor Barnum. To put it summarily, he came, he saw, he coveted. If Barnum had Jumbo in his circus, it would mean millions of dollars to the show. With apparently hopeless bravado Barnum instructed his man in London to approach the directors of the Royal Zoological Society and explore the possibility that they might part with their mountainous attraction. He did not know, of course, how astonishingly lucky he was. The London Zoo had been trying for months to get rid of Jumbo.

There were two reasons. The directors were fearful that Jumbo, near adulthood, would soon fall victim to musth, the periodic inflammation of the male elephant’s temporal glands (it was not known at this time that musth is apparently limited to the Asiastic species). While the condition lasts it can drive the elephant berserk, and the gigantic Jumbo, in such a state, could do irreparable damage.


The second problem was his devotion to Scott. Jumbo’s affection for the man was such that he could not bear to be separated from him for a moment. At night, when Scott was not there, Jumbo would throw tantrums that nearly wrecked the elephant house. If Scott were to die suddenly, the elephant’s grief would be murderous.

Such was the situation when Barnum’s London agent approached Mr. P. L. Sclater, the secretary of the R.Z.S. , to inquire whether or not the zoo could be induced to part with its star attraction; and although the society behaved with tasteful reluctance, its officers privately thought the offer a godsend and did not reject the idea as expected. When this news was cabled to Barnum, the old showman, then seventy-two, rifled back an offer of ten thousand dollars, the equivalent of two thousand pounds sterling. London delayed for just two days, and then it was done. The deal was closed, and Jumbo was sold.

In accordance with strict zoo policy the transaction was still a secret. But Barnum wasn’t satisfied; bombast was his trademark, and as soon as it was safe to do so (that is, as soon as the sealed and irrevocable contract was delivered safe into the hands of his own men), he ordered his press army to go to work and make the British people feel that they had been swindled. His reason was clarified by one writer in 1933: “In order to make the American Public realize what it was gaining, Mr. Barnum had to make the British Public realize what it was losing.” And Mr. Barnum, as usual, pulled the strings perfectly. When he let the news break, the story “burst like a bomb” on England, and the reaction was a national temper tantrum, which delighted the showman. Editors lamented; John Ruskin wrote with firm Britannic iciness that England had not been in the habit of selling her pets; the Prince of Wales, the colorful Albert Edward, publicly condemned the transaction. It was rumored that Queen Victoria herself believed privately that the Zoological Society should refuse to deliver the goods and let the state assume responsibility. And this furor was only the beginning.

The morning after Barnum received the cable indicating the zoo’s acceptance of his offer, he dispatched his head elephant keeper, William Newman, to arrange and oversee Jumbo’s journey to the United States. Stepping off the ship in London, “Elephant Bill, “as he was called, expected no trouble at all in getting Jumbo from the zoo through six miles of streets to St. Katherine’s Docks on the Thames, in a travelling cage that he would have constructed. There the elephant would be hoisted aboard the steamship Persian Monarch . In fact, however, the departure was delayed for nearly two months, during which Barnum happily reaped further publicity. He was aided in the slowdown by the stubbornness and cupidity of Matthew Scott.


The travelling cage was nearly a month in the building, but finally, pulled on a huge four-wheeled trolley by a half-dozen magnificent dray horses, it called for Jumbo at the zoo on Saturday, February 11, 1882. Scott managed to coax his elephant as far as the wooden ramp leading to the cage, and then he retired inconspicuously to the door of the elephant house. Jumbo, at the urging now of Newman and A. D. Bartlett, director of the zoo, placed a ponderous forefoot on the planks but could be induced to go no farther. When two hours of gentle persuasion and sugared buns did not convince him, they had to give in and call Scott to come lead Jumbo back to the elephant house for the night.


Nothing daunted, Newman conceived a new plan. Tomorrow he would walk Jumbo to the river, where, in quieter surroundings, he would be less apt to balk. The British press, it seems, had decided that Jumbo hesitated only because of a true sense of loyalty to English soil, but it was his behavior the next day that made English hearts go out more than ever to their beleaguered pet.

Bright and early on February 12 Jumbo plodded with his characteristic grace behind Scott down the gravel paths of the zoo to the entrance gate, thence to be led on foot to the dock from which he would embark.


Halfway through the gate the animal stopped short and then backed nervously into the zoo grounds again. Scott, in earshot of a horde of reporters, began to scold the elephant coarsely. Jumbo caressed Scott piteously with his trunk and moaned and whimpered so loudly that the birds in the nearby parrot house screeched in terror, starting up a wave of frightened tumult that reached to the far ends of the zoo. Then Scott, to all outward appearances trying to calm the elephant, put his finger to his lips, and abruptly Jumbo groaned louder than ever and rolled over onto his side, seven tons of “immovable obstinacy.” No one present knew that Jumbo was trained to lie down at that particular signal. Scott was staging the entire business.


Reporters, believing (wrongly) that the loudest din was being raised by a cow elephant, Alice, whom they believed (also wrongly) to be Jumbo’s mate, sensed the news break of the year. They dashed off in hansom cabs to file their stories while Scott led Jumbo back to the elephant house and Newman presumably threw up his hands. Whether the American saw through Scott or was purposely playing fall guy remains a fascinating question. But the fact is that he changed Jumbo’s reservation to the Assyrian Monarch , which would not sail until the twenty-fifth of March, and cabled to his boss in New York: “Jumbo is lying in the garden and will not stir. What shall we do?” And Barnum, with characteristic sauce, replied: “Let him lie there as long as he wants to. The publicity is worth it.”


In the ensuing weeks publicity was plentiful. British hucksters were not ignorant of the storm of mawkish sympathy, and they immediately cranked out an avalanche of Jumbo products. There were Jumbo boots, Jumbo perfumes, Jumbo earrings, and Jumbo cigars, not to mention Jumbo letterheads, ties, fans, hats, collars, overcoats, and underwear. Much poetry was written on the subject—little of it good, though one versifier suggested a remarkable remedy:

But since in England’s fallen state She owns two things supremely great, Jumbo and Gladstone—(each we find The most prodigious of their kind)— And one won’t budge. Then, Barnum, make A fair exchange for quiet’s sake! Take the Right Honourable and go! He’ll make the better raree show! Leave Jumbo.

Fund drives were started by the more hopeful zealots in an attempt to ransom their Jumbo from the clutches of Barnum and save him for Britain’s children. Barnum’s florid answers to their sponsors’ offers gave him further opportunity to advertise his circus. And as the public temper over Jumbo rose daily, so did the number of his visitors. On one day in March, 1882, Jumbo was seen by 4,626 sorrowing admirers (compared with a crowd of 214 the same day a year before), many of whom brought gifts to the elephant, which naturally were presented to his keeper. Therein lay one reason why Scott was delaying the removal for as long as possible. He was getting rich! So was the zoo. Packed farewell receptions for Jumbo, on the grounds, grossed fifty thousand dollars to its treasury. It was suggested in the London Fun that the British lion be removed from the coat of arms and be replaced by the celebrated elephant, with the motto Dieu et Mon Jumbo .

At last, after all appeals to Barnum’s sense of moral decency and indignant letters to the Times fell on deaf ears, Britons went to the courts. Some Fellows of the Royal Zoological Society brought an action in chancery for an injunction against Jumbo’s removal. The suit raised intriguing questions about the powers and purposes of the society under its charter, but in the end it failed in the Court of Queen’s Bench before Mr. Justice Chitty, who ruled that public remorse over a perfectly legal transaction was not enough to cancel the contract.

By early March, Barnum had gained free publicity worth considerably more than the ten-thousand-dollar price tag. Meanwhile, the real reason for Jumbo’s stubbornness was beginning to dawn on Director Bartlett of the zoo. He had realized that Jumbo went wherever Scott led him but, fearful of becoming separated from his beloved keeper, refused to be sent away; and that Scott had carefully refrained from leading Jumbo toward the travelling cage or the dock. Now, having an ace to play and sick both of the whole Jumbo mess and of being blackmailed by Scott, Bartlett first sought out Newman and “convinced” him of what was untrue —that Scott’s presence was a hindrance and that at the next loading attempt he would have better luck if Scott were absent. Then Bartlett laid down the law to his troublesome underkeeper: Jumbo would be leaving England with or without him. Scott chose to so along.


On Wednesday, March 15, Newman had the cage placed in position once more, and Scott led Jumbo to the door, where the huge elephant paused a moment, testing the floor, then lumbered calmly inside. He was hauled to St. Katherine’s Docks, put on a lighter, and floated two miles downstream to the Assyrian Monarch . It took but eight minutes to hoist cage and elephant aboard and lower them into their specially reinforced hold. Thoughout most of the trip Scott was perched on the front of the cage, holding Jumbo’s trunk, and the great animal showed no fright at all.

Jumbo took the crossing well and consumed in transit some two tons of hay, two sacks of biscuits and three of oats, and one sack of his favorite treat, onions.

The Assyrian Monarch , with its unlikely cargo, arrived in New York on April 9, and the next morning a puffing P. T. Barnum clambered over the rail, closely followed by his entourage of reporters, to whom he exclaimed: “Dear old Jumbo. That beast has cost me fifty thousand dollars.” Though Barnum inflated the transportation costs for the press, he cannily labelled Jumbo as “breeding stock” and thus escaped paying any import duties on him.

Scott had been hired by Barnum to continue as Jumbo’s keeper, since he was indispensable to control the animal. And Scott, difficult as ever, demanded his own terms—and got them. When somebody produced a quart of whiskey, the keeper without hesitation gave it to Jumbo. Barnum, a believer in temperance, was aghast. “I object to my elephant’s drinking whiskey!” he sputtered. But Scott paid no more attention to Barnum than he had paid to Bartlett. He gave Jumbo a chaser of ale and affirmed that the elephant got beer daily and, when feeling poorly, a medicinal dose of two gallons of whiskey.

Sober or not, Jumbo had arrived in New York in time for the annual circus opening at Madison Square Garden, and he was transported through streets packed with cheering throngs while posters and advertisements crowed “ TOM THUMB and JENNY LIND … retire into Obscurity when viewed in the Full Blaze of the DAZZLING JUMBO .” Other circulars boasted of how Barnum had single-handedly defeated the British government, people, and court system. Jumbo was a financial venture—a thirty-thousand-dollar venture—and Barnum was making every effort to get his money back. And Jumbo at the Garden proved once again that Barnum’s instincts were never wrong; the mighty elephant chalked up receipts of more than three thousand dollars a day, so that by the end of two weeks Jumbo had returned his new owner the entire thirty thousand dollars, as well as a clear net profit of 20 per cent.

When the Greatest Show on Earth went out on its annual tour, Jumbo proved to be just as popular on the road as he was in New York, shattering all previous records of income; and if he had shown any signs of discontent in London, he lost them with the circus. He was a superb performer and a natural-born traveller, but his easy adjustment to the strenuous life was no doubt due to the continuous presence of Matthew Scott, whose hypnotic power over the elephant never wavered. In London, Jumbo’s only temper fits occurred when and because Scott was absent, but in America Scott was seldom, if ever, out of Jumbo’s sight. He did not even eat with the other circus employees but rather took all his meals with his “Jummie.”

They toured with the circus in their own private rail car, which Barnum liked to refer to as “Jumbo’s Palace Car.” It was an ornate boxcar, painted crimson and gold, with huge double doors in the depressed middle section, giving Jumbo easy access to his travelling home. Scott rode in a bunk near Jumbo’s head, and his compartment was separated from the elephant’s by a small door, which Jumbo never permitted to be closed for any reason. Whenever Jumbo felt lonely while Scott was sleeping, he would tease and annoy his keeper by groping through the door with his trunk and snatching such small articles as sheets and blankets. Man and beast still shared their daily quart of beer, and the story is told that one night, for some inexplicable reason, Scott forgot to share and guzzled the whole quart himself. Surprised and obviously hurt, Jumbo waited until Scott was fast asleep before reaching through the door with his trunk and picking the rudely awakened Scott right out of his bed and setting him on the floor by the empty bottle. Scott never forgot again.

So it went for two seasons—Jumbo enjoying his new life and Barnum raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars. The show had its traditional Madison Square Garden opening on March 16, and from there it swung through New York, Pennsylvania, New England, and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. After more than a hundred stops covering some eight thousand miles the circus train pulled into the town of St. Thomas, Ontario, in the wee hours of September 15, 1885. As the train rolled into the Grand Trunk Railroad yards east of Woodworth Avenue, it was shifted to a siding.

The main-line track ran in an eastwest direction; the siding that held the circus train was to the south of it, separated by only a few feet of gravel roadbed. On the north side of the track was a steep six-foot drop, at the bottom of which was a right-of-way fence and beyond that a vacant field where the big tops would be set up. As the long train stopped on the siding some men uncoupled it near the middle, and the forward part was pulled up a few yards, to make the unloading (and later the loading) of the animals faster by eliminating the long walk around the end of the train. Everything seemed routine.

Halfway through the night show the elephants performed their usual “military drill,” after which, according to set routine, twenty-nine of them were to be taken back to the train and loaded for the trip to the next town. Fred R. Armes, the operator in charge of the Grand Trunk Railroad depot at St. Thomas that night, requested (or so it was later claimed) the circus men not to begin loading the elephants until 9:55 that night, long after a westbound express freight was due to pass through. Even then they were to wait for a yard crew and, as still another precaution, to use a designated crossing, far up the track by the station. But the impatient elephant handlers tore down a section of right-of-way fence directly between the huge tents and the circus train and proceeded early in the evening to march the elephants up the embankment, across the main-line track, and into their cars.

This left two of the show’s elephants unloaded: the smallest, a dwarf clown elephant named Tom Thumb, and the largest, the towering Jumbo. They had been used to close the act, and it was about eight fifteen when Scott led the elephants through the dismantled fence and up the embankment and walked eastward with them down the main track to the waiting cars.


At about the same time the Grand Trunk’s Special Freight #151 was nearing the St. Thomas rail yard, pulled by high-wheeled, diamondstacked locomotive #88. It was not scheduled to stop in St. Thomas, and as it neared the rail yard it entered a downgrade and gained speed. To engineer William Burnip everything was going routinely. But as he scanned the track ahead he saw—or thought he saw, in the pitifully weak light of the kerosene lamp above the cowcatcher—a hulking gray silhouette, a shade lighter than the surrounding night, looming over the rails.

As the train roared closer Burnip, thunderstruck, dimly perceived not one blur but two— elephants , plodding toward him! Reacting frantically, he lunged for the Johnson bar, throwing the engine mechanism into reverse, and blew three short blasts on the whistle for brakes. It was two years before the installation of the Westinghouse air brake, so all the braking had to be done manually by the brakeman, who turned the great handwheels at the end of each boxcar. Slowly, car by car, the wheels locked with a banshee screech, shooting glowing sparks high in the air, as did the high wheels of the locomotive, now churning backward as the engine reversed itself. But Burnip must have known the situation was hopeless. The feeble head-lamp had not reflected the dull gray hides of the elephants until it was too late, and moreover the train was still gaining speed on the downgrade. Seeing that collision was absolutely inevitable, Burnip and his fireman could do nothing but save themselves, and they leaped from the cab at the last instant.

For Scott and the two elephants it was a long walk back up the track to the Palace Car, and just as they were opposite the flagman Scott’s ears picked up the shriek of a train whistle—three short blasts that meant emergency brakes. At once he turned to the flagman: “What line is that train on?” he demanded.

The flagman stood stiff with horror: “My God, it’s on our track!” The dim kerosene lamp became visible, the rumble more audible, and the flagman, recovering, began to sprint toward it, waving his lantern desperately. Exactly what happened next is, to the present day, not definitely known, and several totally irreconcilable versions have been published.


Some forty years later a Barnum and Bailey circus clown with a fine sense of the dramatic said that Jumbo stood his ground, facing the oncoming freight, bellowing with rage. “I happen to know,” he wrote, “that Jumbo was a big, obstinate brute, and was killed by his refusal to get out of the way of a fast freight.” The depot master, Fred Armes, in another version of the story, had the irascible and stupid Jumbo charging the oncoming express freight, trumpeting in anger, trying to knock it off the tracks. But his account appeared when Barnum was suing the Grand Trunk line for a hundred thousand dollars, and the road’s officials had ample time to remind Armes that the fastest way to absolve the company of guilt in the accident would be to say that Jumbo had thundered into a vicious, unprovoked charge at the innocent freight train. P. T. Barnum’s own account was full of splendid exaggeration. But what actually happened, as far as can be determined, was unromantic.

Scott, nearly in tears from fright, shouting “Run, Jumbo, run! ” managed to turn the elephants around on the track; and Jumbo, sensing the danger he was in, set off down the track as fast as he could, waving his trunk in the air, roaring and screeching as he had never done in his life. Tom Thumb, the clown elephant, followed Scott and Jumbo at his best speed, but Jumbo’s long legs soon outdistanced the little dwarf, and he fell rapidly behind. Scott was running beside Jumbo, desperately urging the beast to run down the steep embankment to safety, but Jurnbo refused to try it. Instead he tried instinctively to outdistance the train, but sadly for him elephants are incapable of genuine running—they can only walk fast—so he was doomed to lose.


Scott saw that there was no chance of reaching the end of the circus train and ducking behind it—the express would catch them long before that. But there was the break where two cars had been uncoupled to let the animals pass through. Yes, the break! If he could get Jumbo to stop and turn through the break, it would be all right; it wasn’t far ahead. When they were at last a bare three car lengths from the narrow opening, the speeding express freight crashed into Tom Thumb, who had been lagging farther and farther behind. The cowcatcher caught him low on the hind legs and spun him off the track, down the embankment into a telephone pole and finally into a fence, with a broken leg.

When Jumbo and Scott finally reached the breach, Scott stopped and called at the top of his lungs to the madly trumpeting Jumbo to follow him through the break, but the seven-ton animal’s tremendous momentum carried him two cars past the opening before he understood and could stop to turn. Just as he stopped and before he could turn around, the locomotive slammed into his backside. Jumbo went to his knees, and the train skidded off the rails with such driving force that it shoved him violently under the heavy iron wheel-carriage of a circus car, pulverizing the massive skull and driving a tusk back into his brain.


Burnip and his fireman picked themselves up from the ground, badly shaken but not seriously injured. Some circus men pulled the crippled Tom Thumb to his feet and helped him down the track. He would live, though he would limp for the rest of his days.

Scott was stunned as he approached the crumpled body of his companion of twenty years. Jumbo was still conscious. When Scott crawled under the car by the huge, lacerated head to comfort the groaning animal, Jumbo took his hand in his trunk, as if he understood, and died quietly. Scott wept unashamedly. A large crowd had gathered, and when Jumbo ceased breathing, Scott was gently pulled away. A hundred sixty men, straining on ropes, prying with timbers, stanchions, crowbars, and whatever else they could find, dragged the corpse to the edge of the embankment and rolled it over.

As the large crowd milled around, souvenir hunters, armed with knives and scissors, moved in immediately on the body, though circus men protected it as well as they could. Scott, numbed with shock, grief, and exhaustion, lay down on his old friend’s remains and went to sleep so soundly that he was not awakened by one particularly audacious souvenir hunter who removed a large slice from one of Jumbo’s ears. When he later discovered the mutilation, he became nearly hysterical. The next morning, however, the St. Thomas police arrived and kept a twenty-four-hour guard to prevent further vandalism.

Barnum was at the Murray Hill Hotel when he was first told of the disaster in St. Thomas. The reporters gathered around his breakfast table, and the old showman stated mournfully, “The loss is tremendous,” then recovered himself to continue piously, “but such a trifle never disturbs my nerves. Have I not lost a million dollars by fires, and half as much by other financial misfortunes?”

The financial loss was considerable, including not only the $150,000 at which Jumbo was valued but also the huge gate receipts produced by the elephant. Barnum did not carry insurance for anything like that amount. He did sue the Grand Trunk for a hundred thousand dollars, but more for the publicity value than in any real expectation of recovery; and he settled out of court for a relative pittance.

Yet Barnum’s stoicism before the press was not entirely feigned. He was not prepared to let death cheat him of the money that would have been paid by future visitors to the elephant. He would have Jumbo stuffed and continue to exhibit him, in his “museum.” He gave the impression that this was a brilliant spur-of-the-moment counter to fate, but actually Barnum had long since arranged to have Jumbo’s hide and skeleton mounted in the event of some mishap. In 1883 he had written to Professor Henry A. Ward, the manager of a firm dealing in commercially prepared natural science exhibits for museums:

Dear Sir: On my return home I found your letter of August 29. I shall have my managers understand that if we lose Jumbo (which Heaven forbid) you must be telegraphed immediately, and I hope you will lose no time in saving his skin and skeleton. As to the other animals, I will talk with you about them at the close of the season—a fortnight hence. Truly yours, P. T. Barnum

Though Ward was telegraphed immediately after Jumbo’s demise, it was the seventeenth before he arrived on the scene with his assistants, W. J. Crutchley and nineteen-year-old Carl E. Akeley. The latter was a teenage genius who later gave taxidermy a high degree of artistic realism and created the celebrated Akeley Hall in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Jumbo had been lying dead for nearly two days, guarded constantly from the mobs of souvenir hunters. By the time Ward had measured every dimension of the body and raided all the neighboring towns in a quest for a half dozen butchers to begin the dissection, the odors wafting through the railyard had become distracting. The dissection lasted all afternoon and evening, and much of it had to be done from the inside, a morbid task that fell to a Mr. Peters, who later commented that he knew what Jonah must have gone through inside the big fish. Afterward the meat and scraps were cremated on a great pyre of four cords of wood.

The sections of the 1,538-pound hide were at once put in baths of salt water and alum and shipped to Rochester in a wooden tank. Back at Ward’s establishment, where a special building had to be erected to provide enough room, Akeley was deputed to figure out how to mount an elephant skin sturdily enough to stand rail travel, as Barnum insisted it must do.

Akeley set to work; the skin was cured, scraped, and treated with arsenic to eliminate the danger of decay. A wooden manikin was built to his careful specifications, made from measurements of the actual corpse. When it was ready, the skin was stretched over the form and, fastened down with forty-four thousand countersunk copper nails.

The 2,400-pound skeleton was packed in boxes and shipped back to the establishment, where a special brick tank had to be built to macerate the bones. The greatest problem was the splintered skull. Akeley managed to reassemble its shards with papier-mâche on a special wooden framework that he designed. He did it so well that to the present time the cracks are practically invisible.

Barnum had specified that the mountings, suitable for rugged rail travel, were to be ready by March of 1886. When Akeley finished his monumental work, special wagons were designed, and the two Jumbos—bones and hide—were signed over to Barnum’s men on March 4, 1886. The unveiling of the specimens had already taken place on February 26 at Rochester’s Powers Hotel, at a lavish banquet during which Barnum served reporters a jelly made out of part of Jumbo’s powdered tusks.

Meanwhile, the redoubtable old showman was building a fevered interest among his public to see the remains of the immortal Jumbo. The first step was to publish his own account of Jumbo’s violent end, a wild bit of inspired invention. The noble Jumbo, Barnum maintained, had sacrificed his own life in a valiant attempt to save the life of the little clown elephant, Tom Thumb. Jumbo had “snatched the little elephant from in front of the thundering train and hurled the little fellow twenty yards to safety.” With Tom Thumb safe, continued the master publicist, Jumbo turned to face the oncoming freight. “The leviathan of the rail and the mountain of bone and brawn came together with a crash that made the solid roadbed quake. … Jumbo … gave but one groan after being struck and then assumed an attitude of determination and composed himself to meet death with a becoming dignity and fortitude.”

The second step in his post-mortem Jumbo campaign was the acquisition of the placid Alice, the stolid old cow elephant of the London Zoo. She was imported as Jumbo’s weeping widow, though in fact Alice had never shown any interest in Jumbo and they were both too young to mate for much of the time they were together. The third step was to train all the other elephants in the circus to wipe their eyes with black-bordered sheets.

For the next two seasons Jumbo’s skin and skeleton led the grand parade, riding in a specially designed wagon and followed by the “widowed” Alice and her entire herd of attendants, all holding those black-trimmed sheets in their trunks and wiping their eyes. The scheme was wildly successful as an audience attraction. But then, in the winter of 1887-88, the circus winter headquarters at Bridgeport, Connecticut, burned to the ground. Poor Alice perished in the flames, although Jumbo’s precious remains were saved.

By then, however, Barnum was ready to drop the Jumbo theme from his Greatest Show on Earth. Ina typical gesture he donated the great skeleton to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the stuffed skin to Tufts University near Boston, of which he was a founder and trustee. Only Barnum, notes one writer, would have figured out a way to exhibit his prime attraction in two places at the same time, two hundred miles apart.

The morose little Matthew Scott followed Jumbo to Tufts. Unable to accept the fact that the elephant was really dead, he became pathetically dotty. Often he was seen sitting by the gigantic stuffed figure, dusting it and talking to it. Later, it appears from available evidence, he returned penniless to England and dropped out of sight.

After two years Barnum recalled his bequests from retirement long enough for two tours of Europe, then returned them to the original beneficiaries, where they have remained ever since. Today the skeleton presides peacefully over the Synoptic Hall of the American Museum of Natural History. The skin, towering within the Barnum Museum of Tufts University, now serves as the mascot of that school, where for many years tradition had it that coins dropped in the trunk brought “A’s” on exams.

The skeleton in New York stands a trifle less than eleven feet two inches tall at the shoulder, which gives some indication of the animal’s actual height, probably close to eleven feet seven inches. But the skin is another matter entirely. Barnum’s instructions concerning the mounting were “By all means let [the skin] show as large as possible. It will be a grand thing to take all advantage possible in this direction. Let him show like a mountain.” He got his way, as Akeley obliged him and stretched the skin upward to a larger-than-life twelve feet even. And to complete the reconstruction the tusks, which had been shattered in the accident, were replaced by genuine ivory substitutes.


It was a fitting end to Jumbo’s dazzling career, throughout which it was Barnum’s stated intention to see all the dry little words like “huge,” “mammoth” and “colossal” stricken from the dictionary, to be replaced by one all-new, all-purpose, all-encompassing adjective: “jumbo. ” He did not completely succeed, but any exposure to the language of ballyhoo even today shows that the champion of humbug came remarkably close.


“Their huge souls, light as clouds…”

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