In 2016, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus made news by announcing that it is ending its elephant acts and will retire all of its touring elephants in May. The move comes amid increasing scrutiny on circus elephant acts with local governments passing “anti-circus” and “anti-elephant” ordinances in response to concerns over animal cruelty.
More than a century ago, on February 3, 1882, PT Barnum bought his world famous elephant, Jumbo.
As far as animal superstars go, Jumbo was one of the biggest and earliest. He was the first African elephant to reach modern Europe alive. He was born in East Africa, and captured there by Arabian hunters in early 1862. He was sold first to an Italian animal dealer, then to a menagerie in Germany, and then to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Officials of the Jardin traded him to the London Zoological Gardens for a rhinoceros. Jumbo lived in the London Zoo for about 16 years, where he delighted visitors by taking them on trips around the zoo grounds in the howdah on his back.
Since Jumbo was the biggest elephant in captivity, American showman P. T. Barnum wanted the elephant in his circus. He purchased Jumbo in 1882 for $10,000.
The British people were outraged and this captured the world’s attention. The British people wrote letters to Queen Victoria urging that Jumbo remain in London. Alas, the courts ruled in Barnum’s favor and the elephant was shipped to the United States. Kind of like Beatlemania, there was a “Jumbomania” craze. The civilized world was flooded with Jumbo neckties, jewelry, soaps, and other ornaments and souvenirs.
Jumbo made his United States debut on Easter Sunday 1882 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Jumbo would tour with Barnum’s circus for three years but on September 15, 1885, he was killed in a railway accident in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada. He was age 24. His death was met with worldwide grief and sorrow. The world probably mourned him but according to the photograph below, he was a spectacle even as he lay dead.
Death did not end Jumbo’s fame. His hide was stuffed and his bones preserved. Both were displayed first with Barnum’s circus, and then with museums. Jumbo was donated to the Barnum museum at Tufts University where it became the school mascot. His hide was destroyed in a fire at Tufts in 1975. His skeleton was displayed for many years in the American Museum of Natural History, New York City. As time passed, people forgot who Jumbo was, and the skeleton was put away. Jumbo’s greatest legacy is his name. In the English language, it means “huge” or, at least, “very large”.