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.

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Jumbo, PT Barnum’s famous elephant

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.

Jumbo at the London Zoo

Jumbo at the London Zoo

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.

P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman

P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman

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.

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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.

 Toronto Star file photo The death of Jumbo in St. Thomas, Ont., on Sept. 15, 1885. After he was hit by a freight train, many who had been in the circus crowd posed with his body along the tracks.


Toronto Star file photo
The death of Jumbo in St. Thomas, Ont., on Sept. 15, 1885. After he was hit by a freight train, many who had been in the circus crowd posed with his body along the tracks.

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”.

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6 responses

  1. Interesting. But how tragic. No animals should be held in captivity. I’m saddened its taken until now for the circus to retire elephants.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Arlee Bird says:

    Barnum was so masterful at creating a mythology about this attractions that garnered more attention than they would have otherwise gotten. Jumbo was one of many of the Barnum stars that captivated the world. This is a wonderful post about an era that many in today’s world are forgetting about.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

    Like

  3. Luanne @ TFK says:

    You just made me cry for poor Jumbo.

    Like