An Elephant's Tale

An Unadulterated and Relatively True Story Chronicling the Life, Death and Afterlife of Jumbo, Tufts' Illustrious Mascot

By Susan Wilson, J69, G75

It rests in Tufts Digital Collections and Archives. Neatly wrapped and gently tucked in an archival cardboard box, it begs no attention, invites no stares. Even as assistant archivist Anne Sauer, J91, G98, gently unfolds the protective tissue and the mummified lump of stitched, lead-colored leather finally appears in full light, there's nary a hint that this once was "The Greatest Tail on Earth."

But it's true. This humble tail fragment was once part of Jumbo, the most heralded elephant in modern history. Jumbo, the prized 19th-century pachyderm who enthralled thousands of children on both sides of the Atlantic. The elephant who dominated the traveling menagerie of Barnum and Bailey's grandest circus. The African icon who captured the world's imagination and lent his name to the lexicon of the English language. The caring creature who died while saving a baby elephant from a runaway locomotive. The stuffed school mascot who arrived on the Hill in 1889, and whose name and image have been etched upon Tufts' sports teams, clubs, psyche, school spirit, periodicals, yearbooks, songs, offices, artifacts, campus structures, vendible tchotchkes and graduating student body ever since. Jumbo!

Jumbo didn't begin life as a school mascot, an icon or even a noticeably large elephant, as African specimens go. Instead, this elephant's tale began somewhat uneventfully, on the plains of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), where he was captured in 1861. Though legend has it that Arab traders found the two-year-old calf on the banks of the Settite River, others suggest the locale was Lake Chad.

The tiny elephant was less than 40 inches at the shoulder when purchased by animal collector Johann Schmidt, who resold him to the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. He was eventually called Jumbo, perhaps a misspelling of jumbe, a Swahili word for chief, or perhaps a word derived from the term "mumbo jumbo," the name of a masked figure among the Mandingo peoples of western Africa, originally used to describe an object of superstition or fear. Whatever the source, it's important to note that "jumbo" was not an English word in 1861; it was this African elephant who brought that term to our language, not vice versa.

In 1865, the Jardin des Plantes entered negotiations with the Royal Zoological Society in London and traded young Jumbo-along with a companion elephant named Alice-for a rhinoceros. The deciding factor was Regent Park zookeeper Matthew "Scotty" Scott, who visited the two scruffy elephants and saw hope for their futures. Under Scotty's care, Jumbo-then four feet tall, filthy and in ill health-began to flourish. By age seven, Jumbo's appetite had taken a quantum leap, eventually leveling off at a daily intake that included 200 pounds of hay, 1 barrel of potatoes, 2 bushels of oats, 15 loaves of bread, a slew of onions and several pails of water. Though Scotty never touched the stuff himself, his protégé also consumed a prodigious amount of alcohol: Jumbo was allowed a gallon or two of whiskey per day when his loving zookeeper felt health concerns warranted.

As Jumbo's height and girth expanded, so did his popularity with the children and adults who frequented the London Zoo. He became a gracious, gentle presence, happily swaying his trunk to accept the coins, peanuts and English buns offered up by his adoring fans. Scotty also trained his pet as an amusement ride, encouraging children to scramble up to the 60-seat "howdah" strapped on Jumbo's back, and to gleefully ride him through the park. Among those who straddled Jumbo on this multi-tiered seat were Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and Phineas T. Barnum; among those who profited was Scotty himself, who was allowed to keep the twopence each patron paid for the ride.

That same P. T. Barnum, as it turns out, was the man who finally disrupted Jumbo's happy and extended English family. The world-famous American entertainment entrepreneur had already made and lost several fortunes during five decades of business ventures that ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. On the ridiculous side was his penchant for mass-marketing hoaxes, such as unicorns, phoenixes, the dried-up "Fejee mermaid" (a monkey torso expertly stitched to a fish tail), and Joice Heth, billed as the 161-year-old African nursemaid of George Washington. Barnum's sublime activities included promoting genuine items like the midget he called Tom Thumb and "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind, as well as collecting and preserving a credible array of natural history specimens, which he exhibited for profit and donated to museums. Meanwhile, Barnum was a generous philanthropist and active civil servant who gave time and money to his adopted home of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to the Universalist Church, and to the fledgling Tufts College, of which he was an original trustee.

In 1880, Barnum, then 70, merged his own "Greatest Show on Earth" with James Anthony Bailey's "London Circus." With the addition of a third partner, James L. Hutchinson, the Barnum and Bailey Circus was born. Barnum was looking for a spectacular animal attraction to make their grand new circus even grander when he recalled that great and beloved elephant in the London Zoo.

Jumbo, by this time, was an impressive 11 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder, weighing in at some seven tons. In his memoirs, Struggles and Triumphs, the showman wrote:

I had often looked wistfully on Jumbo, but with no hope of ever getting possession of him, as I knew him to be a great favorite of Queen Victoria, whose children and grandchildren are among the tens of thousands of British juveniles whom Jumbo had carried on his back. I did not suppose he would ever be sold.

Precisely why Royal Zoological Society and Park superintendent A. D. Bartlett decided to part with Jumbo is still in question. Perhaps it was the hefty $10,000 offered by Barnum, or the press coverage guaranteed by such a high-profile sale. Perhaps it was a question of safety and liability. Jumbo, it seems, had become an increasingly moody fellow. That moodiness-which some theorize was the result of an impacted wisdom tooth-manifested itself in erratic, sometimes violent behavior that included thrusting his tusks through iron plates and rampaging his own reinforced house. Jumbo always recovered from these fits of rage, especially when allowed to wander in the calming zoo gardens.

Rage was also the response when the British nation learned of Barnum's purchase, swiftly completed early in 1882. Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales, preeminent British art critic John Ruskin, the House of Commons, the R.S.P.C.A., and editorial writers at the London Times were among those who expressed feelings ranging from concern to dismay over the sale of Britannia's prized pachyderm. As the press pumped the story, the public at large went berserk. Even America's ambassador to the Court of St. James, the venerable author, editor and educator James Russell Lowell, playfully noted to a banquet crowd that, in 1882, the only burning question between Britain and America was our boy Jumbo.

Despite legal attempts to invalidate Jumbo's sale, Barnum reigned victorious. Moreover, this loud, furious outcry-not to mention the attempted court actions that ensued-proved a veritable publicity gold mine, which Barnum expertly milked on both sides of the Atlantic. Britain had a final glimmer of hope that Jumbo would remain in London when the elephant staged "lie-ins" rather than enter the wagon crate meant to cart him to the docks. "Elephant Bill" Newman, the handler hired to execute the move, couldn't get the seven-ton Jumbo to budge. Finally, a combination of quiet threats and promises of future employment convinced Jumbo's longtime trainer, Matthew Scott, to expedite the process. The following day, Jumbo entered the crate with no resistance. Once chained inside, he and the wagon were hauled to St. Katharine Dock by a team of ten huffing horses, then hoisted aboard a barge and ferried to the awaiting British steamship H.M.S. Assyrian Monarch.

Meanwhile, "Jumbomania" became the watchword of the day. In both England and America, savvy merchants began manufacturing and hawking "Jumbo" products to the ravenous public, including trading cards, prints, hats, bracelets, earrings, canes, cigars, fans and other wildly unnecessary paraphernalia. Editorials about the grand African elephant continued to be penned and published, as were countless poems, songs and stories. Among the laments was this flowery farewell in the London Daily Telegraph:

No more quiet garden strolls, no shady trees, green lawns, and flowery thickets... 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 luncheons on buns and oranges, must amuse a Yankee mob, and put up with peanuts and waffles.

Following a festive two-week voyage across the Atlantic-during which Jumbo reportedly imbibed a good deal of beer, champagne and whiskey-the Monarch was sighted off the coast of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1882, the elephant was hauled ashore to a Manhattan Battery pier and heralded by the bands, trumpets and cheering crowds which had patiently awaited him all day. Carefully protected in his wagon crate, Jumbo traveled up Broadway, drawn by an impressive cavalcade of 16 horses and a few hundred strong men, and pushed by an extra battery of circus elephants. The entourage arrived at the original Madison Square Garden shortly after 1:00 a.m.

Barnum had paid $10,000 for Jumbo the elephant. He spent another $20,000 for the logistical nightmare of getting his new pet to America. If anyone doubted the showman's brilliance, it was only for a moment: In his first ten days with the circus menagerie, Jumbo brought in $30,000; during the first year, he earned $1.5 million.

For four spectacular seasons, Jumbo toured North America with "Sanger's Royal British Menagerie and Grand International Allied Shows-Barnum, Bailey & Hutchinson, Sole Owners." Lest anyone should find his size unimpressive, Jumbo was regularly displayed next to a tiny baby elephant. Jumbo's appetite, like his size, maintained a healthy pace, though gingerbread replaced English buns as his favorite food. Unlike his fellow circus animals-all of whom performed a variety of tricks-Jumbo merely walked around in a circle. No matter: An estimated 16 million adults and 4 million children paid to see "The Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race," the greatest attraction in "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Meanwhile, "Jumbo" not so officially became a part of the English language, thanks to constant references in the worlds of advertising and journalism.

The defining moment of Jumbo the elephant's life was, in many ways, his untimely death at the age of 24. On September 15, 1885, as the traveling circus was loading the menagerie onto trains in St. Thomas, Ontario, the tragedy occurred. A portion of the fence that ran along the railyard tracks had been removed, allowing the parading animals to descend a small hill and board the cars. Jumbo and the baby clown elephant, Tom Thumb, were ambling toward their "Palace Car" when an unscheduled express freight train roared toward the entourage. Seeing that Jumbo and Tom Thumb were in danger, Scotty scrambled down the adjacent embankment and shouted a warning.

In Barnum's vivid rendering of the tale--told numerous times with equally numerous embellishments--Jumbo sacrificed his own life to save the baby elephant. Jumbo swung around, wrapped his long trunk around Tom Thumb, and hurled him 20 yards away, with a force that cost the calf a broken hind leg, but saved his life. With no hope of his own salvation, Jumbo took the locomotive head on, trumpeting the ensuing onslaught.

A second version of the story-and that most widely accepted by historians-was based on eyewitness accounts of those not in the employ of the circus. In a letter, Edgar H. Flach (a well-known jeweler from St. Thomas, Ontario) wrote a first-person account:

The flagman was frantically waving his lantern, trying to stop the oncoming train… Scotty realized the danger. "Run, Jumbo, Run," he cried, half sobbing . . . I could see Jumbo running down the tracks. His trunk was held high in the air and his trumpeting sent paralyzing shivers down either side of my spine. At that moment the locomotive struck the small elephant, hurtling him down the embankment and against a telephone pole. Jumbo in the meantime had kept on at a break-neck speed. He remembered the opening in the line of cars, but… ran two car lengths past the opening before he realized his mistake. He stopped and turned. Then it was that the pilot of the engine struck him.

Two other variations on the deadly accident-in which Jumbo rushes the train in a drunken stupor, or charges the engine in one of his inexplicable rages-have been generally dismissed. In virtually all versions of the tale, however, the poignant scene of Scotty with the dying Jumbo rings true. Edgar Flach's eyewitness rendering is particularly moving:

The animal… reached out his long trunk, wrapped it around the trainer and then drew him down to where that majestic head lay blood stained in the cinders. Scotty cried like a baby. Five minutes later, they lifted him from the lifeless body... That night Scotty laid down beside the body of his friend. At last exhausted from the strain, he fell asleep.

Tragedy, as it turns out, was swiftly turned into opportunity for Barnum and his circus. Letters in the Tufts collection confirm that long before the train accident, covetous museum owners were already eyeing the pachyderm's remains for their collections: Tufts, where Barnum was once a trustee and remained a major donor, had been promised Jumbo's stuffed hide, the Smithsonian Institution his skeleton. One of those letters, from taxidermist Henry Ward to Professor John P. "Doc" Marshall of Tufts, dated two weeks before the train accident, adds another interesting wrinkle:

Today I want to ask you a word about Jumbo. He was here lately and his keeper told my cousin (quietly) that he does not think he will live long, that it is now nearly a year since he has been able to lie down… I thought I would… ask you whether it is well understood that the skin of this interesting brute is to go to Tufts College. And am I (if then alive) to have the mounting of it? Both these things were told me by Mr. Barnum when I last saw him…

Whether or not Jumbo was terminally ill-thereby making the Ontario train accident cruelly convenient-may never be known. But the process of recycling the elephant came as swiftly as the front-page stories that chronicled his untimely death in newspapers around the world. The day after Jumbo's death, the process of removing his skin was begun. His remains were shipped to Henry Ward's Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York, where the five-month process of dissection, mounting and stuffing began immediately.

A man named Peters was given the harrowing duty of removing debris from Jumbo's stomach. His finds included a bobby's whistle, a slew of keys, several rivets and a "hatful" of English pennies. The hide, which weighed some 1,538 pounds, was meticulously stretched over a huge, padded wooden frame, and secured with 74,400 nails, until it looked like a living Jumbo. Actually, it looked somewhat bigger than a living Jumbo. One of Barnum's requests to the taxidermists had been, "By all means… let him show like a mountain!" Hence, two of Henry Ward's assistants, the 19-year-old Carl Akeley and his colleague William J. Critchley, stretched and overstuffed the hide, giving Jumbo a foot more height in death than he had in life. The duo then repaired Jumbo's smashed skull and mounted his bones as a separate display. The total bill, for labor and materials, was $1,650.

The elephant's sizable heart, incidentally, was sent off to Cornell, which reportedly paid $40 for the honor. Taxidermist Carl Akeley went on to great prominence as a naturalist and collector; the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, on the second floor of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, is named in his honor and filled with his specimens. A more ignominious fate met William Burnip, the train engineer who drove the switching engine that accidentally killed Jumbo; he later died in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

In 1886, a gala unveiling of the double Jumbos was filled with reporters, high society, speeches and a gelatin snack reportedly made from Jumbo's pulverized tusks. With elephants aplenty-the stuffed hide, the mounted skeleton, plus a living "Alice" bogusly billed as Jumbo's beloved widow-Barnum and his partners, Bailey and Hutchinson, were able to tour and display Jumbo to the adoring public for a few more years. As late as 1889, when Barnum seemed ready to donate both Jumbos to museum collections, he warned his benefactors that he might just borrow them again for a tour of England. Which is precisely what he did.

It was Barnum's longtime affection for the Universalist Church that brought him to Tufts. Delighted that Universalists were founding their first college, the fabulous showman agreed to serve as one of Tufts' original trustees. As trustees go, Barnum was not the best: He never attended a single meeting during his six-year tenure, and visited the campus only once, in 1886. As benefactors go, however, Barnum was stellar: His interest in natural history led him to donate hundreds of choice specimens to the college as well as the funds to build and maintain the Barnum Museum of Natural History. (His initial "secret" gift of more than $50,000 built the museum; another $30,000 or more came to Tufts through Barnum's will, following his death in 1891.)

After two seasons of touring the double Jumbos, Barnum was ready to send the stuffed mammal to his Barnum Museum at Tufts. In a March 27, 1889, letter to John P. Marshall, Tufts' first professor of natural history, Barnum announced his readiness to make the donation:

After "much tribulation" we have arranged with Railroads, and Jumbo will reach North Somerville probably Friday 29-or Saturday. So please arrange to have him taken from car on arrival so that our man can return with the car immediately... In announcing that you have Jumbo, better let the "Barnum Museum of Natural History" stick out plainly and emphatically.

Jumbo arrived at the North Somerville station, via the main line of the Boston & Lowell Railroad, then continued on a private sidetrack of the Somerville Electric Light Company. After being unloaded at the junction of Highland and Willow Avenues, he was hauled to Tufts by a double team of horses. When that team proved unable to pull him up College Hill, more than 50 Tufts professors and students, aided by some local boys, completed the task. At the time, the five-year-old Barnum Museum was a single building (two additional wings were added in 1894 and 1934-35, with monies from Barnum's bequest). The museum, a two-story stone structure with a pitched roof, had an arched, recessed doorway under the front porch. Since Jumbo was too big for the door, and the structurally vital arch could not be moved, masons worked from below-removing several stone steps from the threshold and pulling portions of the brick floor in order to squeeze him through.

Jumbo was an immediate hit at Tufts, and was swiftly adopted as the college mascot. Sports teams were named in his honor, while Tufts coaches invoked his strength, bravery and innate sense of teamwork (saving little Tom Thumb, at the expense of his own life) as inspiration. In an effort to evoke his memory and spirit for important Homecoming games or special events, live elephants were periodically rented from Boston-area zoos and brought onto the Tufts campus and its football field. School songs were written in Jumbo's name, beginning with the works of prolific longtime Tufts music professor Leo Rich Lewis, A1887, H22 (while still a Tufts student, Rich composed the "Barnum Song," which was played for the illustrious donor in his 1886 visit). Clothes, caps, periodicals, banners and countless other college items were adorned with Jumbo's image-an image, incidentally, which ranged from clumsily comic to ferociously brave, depending on the artist and the era.

Meanwhile, Jumbo become a part of Americana, as a pop-culture icon whose tale was continually revisited in books, stories, songs, Broadway shows, movies and television productions. (For many years, Jumbo's name also adorned a wonderful dive in nearby Teele Square, where Tufts students and locals regularly gathered and imbibed.)

In Medford, Jumbo became a veritable mecca for Tufts students, their parents and other campus visitors. Some merely wanted to view firsthand the circus legend. Others engaged in longtime campus traditions, like popping pennies in the elephant's trunk or tugging on his tail, in the hopes that good luck would come for a sports competition or final exam. In 1952, one over-exuberant fan apparently broke off the end of Jumbo's tail; that tail fragment was moved to the College archives and replaced with a sturdier reproduction. (A second rendering of that story has conservationists removing and replacing the tail in a 1942 overhaul, then taking the original fragment to the archives.)

Over the years, the Barnum Museum of Natural History came to be known simply as Barnum Hall. Wings and new biology labs were added, and facilities modernized. The array of stuffed wildlife and zoo animals that once surrounded Jumbo in the building's central chamber-assembled and reassembled in typical 19th-century museum style-were eliminated between 1939 and 1941. Through all the decorative changes and building additions, however, Jumbo was steadfast. It seemed that Tufts and Jumbo would last forever.

Forever came to a sudden halt on April 14, 1975. Sometime after midnight, faulty wiring in a refrigeration unit ignited a fire that, by daybreak, had consumed Barnum Hall and most of what once lay within. (Only Dana Laboratory, first opened in 1965, survived intact.) Lost were numerous biology specimens, laboratory animals, irreplaceable items of faculty research, books, circus posters, letters, a marble bust of Barnum and the showman's own desk. Lost too was Jumbo's hide, which was completely incinerated in the blaze. Thankfully, Russell L. Carpenter-Tufts professor, curator of the Barnum Museum and preeminent chronicler of Jumbo history-had moved most Barnum memorabilia and correspondence to the Tufts archives over the years.

Former athletic director Rocco J. "Rocky" Carzo vividly recalls how Phyllis Byrne, the athletic department's administrative assistant, rushed into his office the morning of April 15 with the frightening news of the fire.

"She got a peanut butter jar and gave it to a guy named George Wilson, who was on the maintenance staff. Phyllis said to him, 'I want you to get me some of Jumbo's ashes up there. He's our mascot and we ought to save these ashes.' So [George] came back later with this jar filled with these ashes."

For Carzo and his colleagues in intercollegiate sports, Jumbo continued to live on in this little jar. Since 1975, teammates have rubbed the 14-ounce Peter Pan Crunchy Peanut Butter jar for good luck. In 1999, when Carzo retired after 26 years of directing Tufts athletics, a ceremony of "passing the ashes" to new director Bill Gehling, A74, was performed.

Today, Jumbo's legacy is alive and well at Tufts. If cooperative energy is afoot, if school spirit is alive, if altruism and optimism are at the fore, Jumbo is not-and never will be-gone from the Medford hillside. There are, of course, various Jumbo sculptures and replicas that have proliferated on the Hill over the past few decades, including
Jumbo II at campus epicenter.

As for physical remnants of the actual Jumbo, do folks really buy the stories of the tail and the ashes? No one appears to doubt that the tail fragment stored in the archives is the genuine article. And when asked if he thinks those really are Jumbo's remains in the Peter Pan Peanut Butter jar, Carzo is unequivocal. "We know that Jumbo was not cremated; he burned in a fire. Whatever burned, burned together. You gotta believe that these are Jumbo's ashes. He's in there someplace. I can't tell you which molecule, but he's in there."

And that, it seems, is enough.






© 2002 Trustees of Tufts University, all rights reserved.