Tufts' official mascot, Jumbo the elephant, has been ranked among the most singular in college athletics by The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated and is the only college mascot found in Webster's Dictionary.
The elephant's tale dates back to 1885, when P.T. Barnum, the circus showman who was an early trustee and benefactor of Tufts, donated the stuffed hide of Jumbo to the university after he was killed by an oncoming train in Ontario, Canada. The pachyderm was eventually put on display in the Barnum Museum of Natural History (now Barnum Hall) at Tufts. He was a big hit with the college's athletes, who adopted him as their mascot, while their coaches invoked his strength and bravery in pre-game pep talks.
Photo by Melville Munro
For 86 years, Jumbo was a veritable mecca for students, their parents and other campus visitors. Students would pop pennies in his trunk or give a tug on his tail to bring luck for an upcoming exam or athletics competition. But Jumbo mania came to a fiery end on April 14, 1975, when Barnum Hall, and the beloved elephant, were consumed in a blaze caused by faulty wiring in a refrigeration unit. All that remained were a piece of his tail (now neatly wrapped and stored in the university archives) and some ashes. Phyllis Byrne, the administrative assistant in the athletics department, dispatched a colleague to the ruins to collect some of Jumbo's ashes in an empty peanut butter jar.
Jumbo's spirit lives on in his hybrid container (a Peter Pan Crunchy lid on a Skippy jar), and since 1975, university athletes have rubbed the jar for good luck. And when a new athletics director is named, there is a ceremonial "passing of the ashes" to the successor.