“Nature's great masterpiece, an elephant“ – the tragic life and death of Jumbo the Elephant

15 September 1885, Jumbo the awe- and synonym-inspiring Elephant died at the age of about 24 during a train accident while on tour with P.T. Barnum’s show in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada.

“Th' unwieldy elephant, To make them mirth, us'd all his might, and wreathed His lithe proboscis.”

(John Milton)

Jumbo and his keeper Matthew “Scotty“ Scott
on a Circus poster from 1882

Back in the year of 802, Charlemagne received an allegedly white elephant named Abul Abbas as a gift from Caliph Harun al-Rashid. It was the first elephant north of the Alps mentioned in a document since antiquity. If AbulAbbas really was a white elephant has been debated over the last 1200 years. Elephant bones found in a field near Lippeham in 1750 were, naturally, classified as the remains of Charlemagne’s elephant, even though they might have been the remains of some prehistoric pachyderm, just as the remains found near Colchester had been misidentified as the ones belonging to the animal that was brought to Britain by Emperor Claudius to impress the recently conquered natives. His name might have inspired the German word “Popanz”, a kind of a bogeyman and the idea of the large animals carrying towers on their backs, inspired by Abul Abbas and resounding from antiquity as well, got stuck at least in the depiction of chess castles as elephants with fortifications on their backs and an 18th century pub sign showing the same image and lending the name to a district in south London, Elephant and Castle, along with other rather curious displays of pachyderms in western imagery until mid-19th century. By then, seeing the elephant meant, by and large, to visit a travelling menagerie or to go to one of the larger zoos, the Jardin des Plantes in Paris for example or London Zoo. And there, a pachyderm’s tale started to reach its climax that began in the Sudan and became at least as universal as that of Abul Abbas – the heart-rending story of Jumbo, the King of Elephants.

Jumbo giving Scotty and the children a ride in London Zoo (1880s) 

Jumbo was about a year old when he was captured in northeastern Africa, his mother was probably killed by local hunters, he ended up in the camp of wildlife catchers specialised in providing local fauna for sale to European zoos, came to Paris after a hell of a trip up the Suez Canal and the Med and was finally swapped for an Indian Rhino by Abraham Bartlett, the Superintendent of the London Zoological Gardens and Jumbo, now perhaps five years old, and ready to go forth and take the London crowd by storm. There is probably no reason why the adolescent elephant was baptised “Jumbo” by Bartlett except that the superintendent liked the sound of the word he made up himself, but the name stuck and over the following 16 years Jumbo became the London Zoo’s main attraction. He grew up to the impressive size of being 12 feet tall at the shoulder, two feet more than your average pachyderm of African heritage. Not that the average Londoner had a lot of opportunities available to compare Jumbo’s size with that of other elephants, the poor thing was single for quite a while, but the impression he left on the spectators’ imagination was obviously enormous. Especially for children who rode in a howdah mounted on Jumbo’s back for a penny, literally a million of them of all classes and provenances, young Winston Churchill and Theodor Roosevelt among them. It might be Jumbo’s obvious affection and tolerance for the little ones that reserved him a special place in the hearts of the Londoners, since he had a reputation for being otherwise quite aggressive, throwing tantrums and what not, but never towards children or his appointed keeper, Matthew “Scotty” Scott. Said relationship between man and pachyderm was certainly the most touching aspect in Jumbo’s tragic tale ranging from sheer confidence Jumbo displayed towards Scottie to the need of physical closeness and downright affection, even with something of a twinkle in the eye of the elephant. Usually, Scottie slept near Jumbo since he was the only living being able to calm down the sometimes not-so-gentle grey giant and usually they shared a bottle of beer before going to sleep like old pals. At one time, Scotty finished a beer off alone, fell asleep somewhere in the stable, Jumbo picked him up with his trunk and placed the snoring keeper gently beside the empty bottle. Scotty later said that “he got the message” and never again forgot to share a nightcap with his friend. It could have been this closeness that might have persuaded Bartlett to sell Jumbo to P.T. Barnum. If something would happen to Scotty, Bartlett feared he’d have to shoot capricious Jumbo.

Jumbo's ordeal en route to St Katherine's Docks with Scotty holding his trunk for comfort
(“The Illustrated London News, April 1, 1882“)

Allegedly, art critic and philanthropist John Ruskin remarked that the English were not "in the habit of selling their pets" and joined the massive protests demanding that Jumbo would remain in England, but to no avail. Barnum insisted that the deal was legal, British courts agreed and it took all of Scotty’s persuasive power to convince Jumbo to leave Regent’s Park in March 1882. A drama enfolded in the streets of London from the Zoo to St Katharine’s Docks that lasted for hours with Scotty comforting Jumbo, the London crowds bidding their darling an equally tearful farewell and the elephant was shipped all the way to New York. Barnum’s business sense was yet again right. Even though Jumbo could do no other tricks than being Jumbo, unlike the Asian elephants already populating Barnum’s circus, he proved to be the same crowd puller in the States as he had been back home in Merry Old England. The archetypical showman had recouped his considerably high investment of buying and shipping Jumbo to the US during the first two weeks of the elephant being just on display in Madison Square Garden. Jumbo toured the country over the next three years with Scotty almost never leaving his side until the elephant met his fate in St Thomas, Ontario, Canada. Walking along the railway tracks from a show to the station, a misrouted, fast approaching freight train struck him, dragging him 300 feet down the line and fracturing his skull. Jumbo was about to die, Scotty was there, the elephant reached out with his trunk, felt for the hand of his friend and held it until he passed over a few minutes later. Barnum had the remains of Jumbo taxidermied, in an unbelievably tasteful good-by ceremony for selected guests, Barnum served a jelly allegedly made from Jumbo’s grounded tusks and milked the event further for what it was worth. Jumbo’s bones went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City while his stuffed hide was on display at the Barnum Museum of Natural History at Tufts University until destroyed in a fire in 1975. But Jumbo’s lasting legacy was certainly his name that became a synonym for something enormous in the English language.

The Death of Jumbo in St Thomas, a photograph taken a short while after the events in 1885

And more, along with many details and images, in the excellent article on: