The Colossus Of His Kind: Jumbo


It is a warm summer evening in 1882, in a small town in New England, and the circus of Messrs. Barnum, Bailey, and Hutchinson has come to town for a one-day stand. The “Greatest Show on Earth ” is suitably canopied : three huge tents in a meadow on the outskirts of town—one tent each for the museum and the freak collections, and the big one, the one with four rings that seats thirty thousand people, towers in the middle. In this big top the smell of sawdust hangs thick in the air, and although as the evening wears on some of the ladies begin to wish the brass band would not play quite so loudly, their men and children lighten the sweltering heat with cheers—cheers for the lion tamers and trapeze artists and clowns in the middle three rings and forthestunningbarebackriders in the outer ring, the Roman hippodrome.

The displays continue unabated until, suddenly, there is a hush as the splendidly dressed ringmaster, with the accompaniment of a heavy drum roll, begins his introduction, drawling in the unmistakable circus accent the traditional “ LADEEZ AND GENTLEMEN !” The people know what he is announcing. They have read the papers, and they know that Phineas Taylor Barnum has recently acquired from the British, by hook and crook, the hugest animal on the face of the earth, the largest elephant seen by modern man, the mighty Jumbo. They have seen the posters that bill him as a “Feature Crushing All Attempts At Fraud / The Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race / Whose Like the World will never See Again.”

That’s a tall order to fill, and they wonder if any beast could truly reach the size claimed by the showman Barnum; but as the drum roll reaches a crescendo and the giant African bull elephant begins slowly to pace the circle of the hippodrome, they sit up and gasp. Words fail them —he is unbelievable, yet there he is, striding before them with untold power and magnificent grace, literally dwarfing every living creature within the range of visual comparison.

Jumbo’s capsule biography would read that he was the largest elephant ever kept in captivity, a record undisputed to the present day; no animal in history has had so much written about him (with such a large portion of it pure nonsense) as P. T. Barnum’s celebrated Jumbo. Yet when people today are asked what they know about Jumbo, perhaps half of them recall that he was a circus elephant from past days who was called Jumbo because he was so big. This is an error at the outset. It was the giant animal whose name was given to outsized objects, not the other way around. He himself was christened Jumbo when he was less than five feet tall.

Of the many “authorities” who have written on Jumbo, nearly every one contradicts some others on points of his life, character, and death. One of the few things that all sources agree upon is that Jumbo was captured as a baby in Africa, most probably by Hamran Arabs somewhere in Ethiopia. The infant beast spent some time in Cairo, where he was taken, along with another baby elephant, by the Bavarian animal collector Johann Schmidt. Although most writers maintain that Schmidt sold the animals directly to the Jardin des Plantes, or Paris zoo, Dr. Guy Chauvier, current assistant director, says that both elephants were received on October 20, 1863, not from Schmidt but from the viceroy of Egypt.

About a year and a half later the Jardin des Plantes found itself overstocked with elephants but wanted to acquire a rhinoceros, while at the same time the London Zoo was trying to locate another elephant to join its herd of five and happened to have an extra rhino on hand. When London suggested a swap, Paris was “delighted” and even threw in two spiny anteaters.

On his arrival in London the “elephantine toddler,”as one newspaper referred to him, was the first African elephant to be shown in England, and he was given the name Jumbo, a shortened form of Mumbo Jumbo, after a kind of priest who allegedly protects west African villages from evil spirits. Jumbo, as it turned out, needed protection himself; when his crate was opened, he was found to be half starved, severely ill, and near death. Assigned as one of Jumbo’s caretakers was Matthew Scott, an underkeeper who, with some others, spent months nursing the infant to glowing health. Thereafter Jumbo and “Scotty” became inseparable.

As the years passed, Jumbo grew steadily, both in height and in the esteem of the British people. He was totally devoted to his keeper and was so gentle he became the favorite riding animal in the zoo. As he grew to eleven feet in height, the managers of the London Zoo realized that their young charge had become the largest animal in captivity in the world. Jumbo was something of an institution, a national pet, said Harper’s Weekly , and “as gentle with children as the best trained poodle dog, taking the proffered biscuit or lump of sugar with an almost incredible delicacy of touch. … The most nervous child, having once overcome his alarm, never hesitated to hand a morsel to his waving trunk a second time. ” Any day of the week he could be seen quietly plodding the gravel paths of the zoo in Regent’s Park, the topless howdah strapped to the broad back filled with six or eight goggle-eyed children. By the early l88o’s the total number carried was in the hundreds of thousands.