- Historic Sites
The Colossus Of His Kind: Jumbo
Pried loose from a furious Great Britain to meet a tragic death in the New World, this huge elephant made a fortune for his owner, delighted millions, and added a new superlative to our language
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
Among Jumbo’s admirers was the greatest showman of all time, Phineas Taylor Barnum. To put it summarily, he came, he saw, he coveted. If Barnum had Jumbo in his circus, it would mean millions of dollars to the show. With apparently hopeless bravado Barnum instructed his man in London to approach the directors of the Royal Zoological Society and explore the possibility that they might part with their mountainous attraction. He did not know, of course, how astonishingly lucky he was. The London Zoo had been trying for months to get rid of Jumbo.
There were two reasons. The directors were fearful that Jumbo, near adulthood, would soon fall victim to musth, the periodic inflammation of the male elephant’s temporal glands (it was not known at this time that musth is apparently limited to the Asiastic species). While the condition lasts it can drive the elephant berserk, and the gigantic Jumbo, in such a state, could do irreparable damage.
The second problem was his devotion to Scott. Jumbo’s affection for the man was such that he could not bear to be separated from him for a moment. At night, when Scott was not there, Jumbo would throw tantrums that nearly wrecked the elephant house. If Scott were to die suddenly, the elephant’s grief would be murderous.
Such was the situation when Barnum’s London agent approached Mr. P. L. Sclater, the secretary of the R.Z.S. , to inquire whether or not the zoo could be induced to part with its star attraction; and although the society behaved with tasteful reluctance, its officers privately thought the offer a godsend and did not reject the idea as expected. When this news was cabled to Barnum, the old showman, then seventy-two, rifled back an offer of ten thousand dollars, the equivalent of two thousand pounds sterling. London delayed for just two days, and then it was done. The deal was closed, and Jumbo was sold.
In accordance with strict zoo policy the transaction was still a secret. But Barnum wasn’t satisfied; bombast was his trademark, and as soon as it was safe to do so (that is, as soon as the sealed and irrevocable contract was delivered safe into the hands of his own men), he ordered his press army to go to work and make the British people feel that they had been swindled. His reason was clarified by one writer in 1933: “In order to make the American Public realize what it was gaining, Mr. Barnum had to make the British Public realize what it was losing.” And Mr. Barnum, as usual, pulled the strings perfectly. When he let the news break, the story “burst like a bomb” on England, and the reaction was a national temper tantrum, which delighted the showman. Editors lamented; John Ruskin wrote with firm Britannic iciness that England had not been in the habit of selling her pets; the Prince of Wales, the colorful Albert Edward, publicly condemned the transaction. It was rumored that Queen Victoria herself believed privately that the Zoological Society should refuse to deliver the goods and let the state assume responsibility. And this furor was only the beginning.
The morning after Barnum received the cable indicating the zoo’s acceptance of his offer, he dispatched his head elephant keeper, William Newman, to arrange and oversee Jumbo’s journey to the United States. Stepping off the ship in London, “Elephant Bill, “as he was called, expected no trouble at all in getting Jumbo from the zoo through six miles of streets to St. Katherine’s Docks on the Thames, in a travelling cage that he would have constructed. There the elephant would be hoisted aboard the steamship Persian Monarch . In fact, however, the departure was delayed for nearly two months, during which Barnum happily reaped further publicity. He was aided in the slowdown by the stubbornness and cupidity of Matthew Scott.
The travelling cage was nearly a month in the building, but finally, pulled on a huge four-wheeled trolley by a half-dozen magnificent dray horses, it called for Jumbo at the zoo on Saturday, February 11, 1882. Scott managed to coax his elephant as far as the wooden ramp leading to the cage, and then he retired inconspicuously to the door of the elephant house. Jumbo, at the urging now of Newman and A. D. Bartlett, director of the zoo, placed a ponderous forefoot on the planks but could be induced to go no farther. When two hours of gentle persuasion and sugared buns did not convince him, they had to give in and call Scott to come lead Jumbo back to the elephant house for the night.
Nothing daunted, Newman conceived a new plan. Tomorrow he would walk Jumbo to the river, where, in quieter surroundings, he would be less apt to balk. The British press, it seems, had decided that Jumbo hesitated only because of a true sense of loyalty to English soil, but it was his behavior the next day that made English hearts go out more than ever to their beleaguered pet.
Bright and early on February 12 Jumbo plodded with his characteristic grace behind Scott down the gravel paths of the zoo to the entrance gate, thence to be led on foot to the dock from which he would embark.