- 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
Halfway through the gate the animal stopped short and then backed nervously into the zoo grounds again. Scott, in earshot of a horde of reporters, began to scold the elephant coarsely. Jumbo caressed Scott piteously with his trunk and moaned and whimpered so loudly that the birds in the nearby parrot house screeched in terror, starting up a wave of frightened tumult that reached to the far ends of the zoo. Then Scott, to all outward appearances trying to calm the elephant, put his finger to his lips, and abruptly Jumbo groaned louder than ever and rolled over onto his side, seven tons of “immovable obstinacy.” No one present knew that Jumbo was trained to lie down at that particular signal. Scott was staging the entire business.
Reporters, believing (wrongly) that the loudest din was being raised by a cow elephant, Alice, whom they believed (also wrongly) to be Jumbo’s mate, sensed the news break of the year. They dashed off in hansom cabs to file their stories while Scott led Jumbo back to the elephant house and Newman presumably threw up his hands. Whether the American saw through Scott or was purposely playing fall guy remains a fascinating question. But the fact is that he changed Jumbo’s reservation to the Assyrian Monarch , which would not sail until the twenty-fifth of March, and cabled to his boss in New York: “Jumbo is lying in the garden and will not stir. What shall we do?” And Barnum, with characteristic sauce, replied: “Let him lie there as long as he wants to. The publicity is worth it.”
In the ensuing weeks publicity was plentiful. British hucksters were not ignorant of the storm of mawkish sympathy, and they immediately cranked out an avalanche of Jumbo products. There were Jumbo boots, Jumbo perfumes, Jumbo earrings, and Jumbo cigars, not to mention Jumbo letterheads, ties, fans, hats, collars, overcoats, and underwear. Much poetry was written on the subject—little of it good, though one versifier suggested a remarkable remedy:
Fund drives were started by the more hopeful zealots in an attempt to ransom their Jumbo from the clutches of Barnum and save him for Britain’s children. Barnum’s florid answers to their sponsors’ offers gave him further opportunity to advertise his circus. And as the public temper over Jumbo rose daily, so did the number of his visitors. On one day in March, 1882, Jumbo was seen by 4,626 sorrowing admirers (compared with a crowd of 214 the same day a year before), many of whom brought gifts to the elephant, which naturally were presented to his keeper. Therein lay one reason why Scott was delaying the removal for as long as possible. He was getting rich! So was the zoo. Packed farewell receptions for Jumbo, on the grounds, grossed fifty thousand dollars to its treasury. It was suggested in the London Fun that the British lion be removed from the coat of arms and be replaced by the celebrated elephant, with the motto Dieu et Mon Jumbo .
At last, after all appeals to Barnum’s sense of moral decency and indignant letters to the Times fell on deaf ears, Britons went to the courts. Some Fellows of the Royal Zoological Society brought an action in chancery for an injunction against Jumbo’s removal. The suit raised intriguing questions about the powers and purposes of the society under its charter, but in the end it failed in the Court of Queen’s Bench before Mr. Justice Chitty, who ruled that public remorse over a perfectly legal transaction was not enough to cancel the contract.
By early March, Barnum had gained free publicity worth considerably more than the ten-thousand-dollar price tag. Meanwhile, the real reason for Jumbo’s stubbornness was beginning to dawn on Director Bartlett of the zoo. He had realized that Jumbo went wherever Scott led him but, fearful of becoming separated from his beloved keeper, refused to be sent away; and that Scott had carefully refrained from leading Jumbo toward the travelling cage or the dock. Now, having an ace to play and sick both of the whole Jumbo mess and of being blackmailed by Scott, Bartlett first sought out Newman and “convinced” him of what was untrue —that Scott’s presence was a hindrance and that at the next loading attempt he would have better luck if Scott were absent. Then Bartlett laid down the law to his troublesome underkeeper: Jumbo would be leaving England with or without him. Scott chose to so along.