- 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
On Wednesday, March 15, Newman had the cage placed in position once more, and Scott led Jumbo to the door, where the huge elephant paused a moment, testing the floor, then lumbered calmly inside. He was hauled to St. Katherine’s Docks, put on a lighter, and floated two miles downstream to the Assyrian Monarch . It took but eight minutes to hoist cage and elephant aboard and lower them into their specially reinforced hold. Thoughout most of the trip Scott was perched on the front of the cage, holding Jumbo’s trunk, and the great animal showed no fright at all.
Jumbo took the crossing well and consumed in transit some two tons of hay, two sacks of biscuits and three of oats, and one sack of his favorite treat, onions.
The Assyrian Monarch , with its unlikely cargo, arrived in New York on April 9, and the next morning a puffing P. T. Barnum clambered over the rail, closely followed by his entourage of reporters, to whom he exclaimed: “Dear old Jumbo. That beast has cost me fifty thousand dollars.” Though Barnum inflated the transportation costs for the press, he cannily labelled Jumbo as “breeding stock” and thus escaped paying any import duties on him.
Scott had been hired by Barnum to continue as Jumbo’s keeper, since he was indispensable to control the animal. And Scott, difficult as ever, demanded his own terms—and got them. When somebody produced a quart of whiskey, the keeper without hesitation gave it to Jumbo. Barnum, a believer in temperance, was aghast. “I object to my elephant’s drinking whiskey!” he sputtered. But Scott paid no more attention to Barnum than he had paid to Bartlett. He gave Jumbo a chaser of ale and affirmed that the elephant got beer daily and, when feeling poorly, a medicinal dose of two gallons of whiskey.
Sober or not, Jumbo had arrived in New York in time for the annual circus opening at Madison Square Garden, and he was transported through streets packed with cheering throngs while posters and advertisements crowed “ TOM THUMB and JENNY LIND … retire into Obscurity when viewed in the Full Blaze of the DAZZLING JUMBO .” Other circulars boasted of how Barnum had single-handedly defeated the British government, people, and court system. Jumbo was a financial venture—a thirty-thousand-dollar venture—and Barnum was making every effort to get his money back. And Jumbo at the Garden proved once again that Barnum’s instincts were never wrong; the mighty elephant chalked up receipts of more than three thousand dollars a day, so that by the end of two weeks Jumbo had returned his new owner the entire thirty thousand dollars, as well as a clear net profit of 20 per cent.
When the Greatest Show on Earth went out on its annual tour, Jumbo proved to be just as popular on the road as he was in New York, shattering all previous records of income; and if he had shown any signs of discontent in London, he lost them with the circus. He was a superb performer and a natural-born traveller, but his easy adjustment to the strenuous life was no doubt due to the continuous presence of Matthew Scott, whose hypnotic power over the elephant never wavered. In London, Jumbo’s only temper fits occurred when and because Scott was absent, but in America Scott was seldom, if ever, out of Jumbo’s sight. He did not even eat with the other circus employees but rather took all his meals with his “Jummie.”
They toured with the circus in their own private rail car, which Barnum liked to refer to as “Jumbo’s Palace Car.” It was an ornate boxcar, painted crimson and gold, with huge double doors in the depressed middle section, giving Jumbo easy access to his travelling home. Scott rode in a bunk near Jumbo’s head, and his compartment was separated from the elephant’s by a small door, which Jumbo never permitted to be closed for any reason. Whenever Jumbo felt lonely while Scott was sleeping, he would tease and annoy his keeper by groping through the door with his trunk and snatching such small articles as sheets and blankets. Man and beast still shared their daily quart of beer, and the story is told that one night, for some inexplicable reason, Scott forgot to share and guzzled the whole quart himself. Surprised and obviously hurt, Jumbo waited until Scott was fast asleep before reaching through the door with his trunk and picking the rudely awakened Scott right out of his bed and setting him on the floor by the empty bottle. Scott never forgot again.
So it went for two seasons—Jumbo enjoying his new life and Barnum raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars. The show had its traditional Madison Square Garden opening on March 16, and from there it swung through New York, Pennsylvania, New England, and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. After more than a hundred stops covering some eight thousand miles the circus train pulled into the town of St. Thomas, Ontario, in the wee hours of September 15, 1885. As the train rolled into the Grand Trunk Railroad yards east of Woodworth Avenue, it was shifted to a siding.