- 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
Scott, nearly in tears from fright, shouting “Run, Jumbo, run! ” managed to turn the elephants around on the track; and Jumbo, sensing the danger he was in, set off down the track as fast as he could, waving his trunk in the air, roaring and screeching as he had never done in his life. Tom Thumb, the clown elephant, followed Scott and Jumbo at his best speed, but Jumbo’s long legs soon outdistanced the little dwarf, and he fell rapidly behind. Scott was running beside Jumbo, desperately urging the beast to run down the steep embankment to safety, but Jurnbo refused to try it. Instead he tried instinctively to outdistance the train, but sadly for him elephants are incapable of genuine running—they can only walk fast—so he was doomed to lose.
Scott saw that there was no chance of reaching the end of the circus train and ducking behind it—the express would catch them long before that. But there was the break where two cars had been uncoupled to let the animals pass through. Yes, the break! If he could get Jumbo to stop and turn through the break, it would be all right; it wasn’t far ahead. When they were at last a bare three car lengths from the narrow opening, the speeding express freight crashed into Tom Thumb, who had been lagging farther and farther behind. The cowcatcher caught him low on the hind legs and spun him off the track, down the embankment into a telephone pole and finally into a fence, with a broken leg.
When Jumbo and Scott finally reached the breach, Scott stopped and called at the top of his lungs to the madly trumpeting Jumbo to follow him through the break, but the seven-ton animal’s tremendous momentum carried him two cars past the opening before he understood and could stop to turn. Just as he stopped and before he could turn around, the locomotive slammed into his backside. Jumbo went to his knees, and the train skidded off the rails with such driving force that it shoved him violently under the heavy iron wheel-carriage of a circus car, pulverizing the massive skull and driving a tusk back into his brain.
Burnip and his fireman picked themselves up from the ground, badly shaken but not seriously injured. Some circus men pulled the crippled Tom Thumb to his feet and helped him down the track. He would live, though he would limp for the rest of his days.
Scott was stunned as he approached the crumpled body of his companion of twenty years. Jumbo was still conscious. When Scott crawled under the car by the huge, lacerated head to comfort the groaning animal, Jumbo took his hand in his trunk, as if he understood, and died quietly. Scott wept unashamedly. A large crowd had gathered, and when Jumbo ceased breathing, Scott was gently pulled away. A hundred sixty men, straining on ropes, prying with timbers, stanchions, crowbars, and whatever else they could find, dragged the corpse to the edge of the embankment and rolled it over.
As the large crowd milled around, souvenir hunters, armed with knives and scissors, moved in immediately on the body, though circus men protected it as well as they could. Scott, numbed with shock, grief, and exhaustion, lay down on his old friend’s remains and went to sleep so soundly that he was not awakened by one particularly audacious souvenir hunter who removed a large slice from one of Jumbo’s ears. When he later discovered the mutilation, he became nearly hysterical. The next morning, however, the St. Thomas police arrived and kept a twenty-four-hour guard to prevent further vandalism.
Barnum was at the Murray Hill Hotel when he was first told of the disaster in St. Thomas. The reporters gathered around his breakfast table, and the old showman stated mournfully, “The loss is tremendous,” then recovered himself to continue piously, “but such a trifle never disturbs my nerves. Have I not lost a million dollars by fires, and half as much by other financial misfortunes?”
The financial loss was considerable, including not only the $150,000 at which Jumbo was valued but also the huge gate receipts produced by the elephant. Barnum did not carry insurance for anything like that amount. He did sue the Grand Trunk for a hundred thousand dollars, but more for the publicity value than in any real expectation of recovery; and he settled out of court for a relative pittance.
Yet Barnum’s stoicism before the press was not entirely feigned. He was not prepared to let death cheat him of the money that would have been paid by future visitors to the elephant. He would have Jumbo stuffed and continue to exhibit him, in his “museum.” He gave the impression that this was a brilliant spur-of-the-moment counter to fate, but actually Barnum had long since arranged to have Jumbo’s hide and skeleton mounted in the event of some mishap. In 1883 he had written to Professor Henry A. Ward, the manager of a firm dealing in commercially prepared natural science exhibits for museums:
Dear Sir: On my return home I found your letter of August 29. I shall have my managers understand that if we lose Jumbo (which Heaven forbid) you must be telegraphed immediately, and I hope you will lose no time in saving his skin and skeleton. As to the other animals, I will talk with you about them at the close of the season—a fortnight hence. Truly yours, P. T. Barnum