- 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
Though Ward was telegraphed immediately after Jumbo’s demise, it was the seventeenth before he arrived on the scene with his assistants, W. J. Crutchley and nineteen-year-old Carl E. Akeley. The latter was a teenage genius who later gave taxidermy a high degree of artistic realism and created the celebrated Akeley Hall in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Jumbo had been lying dead for nearly two days, guarded constantly from the mobs of souvenir hunters. By the time Ward had measured every dimension of the body and raided all the neighboring towns in a quest for a half dozen butchers to begin the dissection, the odors wafting through the railyard had become distracting. The dissection lasted all afternoon and evening, and much of it had to be done from the inside, a morbid task that fell to a Mr. Peters, who later commented that he knew what Jonah must have gone through inside the big fish. Afterward the meat and scraps were cremated on a great pyre of four cords of wood.
The sections of the 1,538-pound hide were at once put in baths of salt water and alum and shipped to Rochester in a wooden tank. Back at Ward’s establishment, where a special building had to be erected to provide enough room, Akeley was deputed to figure out how to mount an elephant skin sturdily enough to stand rail travel, as Barnum insisted it must do.
Akeley set to work; the skin was cured, scraped, and treated with arsenic to eliminate the danger of decay. A wooden manikin was built to his careful specifications, made from measurements of the actual corpse. When it was ready, the skin was stretched over the form and, fastened down with forty-four thousand countersunk copper nails.
The 2,400-pound skeleton was packed in boxes and shipped back to the establishment, where a special brick tank had to be built to macerate the bones. The greatest problem was the splintered skull. Akeley managed to reassemble its shards with papier-mâche on a special wooden framework that he designed. He did it so well that to the present time the cracks are practically invisible.
Barnum had specified that the mountings, suitable for rugged rail travel, were to be ready by March of 1886. When Akeley finished his monumental work, special wagons were designed, and the two Jumbos—bones and hide—were signed over to Barnum’s men on March 4, 1886. The unveiling of the specimens had already taken place on February 26 at Rochester’s Powers Hotel, at a lavish banquet during which Barnum served reporters a jelly made out of part of Jumbo’s powdered tusks.
Meanwhile, the redoubtable old showman was building a fevered interest among his public to see the remains of the immortal Jumbo. The first step was to publish his own account of Jumbo’s violent end, a wild bit of inspired invention. The noble Jumbo, Barnum maintained, had sacrificed his own life in a valiant attempt to save the life of the little clown elephant, Tom Thumb. Jumbo had “snatched the little elephant from in front of the thundering train and hurled the little fellow twenty yards to safety.” With Tom Thumb safe, continued the master publicist, Jumbo turned to face the oncoming freight. “The leviathan of the rail and the mountain of bone and brawn came together with a crash that made the solid roadbed quake. … Jumbo … gave but one groan after being struck and then assumed an attitude of determination and composed himself to meet death with a becoming dignity and fortitude.”
The second step in his post-mortem Jumbo campaign was the acquisition of the placid Alice, the stolid old cow elephant of the London Zoo. She was imported as Jumbo’s weeping widow, though in fact Alice had never shown any interest in Jumbo and they were both too young to mate for much of the time they were together. The third step was to train all the other elephants in the circus to wipe their eyes with black-bordered sheets.
For the next two seasons Jumbo’s skin and skeleton led the grand parade, riding in a specially designed wagon and followed by the “widowed” Alice and her entire herd of attendants, all holding those black-trimmed sheets in their trunks and wiping their eyes. The scheme was wildly successful as an audience attraction. But then, in the winter of 1887-88, the circus winter headquarters at Bridgeport, Connecticut, burned to the ground. Poor Alice perished in the flames, although Jumbo’s precious remains were saved.
By then, however, Barnum was ready to drop the Jumbo theme from his Greatest Show on Earth. Ina typical gesture he donated the great skeleton to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the stuffed skin to Tufts University near Boston, of which he was a founder and trustee. Only Barnum, notes one writer, would have figured out a way to exhibit his prime attraction in two places at the same time, two hundred miles apart.
The morose little Matthew Scott followed Jumbo to Tufts. Unable to accept the fact that the elephant was really dead, he became pathetically dotty. Often he was seen sitting by the gigantic stuffed figure, dusting it and talking to it. Later, it appears from available evidence, he returned penniless to England and dropped out of sight.