- 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
After two years Barnum recalled his bequests from retirement long enough for two tours of Europe, then returned them to the original beneficiaries, where they have remained ever since. Today the skeleton presides peacefully over the Synoptic Hall of the American Museum of Natural History. The skin, towering within the Barnum Museum of Tufts University, now serves as the mascot of that school, where for many years tradition had it that coins dropped in the trunk brought “A’s” on exams.
The skeleton in New York stands a trifle less than eleven feet two inches tall at the shoulder, which gives some indication of the animal’s actual height, probably close to eleven feet seven inches. But the skin is another matter entirely. Barnum’s instructions concerning the mounting were “By all means let [the skin] show as large as possible. It will be a grand thing to take all advantage possible in this direction. Let him show like a mountain.” He got his way, as Akeley obliged him and stretched the skin upward to a larger-than-life twelve feet even. And to complete the reconstruction the tusks, which had been shattered in the accident, were replaced by genuine ivory substitutes.
It was a fitting end to Jumbo’s dazzling career, throughout which it was Barnum’s stated intention to see all the dry little words like “huge,” “mammoth” and “colossal” stricken from the dictionary, to be replaced by one all-new, all-purpose, all-encompassing adjective: “jumbo. ” He did not completely succeed, but any exposure to the language of ballyhoo even today shows that the champion of humbug came remarkably close.