During his lifetime, Jumbo was the biggest elephant in captivity. He was born in Africa in 1860 or 1861, and spent most of his life entertaining and giving rides at the London Zoo. Due to his size and notoriety, P.T. Barnum decided he needed Jumbo in his circus. Despite objections by the British people, Barnum bought Jumbo in 1882 and shipped him to America where he was greeted upon his arrival by a crowd of 10,000 hoping to get a glimpse of the famous animal.
Matthew “Scotty” Scott, a zookeeper who had been put in charge of Jumbo when he first arrived in London, remained with the elephant ever since. He had trained Jumbo, shared a bottle of beer with him every night before bed, and was the only person who could keep Jumbo in control. For this reason, Barnum hired Scotty to maintain this role.
Jumbo spent three years touring with Barnum’s circus before the tragedy that took his life.
On September 15, 1885, Jumbo was struck and killed by a freight train while the circus was unloading on the rails in Canada. As Barnum told the story, Jumbo was trying to save a dwarf elephant named Tom Thumb from the oncoming train when it hit him, instead. Tom Thumb survived with nothing more than a broken leg.
Jumbo died at a railway classification yard in Canada at St. Thomas, Ontario. While out exercising, he tripped and fell on train tracks, impaling himself on his tusk and dying instantly. Shortly after his death, an unexpected locomotive ran over his body. Barnum told the story that he died saving a young circus elephant, Tom Thumb, from being hit by the locomotive, but other witnesses did not support this. The most popular version of the story has the elephant being struck and killed by the locomotive.
Barnum’s story says that the younger elephant, Tom Thumb, was on the railroad tracks. Jumbo was walking up to lead him to safety, but an unexpected locomotive hit Tom Thumb, killing him instantly. Because of this, the locomotive derailed and hit Jumbo, killing him too. According to newspaper accounts at the time, the freight train hit Jumbo directly, killing him, while the other elephant suffered a broken leg.
Ever the showman, Barnum had portions of his star attraction separated, in order to have multiple sites attracting curious spectators. After touring with Barnum’s circus, the skeleton was donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where it remains. The elephant’s heart was sold to Cornell University. Jumbo’s hide was stuffed by William J. Critchley and Carl Akeley, both of Ward’s Natural Science, who stretched it during the mounting process; the mounted specimen traveled with Barnum’s circus for two years.
Barnum eventually donated the stuffed Jumbo to Tufts University, where it was displayed at P.T. Barnum Hall there for many years. The hide was destroyed in a fire in April 1975. Ashes from that fire, which are believed to contain the elephant’s remains, are kept in a 14-ounce Peter Pan Crunchy Peanut Butter jar in the office of the Tufts athletic director, while his taxidermied tail, removed during earlier renovations, resides in the holdings of the Tufts Digital Collections and Archives.
What is interesting to me is the death of the elephant. In one story the elephant tripped and died on its own tusk. Barnum the manipulator told a different tale, which although never collaborated has the elephant trying to save a dwarf elephant from harm. We can deceive by manipulating the truth. History buries facts and fiction and mixes them up all the time.