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The word Jumbo entered the American lexicon with another of P. T Barnum’s publicity successes. It’s supposedly the combination of two Swahili words mashed together. Captured young in the French Sudan in 1861 and sold to a menagerie in Paris, the calf was exhibited there before being purchased and sent to the London Zoo. He arrived filthy and in poor health. Matthew “Scotty” Scott, a self-made expert in animal husbandry, nursed the calf back to health.

Jumbo came to trust and love his trainer. He grew on a diet of many bales of hay, barrels of potatoes, loaves of bread, all sorts of goodies, and became partial to gallons of whiskey. Booze might seem the wrong thing to give an African elephant, not known to be docile, if that’s a word that can be used in conjunction with elephants. The Asian elephant is more domesticated than the African, but there’s nothing recorded about Jumbo hurting a human. Jumbo did have his spells; he broke off his tusks on walls, and smashed his up his housing. The reason for these fits became understandable after his death, a short lifespan for an elephant, only 24 years. He suffered from a severely impacted wisdom tooth.

Barnum bought Jumbo to add to his Greatest Show on Earth circus over the protests of English children. The queen was bombarded with thousands of letters from kiddies who had ridden him at the zoo and fed the fellow muffins. Nevertheless, Jumbo was sold for $10,000. From all I’ve read, I have the suspicion that the zoo’s management disliked Scott’s power over Jumbo, who had a “lie-down” in the street and refused to enter his loading crate. Barnum heard this and was delighted. That kind of publicity couldn’t be bought. Barnum was savvy enough to hire Scott and Jumbo immediately got up and entered the shipping crate.

Trainer and elephant arrived in New York, greeted by a huge crowd. Barnum always did his PR work the right way. The shipping costs were $20,000. (It was said Jumbo had a crossing made easier with beer and champagne.) His initial viewings in New York brought in $30,000. In one year, Jumbo made Barnum and the circus $1.5 million, and during that time, became the most famous animal in the world.


Jumbo got the royal treatment with his own train car and a mascot but only had a few years of fame. The accounts of Jumbo’s death are varied, but one thing is true—he died when struck by a train. Scott, friend and handler, stayed with Jumbo as he expired beside the railroad track.

Jumbo lived a short and extraordinary life. In death, Barnum had his hide mounted and his skeleton assembled, making more money by taking the two displays on tour. A letter to the taxidermist prior to Jumbo’s tragic death suggests that the elephant was not well, perhaps slowly dying.

The mounted hide eventually went to Tufts University in MA, where Jumbo became their mascot. (Barnum was a university trustee and generous donor.) His remains were lost in a fire but the picture of Jumbo displayed, his mass crowding the space in a room made smaller by his mass, as large in death as he was in life, has never left my memory.


Is this where the term “an elephant in the room” came from? Doesn’t matter. That Jumbo remained so gentle while suffering from dental agony is eulogy enough.