Thursday 2 October 2014

Jumbo the Elephant

"He strode along all right until the gate of the garden closed behind them and then lay down in the street.  It was a pure case of elephant obstinacy, and the animal wouldn't budge...The animal marched to the boat.  Weeping women and children lined the way." 
 (Paul Chambers, on the occasion of Jumbo's transfer from the London Zoo to a ship to America)

It took 200 pounds of hay to fill his tummy.  It took 18 horses to transport him through the streets of London.  It took 150 men to move his body down a hill after he died.  And it took 100,000 schoolchildren to write letters to the queen to lodge a protest against his sale from the London Zoo. His name was Jumbo the Elephant.

Paul Chambers says that:  "A visit to the London Zoo was considered incomplete without a ride on Jumbo".  In fact, in sixteen years at the zoo, 16 million adults and 4 million children rode on the back of the famous elephant.  At 13 feet tall, and 6.5 tonnes, it would take a lot to satisfy the animal captured in the French Sudan in 1863.  His daily diet consisted of:  200 pounds of hay, 1 barrel of potatoes, 2 bushels of oats, 15 loaves of bread, a slew of onions and several pails of water.

Jumbo was named after the Swahili words "jambo", which means hello, and "jumbe" which means chief.  He was a treasured animal at the London Zoo, which the Zoological Society had acquired in a trade with Paris' Jardin des Plantes which included:  a rhino, a jackal, 2 eagles, 2 dingoes, a possum and a kangaroo.  Jumbo's favourite trainer, Matthew Scott, thought at first that the London Zoo had received a raw deal.  Jumbo came to them with a disease that covered his hide and had spread to his eyes; they almost had to be removed.  However, Mr. Scott slowly nursed him back to health. 

Queen Victoria courtesy

Schoolchildren visited the London Zoo by the thousands.  For a price, they could climb up on the back of Jumbo and go for a ride.  It is rumoured that even former Prime Minister Winston Churchill went for a ride.  Soon Londoners saw Jumbo as their own pet.  That's why they were up in arms at the announcement stating circus man P. T. Barnum had offered the zoo $10,000 to buy the elephant and take him to America in 1882.  One hundred thousand British schoolchildren sat down at their desks, dipped their pens into their inkwells and wrote letters to Queen Victoria telling her how much they loved their beloved Jumbo and begging her to stop the sale.  The schoolchildren made such a fuss, that the decision wound up in court, but a judge ruled that the sale was legal and would go ahead.

The schoolchildren weren't the only ones to protest the move:  when the trainers at the zoo tried to take Jumbo off of the property, he would lay down at the zoo gate, refusing to the budge.  It took days to get him into the crate, only after Mr. Scott cajoled him.  A line of Londoners wept as Jumbo was transported through the cobblestone streets to a waiting ship on the River Thames.  The 18 day voyage across the Atlantic brought the elephant to North America.  

P. T. Barnum had big plans for Jumbo in New York City.  He wanted to showcase him in "The Greatest Show on Earth", a circus in held in the Hippodrome (later Madison Square Garden). Americans came from far and wide to see the African elephant perform under the Big Top.  It was not long before P. T. Barnum recouped both the money he paid for Jumbo and his transportation overseas.  Jumbomania overtook the nation:  trading cards, hats, jewelry, canes and cigars were among the paraphernalia sold at gift shops.  

After a couple of years, P. T. Barnum's circus went on the road to other states as well as Canada. Jumbo performed for a sold out audience in St. Thomas.  As the trainers were herding the elephants back to the tent, one of the baby elephants ended up on the railroad tracks.  Rumour has it that Jumbo tried to usher the elephant off the tracks when a train approached.  The little elephant was hurled clear of the tracks, but Jumbo was hit full force.  It was like two trains colliding:  the engine and two train cars derailed from the track.

Jumbo at the side of the railroad tracks courtesy

Jumbo crumpled in a heap at the side of the tracks.  His beloved trainer tried to calm him down. Jumbo wrapped his trunk around his trainer and within half an hour passed away.  P. T. Barnum did not want people to forget about Jumbo.  He took his hide to a taxidermist who stuffed it.  It was mounted in a museum at Tufts University in Boston where the businessman had been a trustee. Jumbo became the beloved mascot of the university.  Rumour has it that if a Tufts student had an upcoming exam, he would put a nickel in Jumbo's trunk for good luck.  The Jumbo's, the university football team members, would rub the elephant's trunk for good luck.  Sadly, a fire burned the stuffed elephant in 1975.  Jumbo's skeleton was reassembled at the Natural Museum of History in New York City where it still is housed today.  Rumour has it that the ashes from Jumbo's hide were placed in a peanut butter jar; before a football game, Tufts players rub the jar for good luck.

"Tufts University Digital Archives: Football players with Jumbo, 1935, Munro, Melville S." Archival image courtesy of Tufts University jumboelephant 07FallArt

Stuffed Jumbo at Tufts University circa 1935 courtesy

So, the next time you complete a "jumbo" crossword puzzle or board a jumbo jet, think of the elephant that inspired the adjective:  Jumbo the Elephant.

Note:  For more information, read:
1.  Jumbo;  The Greatest Elephant in the World (Paul Chambers)
2.  Incredible Jumbo (Barbara Smucker)

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