Epitath For an Elephant
edited: Monday, October 29, 2012
By Richard J. Bauman
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2002
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Jumbo was the largest elephant in captivity, and he drew crowds where ever he performed. But the huge animal was no match for a speeding locomotive.
Hear the word jumbo and automatically you think “big,” whether it’s jumbo shrimp or a jumbo jet airplane. But in the late 19th century the word jumbo meant just one thing—the world’s largest elephant—and the best-known non-human alive at the time.
Jumbo was as loveable as he was colossal. An African elephant, he was nearly 12-feet tall and weighed about seven tons. His legs were five feet in circumference. And he captured the heart of two continents and an island nation. Without doubt Jumbo was the best know elephant that ever lived.
His appetite was immense. He consumed a barrel of potatoes, 15 loves of bread, up to four quarts of onions and an occasional keg of beer each day—just for dinner. It wasn’t always that way. Ironically, Jumbo was scrawny baby elephant, just three and a half-feet tall when captured in Ethiopia in 1861. He was sold to a Bavarian animal collector, who in turn sold him to the Paris Botanical Gardens. Jumbo was then traded to the Royal Zoological Society of London for a rhinoceros. Jumbo’s new home became the London Zoological Gardens.
His appetite suddenly increased when he was about seven years old. He consumed over 200 pounds of hay each day. He developed a taste for apples and the children of London fed him tons of bonbons. For years his job was to carry loads of children through the Zoological Gardens.
Matthew Scott was Jumbo’s keeper and the person the huge elephant trusted and loved. “Scotty,” small of stature with a handlebar mustache, lived alone in a room at the zoo. His devotion to Jumbo was so strong he shared even his whisky and chewing tobacco with the elephant.
The great showman P. T. Barnum saw Jumbo several times and coveted him for his circus. He offered to buy the elephant numerous times, but was the answer was always the same—the Elephant wasn’t for sale. Then, in 1882, something changed. Barnum heard rumors that Jumbo was showing fits of temper and becoming unmanageable. He instructed his agents in England to quickly offer $10,000 for Jumbo. Believing Jumbo had become a public danger, the British Zoological Society quickly accepted the offer.
When London newspapers headlined the sale, thousands of protest letters poured in. Even Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, (both of whom had ridden on Jumbo’s back) objected to the loss of a “national treasure.” There were letters from children begging that Jumbo stay in England.
Jumbo-mania raged in America and England. The Atlantic cable burned with charges and countercharges. The New York Herald, with tongue in cheek, stated that war was imminent. Merchants in both countries were selling Jumbo cigars, hats, cravats, and Jumbo jewelry, while restaurants featured Jumbo soups, salads, pies and even ice cream cones. The publicity, which was Barnum’s narcotic, was beyond his wildest dreams.
Money was raised to buy Jumbo back, but Barnum refused. Jumbo’s worth had increased beyond monetary value. Lawyers in London tried to obtain an injunction against the sale, but the courts ruled in Barnum’s favor. Britons by the thousands flocked to the Zoological Gardens to get a last look at the famous elephant. The line stretched for almost a half-mile, and Jumbo raised $50,000 for the zoo in that one day.
A huge shipping crate was built to transport the famous pachyderm to America. When Jumbo saw it, however, he lay down and refused to get up. Barnum’s agents Frantically cabled home: “Jumbo will not stir. What shall we do”? Barnum replied, “Let him lie there as long as he wants to. The publicity is worth it.” Finally, using Scotty as bait, Jumbo was coaxed into the cage.
Though it was early in the morning when they started to load Jumbo aboard the freighter Assyrian Monarch, thousands of people lined the docks, leaned out windows, climbed yardarms of ships and perched on rooftops to get a last look at the mighty elephant.
Fifteen days later, April 9, 1882 (Easter Sunday), Jumbo arrived in New York. He was welcomed by thousands of people. The 71-year-old Barnum, met him at the dock. “Dear old Jumbo!” Barnum exclaimed, tears in his eyes.
Thousands more lined the route as Jumbo, in his cage, was pulled by a team of 22 horses and led by a brass band and a bevy of dancers, moved up Broadway to the old Madison Square Garden, site of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Within ten days, Jumbo—billed by Barnum as “The Only Mastodon on Earth”— more than earned his purchase price and the cost of transporting him to America. In the first month alone he brought in over $300,000.
After his New York debut, Jumbo was off on an eagerly anticipated tour of the country. He traveled in a private railroad car with his keeper, Scotty. Scotty even slept in a small birth just above Jumbo’s head, and the big elephant was the world’s biggest jokester, constantly pulled the covers off him. “Give me back that blanket, you blighter,” Scotty could be heard bellowing night after night.
For three years Jumbo toured the U.S. and Canada. Then on the night of September 15, 1885, the circus was loading at a railroad siding near St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada. Scotty was leading 24-year old Jumbo along the tracks when a freight train came rushing down on them. For a moment man and beast stood in shocked surprise. In the narrow defile there was no place for Jumbo to escape. Scotty slapped him on the rump, shouting, “Run, Jumbo, run!” The terrified beast lumbered down the tracks.
In the glare of his headlamp the engineer saw the frightened animal. Desperately he threw on the brakes, but it was too late. The train crashed headlong into the six-ton elephant, fracturing his skull. The mortally injured Jumbo lay shuddering and gasping for breath. He died a few minutes later as Scotty stood by, weeping.
The next day the headline in every major newspaper in America, Canada, Britain and Europe told the sad, shocking news of Jumbo’s demise.
Even after Jumbo’s death, Barnum continued to make money off the huge animal. He hired a taxidermist to “rebuild” Jumbo. The elephant’s hide, weighing at least 1500 pounds, was mounted on a life-size wooden frame. In Jumbo’s stomach they found hundreds of English coins, pieces of wire, trinkets, a bunch of keys and even a policeman’s whistle. The giant animal’s skeleton of more than 2000 bones was given to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
The inanimate Jumbo toured with the circus for several more years. Ultimately, Barnum lost interest in Jumbo, and presented the stuffed hide of the animal to Tufts College near Boston, where it remained until destroyed in a fire in 1975.
And what of Matthew Scott, the elephant’s devoted keeper? Though devastated by Jumbo’s death he remained in America. It is claimed he was often seen at the Barnum Museum at Tufts, standing in front of the mounted Jumbo, patting the lifeless hulk, talking to it as if it were still alive. Scott, died in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1914. Like millions of people in England and America he never forgot Jumbo, who was more that just an animal—he was the marvel of an era.