The Life of Jumbo the Elephant
1860-1865 - Jumbo is born in the Sudan. His mother is hunted and killed not long after his birth. Her infant, Jumbo, is captured by Sudanese elephant hunter Taher Sheriff. He is sold to Lorenzo Casanova, an Italian animal dealer and explorer. Casanova transports his animals north from Sudan to Suez, and then across the Mediterranean to Trieste in Italy. Jumbo arrives with other captured animals in Europe. Casanova sells his collection to Gottlieb Kreutzberg, operator of a “Grand Menagerie.”
After a short time with Kreutzberg, Jumbo is acquired by the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, one of the top two zoos in Europe. At the Jardin, he is overshadowed by the more popular elephant pair Castor and Pollux. Jumbo is neglected.
1865 - The London Zoological Gardens, the other top zoo in Europe, is desperate for an African Elephant. They proposed an exchange for one of the elephants in the Paris zoo. The French agree, and in exchange for one elephant they will receive a rhinoceros, two dingoes, a jackal, a possum, a kangaroo and a pair of eagles.
June 26, 1865 - Jumbo is shipped to England. He is in poor physical condition. He is ill, dirty and emaciated from maltreatment.
1865-1867 - Jumbo is nursed back to health by his trainer Matthew Scott, aka ‘Scotty.’ It is now that Jumbo is named. Many stories surround the meaning of the name, but they include variations of the Swahili words ‘jambo’ meaning ‘hello,’ or ‘jumbe’ meaning ‘chief.’ Another story goes that he was named after the phrase “mumbo jumbo” which existed at the time to describe African idols.
Jumbo was small upon arrival, but he continues to grow, reaching dimensions of 12 feet in height, 14 feet in length, 18 feet around and seven tonnes. He becomes a popular fixture at the Zoological Gardens.
1867 - A howdah, the traditional elephant saddle, is placed on his back and he begins giving rides to children. This is the start of the zoo’s most popular activity. Among the children who ride Jumbo are the Prince of Wales and the other children of Queen Victoria, a young Winston Churchill and a number of children of the titled heads of Europe.
1868 - A new Elephant House is constructed for Jumbo and he is moved there. Jumbo gains a companion, ‘Alice’, another African elephant. Despite a lack of chemistry between the two, Alice is dubbed ‘Jumbo’s wife’ in the press. He receives a new bathing pool at his house, and no longer has to trek down to the River Thames to bathe.
1881- Jumbo comes to the attention of circus magnate P.T. Barnum. Jumbo's size has become legendary and Barnum wishes to acquire the biggest elephant in the world. He offers to purchase the elephant from the zoo. The zoo, aware of the fact that Jumbo is approaching his ‘musth’ period in which male elephants become dangerous and unruly, offer to sell Jumbo for £2000.
February 1, 1882 - The sale is officially agreed to.
February 1882 - The English people are outraged that the zoo would sell its most beloved animal and they flock to see him. This outpouring of anger leads to a fund being established to get him back. In the meantime, several attempts are made to get Jumbo into his crate for the trip across the ocean. His obstinacy is due to Scott training the animal not to enter the crate. Under pressure from the public, the zoo tries to revoke the sale. However, Barnum claims ‘I would not sell him for $100,000. America is waiting for Jumbo.’
March 1882 - A lawsuit is launched against the Zoological Gardens suggesting that the sale of Jumbo was in violation of zoo bylaws which state that the Fellows of the Zoological Society must approve all sales first. It is asserted that the sale also violated the bylaw that five council members must be present to approve the sale, and only three had been present. However, the court rules that because the sale had later been ratified at a council meeting where more than three members had been present, it overruled the original sale and implied the consent of the Council.
March 22, 1882 - Jumbo is finally packed into his crate with much difficulty.
March 23, 1882 - He is transported to the docks to board the ‘Assyrian Monarch’ for his journey to the United States.
March 24, 1882 - Accompanied by Matthew Scott, Jumbo sets sail for America. The entire purchase has ended up costing Barnum £6000.
April 9, 1882 - Jumbo arrives in New York.
April 10, 1882 - Jumbo is displayed in America for the first time at Madison Square Garden.
1882 - He is transported across the United States with the circus in his own train car called ‘Jumbo’s Palace Car.’ Barnum recoups the £6000 in three weeks. Over the 31-week season, his circus makes $1.75 million, mostly due to his new elephant.
1882-1885 - Jumbo continues to be a huge draw for Barnum’s circus. He tours for 31 weeks during the spring and summer, and winters in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Reviews of his performance are raves, despite the fact that Jumbo is not expected to perform tricks like the other elephants; merely his presence is enough.
September 15, 1885 - The circus stops in St. Thomas after a performance in Chatham. St. Thomas is a booming railroad town and its position on the railroad facilitates the circus stop here. The St. Thomas show is another success with large crowds coming to see the spectacle.
After the show, the elephants are being moved from the circus grounds to their train. It is 9:30, but the elephants are meant to have been loaded after 9:55. Along the Grand Trunk railroad track, Special Freight train #151 is travelling with its engineer, William Burnip. Several hundred yards down the track Jumbo and the little elephant Tom Thumb are the last elephants being loaded in. They are walking along the tracks to reach their train cars. Burnip sees the elephants but it is too late. He sounds the warning horn and puts the train in reverse. It screeches to a halt and strikes Tom Thumb first. He is struck by the cowcatcher and is thrown into the ravine. Jumbo is struck on his hind end, causing the train to derail. His trunk is impacted and his injuries are fatal. Scott manages to leap free of the incident, but now tends to the mortally wounded Jumbo, weeping as he strokes his head. Eyewitnesses would relate how Jumbo reached out and gently clasped his trainer with his trunk. Jumbo dies in a few minutes.
The immediate problem is to remove the wreckage and the body. The train has been derailed, but Jumbo’s huge body is still on the track. It takes hundreds of onlookers to roll the body off the tracks. Tom Thumb is saved by the circus veterinary team in the meantime. Barnum is informed of the incident the next day in New York over breakfast.
September 17, 1885 - Jumbo’s body is removed from St. Thomas after having been dealt with by butchers and taxidermists. His skeleton is shipped to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and his hide goes to Tufts University in Massachusetts.
1885 - In the aftermath of the incident, Barnum attempts to sue the Grand Trunk Railway for $100,000 in damages. He claimed Jumbo was worth $50,000. Grand Trunk set his worth far below that value. Barnum’s insurance only allowed an animal to be valued at a maximum of $15,000. The Grand Trunk stated that if it lost the suit it would own Jumbo’s remains, causing Barnum to back down.
April 7, 1891 - P. T. Barnum dies at his mansion in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Legend has it that he asked about the box office receipts for the day, and then died.
April 18, 1906 - The engineer William Burnip, whose train struck Jumbo, spent the rest of his years travelling around. While visiting his son in San Francisco, he is killed in the “Great Earthquake” which destroys so much of the city.
1914 - A despondent William Scott spends his final years in poverty. He writes a biography of Jumbo and himself earlier in 1885, but makes no attempt after Jumbo’s death to capitalize off the incident, as Barnum had. He continues to care for Barnum’s small animals at the circus’ winter quarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and dies in the city almshouse in this year.
June 10, 1935 - The story of Jumbo is revived in St. Thomas for Old Home Week.
April 24, 1975 - A fire destroys Jumbo’s hide at Tufts University, leaving only the tail, a few ashes, and the charred tusk.
June 17, 1977 - The Jumbo Plaque is unveiled in St. Thomas.
June 28, 1985 - The Jumbo statue is unveiled in St. Thomas, sculpted by Winston Bronnum and transported from his workshop in Sussex, New Brunswick.
October 22, 1985 - Ruby Copeman dies. She is the last St. Thomas resident alive to have seen Jumbo’s accident. She was 7 at the time, and dies at 106. Ruby, then 98 years old, was on hand when the Jumbo Plaque was unveiled in 1977. Four months before her passing, Ruby had the honour of officially unveiling the new statue of Jumbo on June 28, 1985.
The following resources are available in the library for those who are interested in more information on Jumbo:
- Jumbo- W. P. Jolly
- Jumbo: The Greatest Elephant in the World- Paul Chambers
- Jumbo: Giant Circus Elephant- Justin Denzel
- Jumbo: P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Creation- John Passfield
- Jumbo: The Biggest Elephant in all the World- Florence McLaughlin Burns
- Jumbo, 1885-1985: Official Souvenir Program
- World Went Mad when Mighty Jumbo Came to America- Theodore James
- The Story of Jumbo- W. F. L. Edwards
Newspaper clippings about Jumbo can be found in the Jumbo Clipping File in the George Thorman Local History Room on the mezzanine level of the library.