Jumbo the Circus Elephant and His Tragic Death

Jumbo the Circus Elephant and His Tragic Death Famous Historical Events World History Disasters Famous People Social Studies Tragedies and Triumphs

Jumbo the Elephant was the star of P.T. Barnum's "Greatest Show on Earth" where, it is said, he brought in the largest crowds in the history of the circus.

Captured in Africa, Jumbo spent time in London - where he was greatly loved - until Phineas T. Barnum purchased him to star in his circus.  Londoners were most distressed to see him leave, in 1882:

...The beast had been a pet with the children in the London Zoological Gardens ... It required two weeks to build a van-like cage for the journey by sea [aboard the Assyrian Monarch], and then keepers went to the zoo to lead Jumbo to the ship...

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 elephantine obstinacy, and the animal wouldn't budge. 

There he measured his length in the dust for twenty-four hours despite all urging and entreaty, to the despair of his custodians, who little realized the wonderful effect the incident would have on the owner's pocketbook.
The animal finally got on his feet and marched to the boat.  Weeping women and children lined the way.
The story of the brute's reluctance to leave his young friends in England was broadcast and he became the feature of the circus...   (How to Buy an Elephant and 38 Other Things You Never Knew You Wanted to Know, by John Krausz, pages 5-6.)

Standing at about 12 feet and weighing 7 tons, Jumbo was the largest elephant anyone had ever seen.  He liked "Scotch whiskey, which he was given regularly" during the Atlantic crossing.

Barnum planned to take his circus to England, where he hoped people would fill his tents to see Jumbo again.  But a terrible accident, in 1885, put an end to that dream:

On September 15, the Barnum and Bailey circus was in St. Thomas, southwest of London, Ontario.  Two parallel railway tracks ran close to the grounds where the tents were pitched.  Although a level crossing was a short distance away, the circus had received permission from the Grand Trunk Railway to take down some fencing.  This way, they could quickly move the animals along the track before and after the shows.  (Celebrated Pets: Endearing Tales of Companionship and Loyalty, by Cheryl MacDonald, page 43.)

By 9:30 that night, Matthew Scott - Jumbo's favorite keeper - was escorting Jumbo and another smaller elephant, called "Tom Thumb" toward their cages:

...They were still some distance away when a special freight train appeared in the east.

Realizing the danger, Scott tried to move the elephants down the embankment on the side of the track.  When this failed, he urged them to run toward the circus train, where they could get off the main track more easily.  Jumbo led the way, with Tom Thumb following close behind.  They had gone only 27 metres or so when Tom Thumb was struck from behind and tossed into the ditch, breaking his leg. 

Seconds later, the locomotive hit Jumbo in the back of the legs, bringing him to his knees.  The huge animal cried out in pain as he was hurled into the rear of the circus train.  The impact, witnesses said, was like two trains colliding, and the force was great enough to derail the oncoming locomotive and two cars.  (MacDonald, pages 43-44.)

The most popular animal in the world, at that time, could not survive the accident:

Jumbo was mortally wounded.  As he lay silently on the track, the big elephant reached out and slipped his trunk into Matthew Scott's hand.  The man who had been his closest human companion for 14 years did what he could to comfort the creature he loved, but within 15 minutes, Jumbo was dead(MacDonald, page 44.)

It was next-to-impossible for anyone to comfort Scotty.  Edgar Flach - an eyewitness - tells us about Jumbo's last moments:

The animal… reached out his long trunk, wrapped it around the trainer and then drew him down to where that majestic head lay blood stained in the cinders. Scotty cried like a baby.  Five minutes later, they lifted him from the lifeless body... That night Scotty laid down beside the body of his friend.  At last exhausted from the strain, he fell asleep.

So great was Jumbo's fame that news of his death was circulated everywhere:

The news was telegraphed around the world, setting off waves of public morning.  "Jumbo is dead," announced the Washington Star.  "The friend of youth, the admired of all, the boast and wonder of the age is no more, and what remains to us is to bear our loss with resignation."  (MacDonald, page 44.)

Trying to capitalize on the death of his main attraction, P.T. Barnum sent a letter to W.A. Croffut (a journalist friend) who would help spread a tale about Jumbo's final act.  Sensing danger, Barnum wrote, Jumbo saved the life of the human he most cared about - and that of Tom Thumb.

The story wasn't true (although it has had a very long shelf life - see the May 1989 issue of Boy's Life), and his death wasn't the end of Jumbo (at least, for awhile).  Barnum purchased Alice -  Jumbo's friend at the London Zoo - and toured her with Jumbo's stuffed remains:

...Alice left London for North America, and in 1886 the two elephants toured the United States and Canada together.  Then a serious fire broke out in the circus' winter quarters.  Although Jumbo's remains were saved, Alice died in the fire.   (MacDonald, page 45.)

Jumbo's stuffed remains had one more journey to make.  Barnum donated them to Tufts University.  Mascot of the school, he was still around in 1975, when a terrible fire erupted:

Following a 1975 fire, some of Jumbo's ashes were collected in a peanut butter jar and stored in the university's athletic department.   (MacDonald, page 45.)

What of Jumbo's bones?  They were preserved, and his intact skeleton lives at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Click on the image for a much better view of Jumbo, as featured in a circus poster.

Media Credits

Image online, courtesy Library of Congress.


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"Jumbo the Circus Elephant and His Tragic Death" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Jan 26, 2020.
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