Jumbo the Elephant and His Life in America

Jumbo the elephant had been housed at London’s Zoological Gardens for seventeen years when he was sold in November 1881 to P.T. Barnum, owner extraordinaire of “The Greatest Show on Earth.” It seems that almost from the start Jumbo instinctively knew something was happening and when Barnum’s agents went to get him, he refused to stir. When Barnum’s agents cabled Barnum that Jumbo refused to move and asked him what they should do, Barnum replied “Let him lie there as long as he wants to.”[1]

Jumbo remained uncooperative for many days, and, in the meantime, a box with wheels was built to accommodate him. Eventually, the box was moved nearer and nearer to Jumbo until he got use to it. Then on 22 March 1882, Jumbo was loaded into the shipping box. Between the elephant and the box, it took sixteen horses to pull it to the wharf, and at the wharf, a throng of people were there offering tempting treats (cakes, dainties, and even champagne and oysters). They were also there to wish him well and see him off on his long ocean trip to America.

Jumbo Being Put in Irons, Author's Collection

Jumbo the elephant being put in irons. Author’s Collection.

Matthew Scott, Jumbo’s keeper, claimed that Alice, Jumbo’s longtime companion and “wife,” was as unhappy about Jumbo’s trip to America as Jumbo, and Scott described the scene. 

“When the time came for sundering Jumbo and Alice, the actions of Alice, in the movement of her body and the horrible groans, were something awful to listen to … The noise of the groans of Alice was at times of a wailing, plaintive, rather musical kind. Then it would sound like the roar of thunder, and at times was as quick and successive as it peals. She tore about the stable in which she was confined, and dashed herself against its sides, till we expected every minute she would break loose and follow us … We ultimately got Jumbo away from her, and for a considerable time after we left, poor Alice was a very dejected and despondent animal; she has never been the same since.”[2]

Certain critics, however, claimed their parting was not that way at all, nor were Jumbo the elephant and Alice in love. They claimed the whole story created by the press to sell papers and was “a lot of rot.”[3] News of Jumbo’s sale, did, however, stir up the English public. Even Queen Victoria became involved after citizens began a letter writing campaign protesting the sale. A lawsuit was also filed against the Zoological Gardens hoping to stop the elephant’s sale, but the court ruled the sale was legal and that Jumbo the elephant belonged to Barnum.

 What a Trifle May Embroil Nations! Author's Collection

“What a Trifle May Embroil Nations!” Author’s collection.

Elaborate preparations were undertaken for Jumbo’s shipment to America with a huge box created from oak and iron and it “was only a trifle smaller than the main hatchway of the steamer … yet it fitted him almost as closely as if it had been an Ulster overcoat.”[4] The box contained several openings at the front to allow Jumbo the elephant to stretch his trunk and to obtain food and water, and when it was loaded it was wedged into the hatchway of ship so that it would not move with any pitch or roll of the ship. To prevent Jumbo from harming himself, he was also packed into the box like a sardine.

On 23 March, the Assyrian Monarch set sail. Jumbo did not fare well at sea the first few days. He became extremely seasick and lost his appetite. Furthermore, it was claimed:

“He frequently sighed like a small earthquake, and he tried to get rid of his headache by beating his head against the front of his box … on the third day he began to get better, and made a light breakfast of two hundred pounds of hay, two bushels of oats, a bushel of biscuits, fifteen loaves of bread, twenty buckets of water, and a few trifles, and in a few hours he felt well enough to receive visits from the passengers.”[5]

Jumbo on His Way to America, Public Domain

Various scenes showing Jumbo the elephant on his way to America. Public domain.

The Assyrian Monarch arrived in New York seventeen days later (on 9 April), which also happened to be Easter Sunday. “An immense floating derrick was brought alongside of the vessel, and heavy chains being made fast to the elephant’s box, it was hoisted out of the ship, and lowered to the deck.”[6] The floating derrick was taken to Pier No. 1 and Jumbo reach land about 9 o’clock pm. Eight horses were harnessed to his box and accordingly:

 “[L]ong ropes were fastened to the axles, so that men could assist the horses in dragging the enormous load. Each rope was about two hundred feet long, and at least five hundred people took hold of them. The horses and the men made a tremendous effort, but after they had pulled the box about three feet, the wheels sank into the ground, and it could not be stirred.”[7]

Another eight horses were harnessed to the box and two elephants requested, but by the time the elephants arrived, the box “was pried out of the mud, and started slowly on its way.”[8] At Bowling Green, two elephants arrived and welcomed Jumbo with enthusiastic “trumpeting.” As the elephants pushed, the men and horses pulled and the box arrived at Madison Square Garden around midnight, but the box would not go through the doors, and, Jumbo was not released until Monday morning.

Two Elephants Giving Jumbo a Friendly Push Down Broadway in New York After His Arrival, Author's Collection

Two elephants giving Jumbo the elephant a friendly push down Broadway in New York after his arrival. Author’s collection.

In America, several exciting things happened to Jumbo the elephant. One was when Jumbo saved Scott’s life. On 15 October 1883, before P.T. Barnum’s great show was to begin, Jumbo and Scott were in their special tent when thirty elephants broke loose and stampeded. Eventually, they stampeded into Jumbo’s tent. When they did, according to Scott:

“[Jumbo] twined his trunk about my body like a flash, and placed me out of harm’s way between his legs; then stood firmly and stretched out his trunk, as rigid as the limb of a large tree, and permitted not an elephant to get past … Again and again the … maddened creatures tried to force its way, but Jumbo remained firm and determined until the keepers secured the entire lot.”[9]

P.T. Barnum, Public Domain

P.T. Barnum. Public domain.

Another time, in May 1844, Jumbo, along with twenty-one other elephants crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to show the public the bridge was safe. Scott noted that vibrations of Jumbo’s steps “was something terrible to feel,”[10] and, after crossing the bridge, the Brooklyn streets had crowds “so vast and so anxious to see Jumbo, the ‘wonder of the world,’ that the people [were] on the house-tops, on the balconies, and in the garret windows … in order to get a sight of [him].”[11]

Poster for P.T. Barnum's Show with Skeleton Display of Jumbo, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Poster for P.T. Barnum’s show with skeleton display of Jumbo the elephant. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

During Jumbo’s lifetime he traveled thousands of miles and millions of people saw him. It was on one of his travels that Jumbo the elephant died. It occurred 15 September 1885, at about 9 o’clock in the evening in St. Thomas, Ontario, in Canada. According to Barnum, it happened as he was attempting to lead a young circus elephant, named Tom Thumb, to safety. A locomotive hit and killed Tom Thumb and then derailed killing Jumbo too. However, newspapers gave a different account. They claimed the locomotive hit Jumbo directly “his huge body being crushed between the freight train and a train of show cars standing on an adjacent track [while Tom Thumb suffered a broken leg.]”[12]

Jumbo’s death was cabled worldwide and monopolized public attention. Jumbo’s hide was stuffed, stretched, and mounted over a specimen in a manner that would have even pleased the famous wax sculptor Madame Tussaud. Jumbo’s stuffed body then toured with the Barnum circus before being donated to Tufts University. Unfortunately, the specimen was destroyed in a fire in April 1975, but Jumbo the elephant was not forgotten. Jumbo is Tufts’ mascot and Jumbo’s skeleton can still be viewed today, just as it was after his death, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Canada has even honored Jumbo. They erected a life-size statue of him in 1985 to commemorate the centennial of his death.

If you are interested in learning about Jumbo the elephant in England, click here.


  • [1] Barnum, Phineas Taylor, The Wild Beasts, Birds and Reptiles of the World, 1889, p. 399.
  • [2] Scott, Matthew, Autobiography of Matthew Scott, Jumbo’s Keeper, 1885, p. 68.
  • [3] “How Barnum Worked the ‘Jumbo Fever,'” Evening Post, 26 November 1892, p. 6.
  • [4] Harper’s Round Table, Vol. 3, 1882, p. 410.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Scott, Matthew, p. 85.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 89.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 94.
  • [12] Barnum, Phineas Taylor, p. 344.

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