Jumbo (1861 – September 15, 1885) was a large African Bush Elephant, born 1861 in the French Sudan – present-day Mali – imported to a Paris zoo, transferred to the London Zoo in 1865, and sold in 1882 to P. T. Barnum, for the circus.
The giant elephant’s name has spawned the common word “jumbo”, meaning large in size.
Jumbo was born in 1861 in the French Sudan, whence he was imported to France and kept in the old zoo Jardin des Plantes, near the railway station Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. In 1865 he was transferred to the London Zoo, where he became famous for giving rides to visitors, especially children. The London zookeepers gave Jumbo his name; it is likely a variation of one of two Swahili words: jambo, which means “hello” or jumbe, which means “chief”.
Jumbo was sold in 1881 to P. T. Barnum, owner of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, known as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” for 10,000 dollars. When Barnum had offered to buy Jumbo, 100,000 school children wrote to Queen Victoria begging her not to sell the elephant. In New York, Barnum exhibited the elephant at Madison Square Garden, earning enough from the enormous crowds to recoup the money he spent to buy the animal.
Jumbo’s height, estimated to be 3.25 metres (10.7 ft) in the London Zoo, was claimed to be approximately 4 metres (13.1 ft) by the time of his death.
Jumbo died at a railway classification yard in Canada at St. Thomas, Ontario, where he was hit and fatally wounded by a locomotive. Barnum afterwards told the story that Jumbo died saving a young circus elephant, Tom Thumb, from being hit by the locomotive, but other witnesses did not support this.
Barnum’s story says that the younger elephant, Tom Thumb, was on the railroad tracks. Jumbo was walking up to lead him to safety, but an unexpected locomotive hit Tom Thumb, killing him instantly. Because of this, the locomotive derailed and hit Jumbo, killing him too.
Many metallic objects were found in the elephant’s stomach, including pennies, nickels, dimes, keys, and rivets.
Jumbo’s skeleton was donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The elephant’s heart was sold to Cornell University. Jumbo’s hide was stuffed by William J. Critchley and Carl Akeley, both of Ward’s Natural Science, and the mounted specimen traveled with Barnum’s circus for a number of years. In 1889, Barnum donated the stuffed Jumbo to Tufts University, where it was displayed until destroyed by a fire in 1975, coincidentally a fate that befell many of Barnum’s exhibits during his own lifetime.
The great elephant’s ashes are kept in a 14-ounce Peter Pan Crunchy Peanut Butter jar in the office of the Tufts athletic director, while his taxidermied tail, removed during earlier renovations, resides in the holdings of the Tufts Digital Collections and Archives. A statue of an elephant, dubbed “Jumbo”, was purchased from an amusement park and placed on the Tufts campus after the fire. Jumbo became the university’s mascot, and remains such to this day.