He was the greatest star of the 19th century, strong, dignified, and taken from us all too soon. In his 24 years on this Earth, he travelled continents, brought joy to millions, and even dazzled royalty. However, all that came to an end on September 15, 1885 when Jumbo the Elephant – the world’s most famous pachyderm – died in a train yard in St. Thomas, Ontario after being struck by a runaway locomotive. 

It was an ignominious end to a storied career spanning decades and continents. Born in East Africa in 1860, Jumbo’s mother was killed by poachers when he was young, and the infant elephant changed hands between hunters and exotic animal dealers before being transplanted to zoos across Europe.

Jumbo took up residence in the London Zoo on June 26th, 1865 where he soon gained national acclaim. Thousands flocked to the zoo to see Jumbo for themselves, and he was famed for giving children rides on his back, including a young Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and even members of the royal family.

However, Jumbo’s biggest fan was perhaps his keeper, Matthew Scott who stood by Jumbo from his days in the London Zoo, to his international tours, all the way to his death in St. Thomas, Ontario in 1885. Scott even wrote an autobiography about his long association with the world-famous elephant.

Scott wrote that he first met the Jumbo while he was being transferred from France’s Jardin des Plantes, where he found the young elephant in a sickly and near-death. However, he nursed the elephant back to health and advocated for his well-being, even convincing the zoo to send for a female elephant to act as a companion for Jumbo.

JUMBO Poster

Image courtesy of Railway City Tourism

Jumbo the Elephant: Coming to America

By 1881, Jumbo’s fame had spread far and wide, even reaching the Americas and the ears of none other than circus mogul P. T. Barnum, who was eager to bring him overseas and make him the centerpiece of his next circus tour. However, the Greatest Showman on Earth” wasn’t ready for the national outcry that would erupt over his purchase of The World’s Largest Elephant.”

The British public were furious with the decision to send Jumbo from the shores of England in the hands of a Yank. Not only was a lawsuit filed by some members of the London Zoological Society to try to block the sale, but according to Scott’s book there was even a fundraising campaign from Jumbo fans to try to raise the funds to buy him instead of Barnum. Reportedly thousands of school children wrote to Queen Victoria to express their love for Jumbo and urge her not to let him go to America.

However, it wasn’t merely Barnum’s lucrative offer that precipitated the sale. Jumbo was reaching the age of maturity, at which point male elephants often become more aggressive, and the zoo thought that sending him for exhibition in America would be safer than continuing to let him be in direct contact with the public in London.

Scott writes that thousands came to see Jumbo off as he boarded the ship for New York, including celebrities, socialites, weeping children and well-wishers bearing gifts for the departing elephant. 

By the time Jumbo arrived in in New York on April 9th, 1882, he was already a superstar. Millions flocked to Madison Square Garden to see the legendary elephant for themselves, and Barnum reportedly made back the money spent to purchase Jumbo within three weeks.

Over the next three years, Jumbo would go on tour across North America as the star performer of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, delighting thousands and generating huge amounts of revenue for the circus. However, the 24-year-old elephant’s health continued to suffer.


Jumbo the Elephant’s Death

At 9:30pm on September 15, 1885, Jumbo and another elephant named Tom Thumb were waiting to be loaded onto a train car after a show in St. Thomas, Ontario. Unbeknownst to the circus crew, a freight train was hurtling towards the last two elephants who remained waiting on the railroad tracks. The train failed to brake in time and while Thumb and Scott survived the crash, Jumbo was mortally wounded by his injuries and died in the arms of his long-time handler.

According to Barnum, Jumbo heroically tried to throw Tom out of the way of the speeding locomotive at the cost of his own life, however a darker story emerged in the years following the circus star’s death – that Jumbo was already terminally ill thanks to a lifetime spent in captivity. John Sutherland, author of Jumbo: the Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation, even suggests the elephant was intentionally led into the path in the train so that the Barnum circus could avoid allegations of animal cruelty and generate one last bout of free publicity from their greatest star as they put his remains up for exhibition.

In 2018, a team of McMaster University scientists tried to determine the truth by examining Jumbo’s remains as part of the documentary Jumbo: The Life of an Elephant Superstar. They discovered that the countless rides he’d given over the years – sometimes to multiple children at a time – had his bones and joints looking like those of an elephant three times his age. They also found that his unsuitable diet had left his teeth malformed and had probably caused him immense pain, possibly contributing to his increased aggression.

Their findings underscore the cruel reality of life for circus animals and other creatures bred in captivity and exhibited for human enjoyment. In many ways, the life of Jumbo parallels modern stories of animal exploitation, such as the 2013 documentary Black Fish or Netflix’s hit docuseries, Tiger King.

Today, many jurisdictions outlaw the use of wild animals in circus performances, including England, Mexico, and Bolivia.

JUMBO Legacy 1

Image courtesy of Railway City Tourism

The Legacy of Jumbo in St. Thomas, Ontario

To this day, the residents of St. Thomas, Ontario pay tribute to Jumbo as an indelible part of their town’s history. A life-sized statue of the dearly-departed elephant was erected by the town’s entrance in 1985, and underwent a $60,000 restoration in 2010. The towering monument gives some insight into how Victorian audiences must have felt when they saw The World’s Largest Elephant” in the flesh. 

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