Crowds of New Yorkers were at the docks on April 9, 1882 when a transatlantic steamer arrived from England. They were there to welcome P.T. Barnum’s newest “oddity” to the U.S. From the ship’s hold came Jumbo, probably the largest bush elephant ever held in captivity. At the age of 16, his height at the shoulder was estimated at 11'6'. He weighed 6½ tons.
In England, Jumbo resided in the London Zoological Gardens. Thousands of children, including the royal princes and princesses, had ridden on the gentle giant’s back in a howdah. But by 1881, the zoo’s management was worried that he might become unmanageable as he matured. So when Barnum offered to buy the beast for 2,000 British pounds, the zoo quickly agreed.
Announcement of the sale raised a storm of protest — even the Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria publicly condemned th deal and the Fellows of the Royal Zoological Society sought an injunction to prevent Jumbo’s removal. Americans, however, reacted to the news with a patriotic pride that Barnum was quick to exploit. When an English newspaper asked what he would take to cancel the sale, Barnum piously replied that for 40 years he had always provided his countrymen with the best of exhibitions, and he could not change that now. Barnum also made much of his discovery that Jumbo’s keeper, Matthew Scott, had staged a series of incidents in which the elephant appeared to refuse to leave the zoo.
Nevertheless, as Londoners mourned their loss by dressing in Jumbo boots, hats, ties, canes — even Jumbo underwear — Barnum’s crew loaded the elephant onto a transatlantic steamer. As Jumbo made his way from the New York docks to his new quarters at Madison Square Garden, a large crowd of spectators joined the parade. Within two weeks, entrance fees to get a look at Jumbo repaid Barnum his entire investment of $30,000.
Some 20 million Americans paid to see Jumbo over the next three years as he toured the country in his own “palace” railroad car. His name was used to advertise everything from tooth powder to thread, and it was Jumbo who amiably ambled across Brooklyn Bridge to test its strength before the span was opened to the public in 1883. Barnum had announced that his elephant’s name would drive adjectives such as “mammoth” out of common use — and so it did.
One night in September 1885, after a performance in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, Jumbo and a baby elephant were being led across a seldom-used railroad track when an unscheduled freight train thundered around the bend. The light and noise disoriented the huge pachyderm, and he was killed when his head was crushed between a boxcar and a flatcar. P.T. Barnum never missed an opportunity to capitalize on any event. He had Jumbo’s skin and skeleton mounted. In this state Jumbo continued to tour, accompanied by troupes of mourning elephants that had been taught to wipe their eyes with black-bordered bed sheets.
— Vernon Parker