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Alcohol, travel, conspiracy: Life of Jumbo the famous elephant

The world has seen many (in)famous elephant. As companions to some of human history’s best-known kings and queens, they’re memories live on as emblems of royal reach. As instruments of war, they were terror-inspiring and, it would eventually prove, havoc-inducingly unpredictable. As apparitions, they portentously told of great or terrible things.

The arrival of one, indeed, at the border of Mecca, and it’s subsequent refusal to continue on its prescribed warpath, coincided with the birth of Mohammed and, thus, the beginnings of Islam.

Many of these famous pachyderms are well-recorded in the history books and their influence on human development will not be forgotten. However, there is one elephant whose fame, certainly in the 19th century, outstripped all others and, for whom, history’s records are more detailed, less compressible, and, at certain points, more sinister.

The life and times of Jumbo the elephant

Jumbo’s story begins and ends with tragedy. His mother was killed by a group of Sudanese hunters along the Sudan’s border with Ethiopia in 1861. Thereafter, he was to live his life in captivity; first as the ware in a menagerie of a Sudanese salesperson and then as the possession of Italian entrepreneur Lorenzo Casanova (different Casanova, and no relation).

Casanova drove a huge and varied contingent of animals up to Europe for sale to their zoos and Jumbo found his first European home in Paris’ Jardin des Plantes. He was the first African elephant to arrive in Europe and soon proved to be the envy of many zoo owners.

The Superintendent of London Zoo, Abraham Bartlett, was desperate to acquire the African elephant. A trade was eventually struck and the young elephant was exchanged for a rhino, a jackal, two dingoes, two eagles, a possum and a kangaroo. Jumbo began his life in London.

The furore was unprecedented. The young elephant, still yet to be given the name that would launch it into superstardom, arrived in London in 1865. It was in poor-health and not considered particularly large for its age but, still, intrigue mounted.

The elephant was named sometime soon after it arrived in London. Though the name’s origins are disputed some suggest that Jumbo is a bastardisation of jumbe, the Swahili for chief or headman.

Over the years, the elephant grew in fame, stature and into the appropriateness of its name’s alleged origins. Jumbo grew to be 3.2 metres tall which, when compared with the tallest elephant ever recorded (Angola’s Henry who stood at 3.9 metres and whose remains are on display at Washington Smithsonian), is pretty tall.

In Britain, Jumbo became, in the words of Bartlett, “the pet of thousands”. He had many famous admirers, including Queen Victoria and a young Winston Churchill. He was so famous that the now-infamous circus owner P. T. Barnum began negotiations with London for his sale. There was outrage.

Letters and demonstrations at the news of negotiations beginning were obvious indications of the public’s unwillingness to part with their ‘pet’. But behind the scenes serious concerns were a factor in negotiations. Jumbo was becoming increasingly belligerent and ill-tempered. The docile creature that carried children on its back was becoming more and more unhappy with life behind the scenes.

He allegedly despised being locked up at night and the fixing and restrengthening of his enclosure was near constant. Bartlett grew so concerned with the elephant’s burgeoning ill-temper that he had asked Jumbo’s keeper to consider a “means of killing this animal, should such a necessity arise.”

So, when P.T. Barnum offered Bartlett £2,000 for Jumbo, the offer was accepted and the story of this famous elephant took its second transcontinental turn. In March of 1882, at 21 years of age, Jumbo travelled (under the influence, it has been reported) to America.

In America, his fame reached new heights. It took just two weeks of circus ticket sales for Barnum to pay off Jumbo’s purchase and travel costs.

However, soon after his arrival in America, it was found that Jumbo had debilitating wasting disease and, later research would suggest, awful toothaches.

The animal was eating largely soft foods, such as grasses, hay and oats. He ate none of the fibrous twigs that elephant eat in the wild and that are essential in grinding down their molars. Resultantly, paleopathologists from today suggest the animal lived in great pain.

A Jumbo boozer

Its remarkable to consider today but Jumbo was a known drinker. The elephant and his handler, and by some reports best-friend, Matthew Scott, often drank together.

The elephant, as has been stated, was likely in great pain as a result of its unnaturally developing teeth. What with all the travel and the children riding on his back, Jumbo also lived a life of significant distress. Alcohol, it was found, soothed the hard-working pachyderm.

(The fact of where Jumbo got his booze is shocking but that elephant have been known to seek out alcohol is no new fact: see this video for an alleged instance of Asian elephant stealing and imbibing on liquor they found in the forest)

Jumbo’s death and its overhanging question mark

In 1885, as a visitor of three continents, an alcoholic and a true superstar at 24, Jumbo was killed by an unscheduled freight train as he was being loaded onto a boxcar alongside a smaller elephant named Tom Thumb.

As is often the case with the untimely deaths of troubled celebrities, Jumbo’s death is shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Freak accident doesn’t ever seem to cut it as an explanation for the death of a household name.

The questions surrounding Jumbo’s death are barbed with accusations and fuelled by a sleuthing search for answers. Why was the boxcar being loaded when a freight train was on the approach? From which side was the animal struck and what does that tell us about the circumstances of his death? And, most nefariously-motivated, who stood to gain from the death of this icon?

One variation of the conspiracy theory suggests that Jumbo was led onto the tracks at Barnum’s behest. It draws on the fact that Jumbo was suffering from ill-health and that this was soon going to become apparent. The ‘freak accident’ was choreographed, it is alleged, to save the circus from accusations of animal cruelty.

Photographs of the animal minutes after its death do, however, suggest the animal was hit from behind. They suggest that this is in line with the ‘freak accident’ theory.

We may never know the answer as to what caused Jumbo’s death but there, lain above, are the known facts of his storied, troubled and exciting existence.

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