The Tragic Death of Jumbo the Elephant
On this day in 1885, P.T. Barnum’s famous elephant Jumbo was struck and killed by a train.
During his lifetime, Jumbo was the biggest elephant in captivity. He was born in Africa in 1860 or 1861, and spent most of his life entertaining and giving rides at the London Zoo. Due to his size and notoriety, P.T. Barnum decided he needed Jumbo in his circus. Despite objections by the British people, Barnum bought Jumbo in 1882 and shipped him to America where he was greeted upon his arrival by a crowd of 10,000 hoping to get a glimpse of the famous animal.
Matthew “Scotty” Scott, a zookeeper who had been put in charge of Jumbo when he first arrived in London, remained with the elephant ever since. He had trained Jumbo, shared a bottle of beer with him every night before bed, and was the only person who could keep Jumbo in control. For this reason, Barnum hired Scotty to maintain this role.
Jumbo spent three years touring with Barnum’s circus before the tragedy that took his life.
On September 15, 1885, Jumbo was struck and killed by a freight train while the circus was unloading on the rails in Canada. As Barnum told the story, Jumbo was trying to save a dwarf elephant named Tom Thumb from the oncoming train when it hit him, instead. Tom Thumb survived with nothing more than a broken leg.
Jumbo, however, was dragged by the train 300 feet down the track before it derailed. He held Scotty’s hand with his trunk as he laid dying. It only took a few minutes. During the cleanup, Scotty reportedly flew into a rage when he discovered a souvenir collector had cut off part of Jumbo’s ear.
Taxidermists from Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York, where Carl Akeley was apprenticing at the time, soon arrived. They articulated his skeleton and mounted the hide, both of which Barnum continued to squeeze every dime from as they continued to tour with circus.
Eventually, the mount became part of the Barnum Museum of Natural History at Tufts University, where it served as the school mascot until it was destroyed in a fire in 1975. The skeleton was gifted to the American Museum of Natural History and remained on display until memory of the famous elephant faded into history.
At Barnum’s request, Jumbo’s hide was stretched to make the final mount a foot taller than the elephant was in life. Over the years, pieces of his tusks were broken off for souvenirs. Barnum himself once threw a party that served gelatin made from Jumbo’s ground tusks.