Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Yet more pachydermal ponderings

After a trip to Canada last year, I came back with an interest (or, as someone close to me would say, an unhealthy obsession) in Jumbo the Elephant and wrote a trio of postings about the beast (here, here and here). Against this background, it comes as no surprise that I've just read a book (biography?) by Paul Chambers entitled 'Jumbo: this being the true story of the greatest elephant in the world'.

I find it a fascinating story and one with enough poignant pachydermal pathos to engage even an old cynic like me. His mother killed by hunters, young Jumbo—the runt of his family—was hauled off to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. There he led an unhappy existence in cramped quarters before being sold to the Royal Zoological Grounds in London in late June 1865. His zookeeper at Regent’s Park, Matthew Scott, was an anti-social eccentric who became as much his companion as his keeper, rarely venturing far from Jumbo for the rest of the elephant’s life.

In 1882, Jumbo's life took another unexpected turn: the US showman Phineas T Barnum bought him for his circus for £2,000, worth around £200,000 today, give or take a few pounds. After packing his trunk, Jumbo resisted the change—it took many struggles and then trickery to get him into a crate and onto a ship to New York. Upon arrival there, he was greeted as an exemplar of his species, supposedly far larger than normal, though in fact he wasn’t—it was just another of Barnum’s publicity ploys.

As an aside, no one really knows how Jumbo came by his name, but when it was bestowed upon him in London, it didn’t mean big, gargantuan or the largest of its kind. Those associations came later, thanks to some clever marketing by Barnum. His name might have come from a slang phrase current in London, “my jumbo,” for a lowly looking person. Or, perhaps it came from “Mumbo Jumbo,” a name given to certain West African holy men, as popularised by European explorers of the time. Whatever its origins, the name stuck.

Circus life was hard, but Jumbo had an extremely profitable four seasons for Barnum before that tragic night of September 15th, 1885, when he was run over by a freight train in St Thomas, Ontario. The rest is history: stuffed, he was housed in a museum bearing Barnum’s name at Tufts University (Barnum was a trustee) and became the Tufts mascot and a good-luck symbol for students through the years. In another twist of the elephantine story, in 1975, Barnum Hall burned down, Jumbo and all. Someone had the presence of mind to scoop up some of the ashes in a peanut butter jar, the only remains, mmm, remaining. (His tail is in the Tufts Archives, but that’s another tale.) Having been the mascot, it was felt Jumbo rightly belonged to the Athletics Department and the ashes are now handed down during the changing of the guard in the Athletic Director’s office. 

And Jumbo’s legacy? He’s given us a word for 'big' in the English dictionary and has inspired a very readable biography. Not bad for the runt of the pack, eh?

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