Weird Nature
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The Bittersweet Story Of Jumbo, The Most Famous Elephant On Earth

Updated July 13, 2020 62.3k views14 items

Meet Jumbo - the 13,000 pound African elephant who inspired musicians, circus goers, illustrators, and the world. Jumbo is considered one of the world's most famous elephants. He was the star of Barnum & Bailey Circus who inspired the Disney movie Dumbo, perhaps the most famous elephant movie ever made. But what happened to Jumbo? 

The story of Jumbo is an incredible one that features terrible abuse, fame, and a heroic deed that cost Jumbo his life. Jumbo’s story, much like his stature, was larger than life. Behind the circus tent, the shimmering lights, and the adoration of a global fan base, sat a humble, happy elephant who smiled in the face of a series of catastrophic events. The true story of Jumbo is bittersweet and every bit as endearing as the animal himself.

So step right up ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, and witness Jumbo the elephant, the world’s most famous elephant.

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  • Much Of The Circus Concessions You See Today Are Named After This Legendary Elephant

    Here is one of the many examples of how Jumbo left his imprint on the circus. His name can still be found on concessions like soda and popcorn. We assume that "jumbo" is just a description of the size of the refreshments which, at the circus, are often quite large. The reality is these labels have a deeper significance for anyone who knows the history of Jumbo.

    They were branded in connection with the star's image because of his popularity. Their size also happened to be large, which took on the double meaning of "jumbo."

  • Jumbo Was Born In Africa And Was Orphaned Thanks To Hunters

    Photo: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    For the most part, circus elephants tend to be of Asian descent. Jumbo’s African upbringing is just one more thing that made him a unique addition. Jumbo was tragically separated from his mother, his birthplace, and all that was familiar to him at a very young age. He was born around Christmas Day in 1860 and shortly after his mother was killed by hunters. 

    He was originally kidnapped by Sudanese elephant hunter Taher Sheriff, who offered to sell the elephant to the highest bidder. 

  • After His Death, His Stuffed Body Was Paraded Around Town

    Photo: Barnum Museum of Natural History / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Jumbo was killed in a tragic train accident in 1885 in Canada. But Barnum & Bailey weren't about to let go of an opportunity to make a buck off their star elephant. They sent Jumbo's body to Henry Ward's Natural Science Establishment in New York. It took five months for Ward and his team to reconstruct Jumbo with taxidermy, but they did it. And they found a lot of crazy stuff in his stomach. A report from the time said he had whistles, keys, rivets, and English pennies in his stomach. A year after his accident, Jumbo's body was put on display at a gala in New York and then shipped up and down the coast as a roadside attraction. He was on tour for four years. Eventually the elephant's body ended up at Tufts University, and became the schools mascot. 

    He was put on display at the university until 1975, when faulty wiring ignited a fire in Barnum Hall, where Jumbo's body was on display. His hide was completely incinerated in the blaze. 

  • Jumbo Was In The Zoo For Longer Than He Was In The Circus

    Photo: E. Bierstadt / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The height of Jumbo’s fame might have been the circus, largely due to P.T. Barnum’s marketing genius. But the heart of this colossal elephant will forever belong to the London Zoo, where Jumbo spent the vast majority of his life. He came to the zoo when he was just four, and, when he arrived, he was in very poor health. A antelope keeper named Matthew Scott nursed him back to health. 

    Because of his gentle nature, Jumbo was trained to give rides to children. Jumbo could be seen carrying up to 100 youngsters on his back across the zoo grounds. For Jumbo, the zoo was the closest thing he had to a home. To put things into perspective, the famed elephant spent approximately 16 years in the zoo, compared to his three-year stint in the circus.