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

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.

  • Jumbo Was - And Still Is - The Heart Of The Barnum & Bailey Circus

    Jumbo Was - And Still Is - The Heart Of The Barnum & Bailey Circus
    Photo: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Jumbo joined the circus in 1881 and he quickly became a staple in the Barnum & Bailey Circus show. He became a fixture of the circus, appearing on their branding and as a main event at their shows. Soon elephants - specifically Jumbo - became key to the company's circus shows, and when P.T. Barnum dreamed up the "Greatest Show On Earth," Jumbo was the star.

    In reality, it was Jumbo that help put the circus on the map in the first place. Before buying the elephant from the London Zoo, their show was essentially a collection of sideshow performers. It was Jumbo who made the circus what it is today. In his six weeks in America, he made the circus $336,000 - about $7.5 million today. 

  • Weighing In At Seven Tons, Jumbo Lived Up To His Name

    Weighing In At Seven Tons, Jumbo Lived Up To His Name
    Photo: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Everything about Jumbo was larger-than-life in some way or another, but his size was undoubtedly his most prominent feature. As a young elephant, Jumbo showed no significant signs of super stardom. He was simply a good-natured elephant. But while transitioning into adulthood, Jumbo experienced a rather unexpected growth spurt and he rapidly grew into the seven-ton, 13-foot pachyderm we see emblazoned on vintage circus posters to this day.

    As a gentle giant, Jumbo captured the hearts of all who surrounded him.

  • The Word 'Jumbo' Means 'Large' Because Of Him

    When we think of the word "jumbo" today, we picture something that is incredibly large. But that's not the origin of Jumbo's name. In truth, this word became synonymous with extraordinarily big things because of Jumbo. Jumbo was marketed as the most mammoth land creature on Earth.

    Prior to Barnum & Bailey’s marketing of the beloved elephant, Jumbo was a combination of two words in Swahili (the language of Jumbo's native home) - “Jumbe” which means "chief" and "jambo" which is a Swahili greeting. 

  • Jumbo Was An Alcoholic

    Jumbo Was An Alcoholic
    Photo: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    While this doesn't sound real, it's actually quite true. As a baby at the London Zoo, keepers used to feed Jumbo alcohol-soaked biscuits to calm him down. The problem with this, though, was that giving Jumbo alcohol soon became the only way to make him docile. His keepers said he loved whiskey and champagne, and that on his journey from London to the US, he was given a daily allotment of whiskey to keep him cool. 

  • 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

    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.