Journal Archive > 2001 > October

Elephant tales

The story of Jumbo

Jumbo, Tufts University's official mascot, was a male African elephant owned by P.T. Barnum, a Tufts trustee and benefactor. Jumbo was the largest elephant known at the time, standing approximately 12 feet tall at the shoulder and weighing more than six tons.

Though Jumbo never visited the Tufts campus during his lifetime, Barnum donated Jumbo's stuffed hide to Tufts College in 1889, when the pachyderm became the Tufts mascot.

Workers restore the stuffed Jumbo in Barnum Hall in 1942. Photo courtesy of University Archives

Jumbo was still a baby when he was captured by traders in Abyssinia in 1861. He was sold to a wild animal collector, Johann Schmidt, who subsequently sold the elephant to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Jumbo remained in Paris for three years with another elephant, named Alice.

In 1865, Matthew Scott, who was to serve as Jumbo's keeper for the rest of the elephant's life, came to see the two young elephants that were ill. Scott believed that they could be cured and arranged to acquire them for the London Zoological Gardens in exchange for a rhinoceros. Under Scott's care, they were returned to health, and Jumbo, especially, became a favorite of visitors to the London Zoo.

In 1882, Barnum purchased Jumbo for $10,000 from the Royal Zoological Society in London. After a great protest from many in England, including Queen Victoria, Barnum brought Jumbo to America. The elephant toured with the Barnum & Bailey Circus for the next several years, traveling on a specially constructed rail car that was large enough to hold him.

In 1885, Jumbo was killed by an oncoming train in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada. Their keeper was leading jumbo and Tom Thumb, a dwarf elephant, across the train yard when a train came down a little-used track and struck the mighty pachyderm. According to legend (spread by Barnum), Jumbo pushed Tom Thumb out of the path of the oncoming train, saving his life, and reached out his trunk to his keeper, Matthew Scott, before dying. However, eyewitness Edgar H. Flach reported that Jumbo fled the train when his keeper realized the danger and directed him to run. In his fear, Jumbo missed the opening in the fence that would have enabled him to leave the track unharmed. While Jumbo's heroism in saving Tom Thumb does not appear to be true, Flack confirms that Jumbo did clasp his beloved trainer in his trunk before dying.

Barnum had Jumbo's skeleton and hide saved and mounted separately. Stuffed Jumbo continued to tour with the circus until 1889, when he was given to Tufts to be displayed in the Barnum Museum of Natural History, a building named for its benefactor, P.T. Barnum. Barnum hoped that the stuffed elephant would provide useful publicity for Tufts College. Jumbo's bones were mounted and given to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where they were on display for many years.

In addition to giving his name to Tufts' athletic teams, Jumbo was believed to be a source of good luck. Before big exams or games, students would tug on his tail or put pennies in his trunk to ensure a good outcome. All of the tail tugging took its toll, however, and his tail was replaced in 1942, when stuffed Jumbo underwent repairs. The original tail was packed up with other historical materials and is held in the Tisch Library's Digital Collections and Archives.

Jumbo was housed in the Barnum Museum until 1975, when much of the building and its contents, including Jumbo, were destroyed by fire. The next day, a member of the Department of Athletics salvaged ashes from the site where Jumbo had stood and placed them in a peanut butter jar, which continues to serve as a good luck charm for Tufts athletics teams.

Editor's Note: As the university celebrates its sesquicentennial in 2001-2002, the Journal will take a look back at some of the history and traditions of Tufts. Thanks to Anne Sauer in University Archives for providing these glimpses into Tufts' past.