Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I Am Not Making This Up: A Jumbo-Sized Story

Written By: Tracy - May• 22•17

When you buy something that’s “Jumbo-sized,” like bread, or large jars of peanut butter, you may not think about where that term comes from. But the original Jumbo was a circus elephant. 
We associate the word with bigness thanks to P. T. Barnum, and his gift at promotion. And while Jumbo’s story is painted with rosy colors, the reality is anything but happy. 

Jumbo didn’t start life in the circus. He was born like any African Bush Elephant, in the Sudan. His mother was killed by hunters, and he was captured and sold to animal dealers, who sold him to a French Zoo. From there he was sold to the London zoo.

Jumbo’s handlers gave him his name, which is various stories claim is possibly a play on the Swahili words for “hello”and “chief”, the Zulu word for a large package, or Mumbai-Jumbo” a West-African deity. It’s hard to tell. Jumbo’s story is so filled with smoke and mirrors and circus magic, that the truth is distorted. 

As a resident of the London zoo, jumbo would give children rides, and even pull a sleigh in winter. 

In November 1881, James Anthony Bailey purchased Jumbo for the circus he co-owned with P.T. Barnum.  

When the plan became known, there was immediate public outcry (perhaps stirred up by Barnum himself. Because all publicity was good publicity, and because Barnum was kind of a jerk that way.) 100,000 school children sent letters to Queen Victoria begging her not to sell Jumbo. 

The sale went through and Barnum exhibited Jumbo at Madison Square Garden, where he made back his money in short order. 

Thanks to the kerfuffle over the sale, combined with the sensation of the new Jumbo-sized attraction in Madison Square Garden, Jumbo became a word associated with bigness. Thomas Edison named one of his newest gadgets “jumbo”. Disney named the baby elephant in his movie Dumbo, and the mother Jumbo. Everywhere you looked, you had jumbo-sized things. Jumbo burgers, jumbo packs. (Eventually even the jumbo jet, but that would be much later. )

Jumbo lived just five more years in Barnum’s care. In 1884, he was one of Barnum’s 21 elephants that crossed the Brooklyn bridge to prove that it was safe. 

In 1885, while exercising on a train track, Jumbo tripped and impaled himself on his own tusk, dying instantly. In a strange twist, an unexpected train ran over the body of the elephant. 

Of course, Barnum spun the tragedy. That’s what he did. His story claimed that Jumbo died saving a baby elephant from an out of control speeding locomotive. (Possibly after changing into a cape in a Jumbo-sized phone booth). 

Barnum had the body separated and sent bits of it around with his various museums and sideshows, charging admission to see it. 

Eventually the whole body was reassembled, stuffed and donated to Tufts university, where it became the school’s mascot. The body burned in a fire in 1975 (the year I was born, so that’s one elephant I’ll never see). The school’s mascot remains an elephant to this day. 

Jumbo only lived 24 years. In the wild, an African Bush Elephant may live 70 years. A well-cared for animal in captivity may live 80 years. There is a temptation to draw parallels to actors or rock stars who live fast and die young, but Jumbo was no pampered diva. He was a working animal and he was treated like one. 

So the next time you get a Jumbo-sized anything, think of the original Jumbo. His life may not have been Jumbo-sized, even if his reputation was.

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