Life Of Jumbo

By Ryan Belanger



Jumbo the Elephant was the most famous elephant in history whose name became associated with the word big. Jumbo was born wild in the French Sudan (present day Mali) around 1861. There, he was captured as a calf, and sent to the Paris Zoo. The Paris Zoo officials were unimpressed by Jumbo’s size, and they ended up trading the elephant to the London Zoo in exchange for a rhinoceros and a couple of ant eaters. From his stay at the London Zoo, to his travels with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and to his demise at the hands of a locomotive, Jumbo had a large impact on many.


London Zoo

While in London, Jumbo’s celebrity began, and this scrawny elephant would grow to become what some had hailed as the largest specimen on earth. Although Jumbo came to the zoo relatively small, he grew at a faster rate than expected. During his 17 year stay at the zoo, Jumbo had quickly become a fan favourite where he was the beloved pet of England’s children who rode on his back. It is thought that over a million children had ridden on Jumbo’s back while he was in England. Some of Jumbo’s more famous riders included Queen Victoria and her children, and a young Winston Churchill.  Jumbo was well known for his very gentle nature which is quite rare in an African Bull Elephant. Unlike smaller Asian Elephants, African Elephants are rarely used as show elephants as they’re considered too wild and are difficult to control. Jumbo’s nature was likely attributed to the relationship he had with his keeper, Matthew Scott. 

Over time, Jumbo grew larger and larger and official records for that time state that Jumbo had grown to ten feet and weighed eight tons. Unfortunately, as Jumbo grew older, he began to get into his mating period. Elephants in this period begin to get restless and hard to control, and Jumbo was starting to get difficult. Fearing that Jumbo might become uncontrollably dangerous, the London Zoo decided to sell Jumbo.  In 1882, news of Jumbo’s sale reached American showman Phineas T. Barnum. Barnum saw a lot of potential in Jumbo and he offered to purchase the elephant for what was then an astronomical sum of ten thousand pounds. The Zoo accepted his offer. When news hit that Jumbo had been sold, there was a huge outcry in England. Many letters of indignation were written to the newspapers and the sale was even debated in the House of Commons in an attempt to block it. Nevertheless, the sale went through and Jumbo was to be sent overseas. Luckily for Jumbo, part of the agreement in his sale was that his beloved keeper, Matthew Scott, would be hired full time as his handler with the circus. Jumbo would now be leaving for the New World where he was to have an impact on millions of other people.

Barnum & Bailey Circus

Jumbo’s travels with the Barnum & Bailey Circus would bring him to all new levels of fame, but unfortunately his time in the spotlight would be short lived. Jumbo arrived in New York City on April 8, 1882. When he landed at Battery Park, he was greeted by a crowd of eight thousand people. He was than paraded up Broadway where he was greeted by more spectators. Barnum deemed Jumbo to be the largest and heaviest elephant ever seen in either the wild or in captivity. The public “ate it up” and people would pay good money to see Jumbo. The elephant was made to seem larger than life, and his size was greatly exaggerated by the many posters, and trade cards that advertised him. As P.T. Barnum is considered the father of modern advertising, it isn’t surprising that Jumbo’s name eventually became a household word for anything abnormally large or big. For three years, Jumbo served as the drawing card for the Barnum & Bailey Circus (also known as the “Greatest Show on Earth”).


It is estimated that Jumbo made more than a million dollars during his time with the circus. Sadly, Jumbos’ career would come to a tragic end. On September 15, 1885, after a performance in the small railway community of St. Thomas, Ontario, Jumbo was being led down the tracks to his circus car which was on the opposite tracks. Suddenly, an unscheduled freight train appeared in the distance. Matthew Scott had tried frantically to get the elephant off the track but it was too late, Jumbo was struck and then thrust into the line of boxcars next to him. His tusk is thought to have pierced his brain.

 Jumbo died minutes later with Matthew Scott, his keeper of 25 years, by his side. Although Jumbo’s career was short lived, he had left a considerable impact on many people around the world and they would certainly not forget him anytime soon.

Jumbo particularly had an impact on the community of St. Thomas, where he has become a cultural fixation within that city. There was an attempt as early as 1885 to build a monument to Jumbo at the site where he died but this proved unsuccessful. Another attempt to build a monument at that site in 1933 also proved unsuccessful. It wasn’t until 1985; during the one hundredth anniversary of Jumbo’s death, did a life sized monument to Jumbo get erected.

 The monument was erected on top of a hill at the western entrance to St. Thomas. The Jumbo statue is generally the first thing people see when they enter St. Thomas and it in turn brings a lot of tourists from all over the world to the monument and further educates people on Jumbo’s story and his unique connection to St. Thomas. Jumbo has become the major cultural icon for the city and his image is used on the “Welcome to St. Thomas signs” and occasionally he makes an appearance in the local political cartoons in the paper, representing the citizens of St. Thomas. The local microbrewery even has a beer dedicated to Jumbo known as “Dead Elephant Ale.” As long as Jumbo stands at the entrance to the city, he will likely always serve as a symbol of St. Thomas.


Jumbo the Elephant will likely always remain the most famous elephant (or even animal) in history. Not only does he have a fascinating story, but we are constantly reminded of him almost anywhere through the word he gave us. Whether it be ordering a Jumbo hotdog, or riding in a Jumbo Jet, or even watching a concert on the Jumbo tron, Jumbo the Elephant’s legacy will live on forever.