The odd, remarkable, yet true story of Jumbo the circus elephant

Jumbo and his devoted handler lived a strange tale of celebrity, tragedy, and love.

Jumbo was a Victorian-era superstar, a mega-celebrity whose fame was in proportion to his six-ton, 11-foot frame. Like some human celebrities, he traveled from continent to continent, consorted with royalty, indulged in fits of temper, and finally met with a tragic end.

In what could perhaps be called a tell-all biography, Paul Chambers explores the sad but remarkable life of the most famous circus elephant ever in his fascinating, carefully researched account Jumbo: The Greatest Elephant in the World.

The story begins in 1862, when a European adventurer noticed a scrawny baby elephant who had been ripped from his mother for export to Europe. There, crowds were flocking to zoos and it was hoped that an African elephant – not seen in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire – would be a big draw.

Jumbo landed first in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes where his runtlike stature failed to wow crowds and he was badly neglected by his French tenders. Fortunately, the London Zoological Gardens saw untapped potential in the lonely young elephant and in 1865 Jumbo crossed the Channel to a new home.

There, he found love – albeit in a rather obsessive form – when he was placed in the care of Matthew Scott, a rustic zoo worker with an almost mystic feel for animals.

Scott attached himself to Jumbo and under his devoted care the sickly animal blossomed into a towering, magnificent beast. In the process the two bonded so powerfully that for the next 20 years neither wanted to leave the other’s side. “We are one,” proclaimed Scott.

Jumbo was a smash sensation at the London Zoo. Over the course of 16 years he carried thousands of children on his back (including the children of Queen Victoria and a young Winston Churchill) and delighted crowds with his cheeky, playful temperament. But behind the scenes the huge creature frightened zoo officials with displays of temper – and it seemed that only the equally insubordinate Scott could control him. As a result, the London Zoo (over waves of popular protest) shipped Jumbo (and Scott) to P.T. Barnum for his famous circus.

In the United States, Jumbo became even more wildly popular as “Jumbo mania” gripped the nation. But it wasn’t long before tragedy struck. In 1885, while on tour in Canada, Jumbo was hit by a freight train and killed. Scott threw himself on the body and sobbed inconsolably for hours. It was the end of one of the oddest and yet also most haunting love stories of its time.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.