Born in 1861 in French Sudan, imported to Paris as a two year old calf, then later sold to the London Zoo at Regent’s Park, Jumbo the elephant delighted countless children (including Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt) with rides and treats gently taken from outstretched hands. Each night, after the children and their families had gone home, he was mistreated in an attempt to keep him docile. By the time he reached sexual maturity, the abused and isolated animal had become dangerously unstable. He was sold to showman P.T. Barnum in 1881 (despite letters from 100,000 British schoolchildren who wrote to Queen Victoria begging her to prevent the sale) and brought to America. There, in the company of other elephants and amid greater physical freedom, Jumbo stabilized and went on to become one of the most lucrative circus acts of all time — as well as the most beloved.
In the 1941 Disney animated film DUMBO, Mrs. Jumbo is the mother of the main character Jumbo Jr., a semi-anthropomorphic elephant who is cruelly nicknamed “Dumbo” for his big ears.
The world mourned when his life ended in 1885, with a storied (and most likely embellished) act of animal heroism. Jumbo reportedly rushed in front of an oncoming train in an effort to save a smaller elephant – his companion “Tom Thumb” – then perished while reaching his trunk out toward his longtime handler Matthew Scott – whose intense connection with the pachyderm spawned legends of its own.
Integrating the history of elephants in captivity along with the details of Jumbo’s celebrity life, dramatic death, and lasting cultural legacy, John Sutherland has written the first comprehensive “biography” of this incredible animal – one whose name has given us one of our most common and hyperbolic adjectives.
JOHN SUTHERLAND is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus, UCL. He has taught at the University of Edinburgh, London and at the California Institute of Technology. He is the author of more than 30 books on many subjects. He is well know as a journalist (of a high and low kind) and reviewer and was the Chair of the Man Booker Prize committee in 2005.