The Ontario Small Town That Feasted On A Circus Giant

PT Barnum’s traveling circus shows were a well-known attraction in North America in the 1800s. Once you joined, fame, fortune or at least notoriety was sure to follow.

However, in the case of Jumbo, the most famous elephant of all time, he didn’t need Barnum to be a star. He was born a star. Jumbo burned too bright for humans.

Jumbo, standing somewhere between three and four metres, was already a prized attraction (read: exploited animal) in his own right in London and across Europe well before Barnum purchased the giant mammal from Queen Victoria.

His size and ear shapes were considered an anomaly.

At the time, the word “jumbo” did not mean “large.”

The African Bush Elephant was born in Sudan in 1860 and went from German to Italian to French to English hands before making it to the Americas. Having been captured by hunters after his mother was hunted, he was sold to an Italian animal dealer and explorer, Lorenzo Casanova.

Jumbo was brought to Suez and then Trieste, then was sold again to the German “Menagerie Kreutzberg.” Soon, he was exported to Jardin des Plantes, a zoo in France, before being transferred to London Zoo at the age of five. That was where he received his name.

At the time, the word “jumbo” did not mean “large.”

Jumbo made a name for himself and that name took on a new meaning – he was the basis for such things as “jumbo shrimp” and “jumbo meals”.

It is believed that, at the time, the name Jumbo was chosen as a combination of two Swahili words meaning “hello” and “chief.”

It could have also referenced a mythical fruit that was believed to grow in India as big as an elephant.

A PT Barnum circus poster for The Greatest Show on Earth.

In London Zoo, Jumbo was a crowd-pleaser and children would go for rides on his back. That even included the children of Queen Victoria. As the years passed, he started to get more aggressive at night and this helped close the sale to PT Barnum. What if a child got hurt?

Despite immense public protest – thousands of children wrote letters to the queen begging her not to complete the sale – Jumbo was sold to PT Barnum and was shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to join the North American traveling circus in 1882.

Unfortunately, within three years, Canada’s railroads would play a part in Jumbo’s tragic death.

In 1885, Jumbo was struck by an oncoming freight train in St. Thomas, Ontario – a busy railway junction. He died at age 24 after a day of circus work, heading back to his train car.

According to Barnum, ever the showman, Jumbo died trying to protect a much smaller young elephant called Tom Thumb. According to newspaper accounts, Tom Thumb lived and only sustained a broken leg, while Jumbo was hit directly by the train and died within minutes.

Children liked to ride on Jumbo’s back when he lived at the London Zoo.

However, in a 2017 joint CBC and BBC documentary with David Attenborough and David Suzuki called Jumbo: The Life of an Elephant Superstar, a team of McMaster University scientists examined evidence to answer questions about Jumbo’s death. They found that Jumbo likely died while being led off the track and was hit by the train in the hip.

He was also found to have stretched tendons from being overloaded at work and impacted molars from being fed soft food which kept his early molars from being ground down to make way for new molars.

They also found it likely that the rages Jumbo had thrown that got him sold from London Zoo to the circus had been due to toothache and an inappropriate diet.

Sadly, Jumbo was also found to have metal items in his stomach at the time of his death. This included English pennies and a police whistle.

The smell of meat tantalized the town, according to St. Thomas lore and local newspapers, so many residents came by the funeral pyre, fork in hand, to feast on the elephant.

Local butchers cut up the meat so that taxidermists could stuff the hide and the skeleton and other parts could go on display at museums and schools.

And since there were no instructions provided for the meat, it was put in a giant funeral pyre.

The smell of meat tantalized the town, according to St. Thomas lore and local newspapers, so many residents came by the funeral pyre, fork in hand, to feast on the elephant meat.

The Jumbo statue in St. Thomas, Ontario. CC by SA.

In 1985, one century after Jumbo’s death, the town of St. Thomas held a celebration called Jumbo Days where they unveiled a life-sized statue of the giant in commemoration of the elephant.

Additionally, the Jumbo statue was inducted into the North America Railway Hall of Fame in 2006. It was for the category of “Railway Art Forms & Events.”

Jumbo lives on in products named after the tragic giant. Jumbo peanut butter, jumbo shrimp and even a Canadian hockey player from St. Thomas, Ontario who goes by the nickname Jumbo Joe.

To this day, a St. Thomas brewing company called Railway City Brewing has a beer called Dead Elephant Ale, in recognition of the town’s ties to the elephant’s tragic death. Don’t be fooled by the name though – no elephants died in the production of this beer.