MEDFORD — Jumbo the elephant, an African pachyderm killed in 1885 by a runaway Canadian train, then stuffed, and later donated to Tufts University by P.T. Barnum, will be the subject of a special exhibition this fall at — appropriately — the Tufts University Art Gallery. Organized by Andrew McClellan, it’s called “Jumbo: Marvel, Myth, and Mascot.”
The exhibit will coincide with the long-awaited installation on the Tufts campus of a life-size bronze sculpture of Jumbo by the California-based sculptor Steven Whyte. Funded by Tufts alum Dick Reynolds, the sculpture will replace an earlier cement and papier-mache elephant, which was brought to Tufts from a New Hampshire amusement park, and — having been modeled on an Indian elephant — was a less-than-convincing conjuring of Jumbo, the university’s mascot.
Jumbo’s remains may have ended up in Medford. But, as McClellan made clear in an interview with the Globe, his actual life was spectacularly peripatetic. Born in the French Sudan, he was transported to Paris, and then, in 1865, to London. He quickly became the star attraction at the London Zoo, where, seven days a week, he gave rides to children — among them, Prince Leopold and Princess Beatrice (the children of Queen Victoria), Winston Churchill, and Teddy Roosevelt.
In 1882, Jumbo entered the male pachyderm equivalent of puberty, known as musth. The condition causes a massive spike in testosterone levels, and a consequent dip in predictability. The London zookeepers grew nervous.
Sensing an opportunity, P.T. Barnum, the great circus impresario, bought Jumbo for $10,000 and organized for his transportation to New York City.
Only catch: Jumbo didn’t want to go. He had grown fond of life in London. (Either that, or the prospect of a life lived under the auspices of P.T. Barnum didn’t appeal.) For more than a month, no one could persuade Jumbo to walk into the crate that would seal his fate. It was as if the famously high-functioning memory of elephants could also extend forward in time and perceive future ignominy.
As the English public became aware of Jumbo’s imminent departure, there was a great upswell in public sentiment. The elephant’s sale to the “vulgar” American Barnum became a sensation, stirring deep resentments, in many ways foreshadowing the upset over the sale of British art treasures to America in the era of the robber barons. Barnum had already floated the idea of buying Nelson’s Column and Shakespeare’s home. In those cases, he didn’t care that his prospects of success were nil. He knew the offers would generate useful publicity.
But in the case of Jumbo, his intentions were real. Thousands of children wrote letters protesting the sale. Even John Ruskin, the great art critic, was moved to write a public letter to the Times of London. Crowds came to the zoo each day to express their feelings and catch one last glimpse of Jumbo. Finally, the elephant stepped into his crate, and was shipped to New York.
He arrived in April 1882, and was met by an enormous throng. He was carted up Broadway from Battery Point to Madison Square Garden, pulled by horses and two Indian elephants. Jumbomania swept across America.
Jumbo quickly became the public face of the Barnum and Bailey traveling circus, according to McClellan, who has written a well-illustrated book to go with the Tufts exhibition. The elephant clocked 32,000 miles between 1882 and 1885 as he traveled across America.
When he was hit, in Ontario, by an unscheduled train, the train was derailed and its engine destroyed. But so was Jumbo.
Barnum had a taxidermist, Henry Ward, working with his apprentice Carl Akeley, salvage the elephant’s body. From it Barnum, ever the opportunist, gained two new exhibits: a stuffed elephant, and an elephant’s articulated skeleton. Both went on tour with the circus in 1886.
But how did Jumbo end up at Tufts?
Tufts was founded in 1852 and Barnum was one of its founding trustees. Like Tufts’s other founders, he was a Christian Universalist — one of the most prominent on the East Coast. And although his business operations soon forced him to extract himself from the board, he was later approached by the university’s president, the Rev. Elmer Capen, to help pay for a new science building and natural history museum.
Barnum willingly coughed up, the new building opened in 1884, and in 1889, Barnum gave Jumbo to the natural history museum.
Some gifts, as everyone knows, are not easy to receive: The stuffed elephant was transported by train, but had to be pushed up the hill at Tufts by a crowd of students and professors. He was too big to get through the new building’s entrance, so the keystone in the arch above it had to be removed.
This operation was repeated six months later, when Barnum decided he wanted Jumbo for a comeback tour of England. He got his way, but Jumbo was safely ensconced back at Tufts by 1890.
Decades later, the natural history museum was closed. Many of its stuffed animals (most of them deceased circus animals) were looking the worse for wear. But Jumbo stayed on in Barnum Hall, as it was called: He had emerged by now as the university’s mascot.
In April 1975, an electrical fault caused a fire that destroyed the building, and Jumbo with it. An employee grabbed a peanut butter jar and scooped up what he could of Jumbo’s ashes. The jar, which is supposed to bring good luck to Tufts athletics teams, will be part of the exhibit at Tufts University Art Gallery.
The show, which is sure to be a hit, will also include illustrations and photographs, circus posters, advertising images, and other paraphernalia, along with some of the objects that were found in Jumbo’s stomach when he died — a few trinkets, a screw, and a human tooth.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.