Thursday, March 30, 2006

The End of Elephants

In the small town of St. Thomas, in Ontario, there is a massive (and life-sized) statue of an African elephant. This is because St. Thomas is where, on September 15, 1885, Jumbo the Elephant died after being hit by a steam locomotive.

Jumbo had an interesting life, for anyone, elephant or human. He was born free, sometime around 1861, in the Sudan. The French, who then controlled the Sudan, captured Jumbo as a young elephant and brought him by rail to Cairo, where he was sold and then taken by boat and then again by rail to Paris, where they exhibited him in the Jardin des Plantes near the railway station. He was probably chained.

In 1865 he was given to the London Zoo. More boats on the ocean and trains chugging across unfamiliar landscapes.

In London, he became a favorite among children for the remarkable docility he showed. Even though by this time he was far and away the largest elephant ever held in captivity (standing some four meters tall), and though he had never been trained to do it, he routinely allowed visitors to the zoo to ride on his back. In fact, he so impressed one particular visitor with his demeanor and ever-increasing size, that he ended up being sold again for the tidy sum of $10,000 - to P.T. Barnum. This transaction was made over the public protestations of Queen Victoria herself, who had taken rather a fancy to Jumbo, it seems.

Jumbo then became the star attraction in the Barnum and Bailey circus. He became so famous that his name (a corruption of the Swahili word for ‘hello’) became a household word. His name has survived in the English language to this day as a descriptor for anything gigantic.

He was an icon of the early industrial age, traveling all over the globe in an era when most humans never went far beyond their hometowns. He was, very nearly, the most famous anything in the world. People waited in line for hours just to see him and feel awe.

In 1885, while being led onto his car on the circus train along with the smallest elephant in the circus, Tom Thumb, Jumbo was struck by an unscheduled (and yes, speeding) locomotive coming from the other direction.

Later, P.T. Barnum would claim that Jumbo’s final living act was to grasp Tom Thumb with his trunk and throw him twenty yards away, out of the path of the hurtling train.

The beast of iron and wheels met the “mountain of bone and brawn” and was completely derailed - was, in fact, so damaged that it had to be scrapped - but Jumbo too was crushed, and his six and one half ton body was badly broken.

It took 160 men working together to drag his body into the ditch alongside the rails where he finally died.

Jumbo’s handler, Matthew Scott, stood guard over the fallen giant all night, waiting for the heavy machines to arrive which would be able to lift Jumbo’s immense corpse onto the train that would take him away.

When Scott finally collapsed from exhaustion, scores of eager souvenir-hunters rushed the body with knifes, hoping to hack off a piece of history. Scott had been fighting them off for more than ten hours and wept pitifully when they finally overwhelmed him.

Jumbo's bones now reside in the New York Museum of Natural History. His skin was stuffed and displayed at Tufts University (whose mascot Jumbo still is) until it was consumed by fire in 1975.

Jumbo is only the most famous in the surprisingly long roster of famous elephants killed in tragic circumstances far from their homes. To wit:

Abul-Abbas, the famed elephant of Charlemagne, who died of pneumonia after swimming the Rhine in the winter of 810.

Hanno the Blessed, elephant of Pope Leo X, who died after he was given a laxative by the Pope’s doctors in 1516.

Topsy, who was fed a lit cigarette by her trainer in 1903 at Coney Island’s Luna Park and then went on a rampage in which she killed three men. Topsy was electrocuted to death by Thomas Edison, who wanted to use the opportunity to further his war with Westingouse and Tesla and alternating current. Edison filmed it for his propaganda. You can watch the film he shot on YouTube, but is is graphic and it will stay with you.

Mary, the circus elephant who, in 1916, finally reacted to years of physical abuse by throwing her trainer against a drink stand and then deliberately crushing his skull with her foot. She was hung. On the first attempt she snapped the chain meant to hang her and fell to the ground, breaking her hip. They strung her up and tried again - this time successfully.

And perhaps not finally, but less depressingly, there is the still living Ruby, the famous painting elephant of the Phoenix Zoo, who once had a painting of hers sell for more than $10,000 - the price of one Jumbo.

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