JUMBO: The Unauthorised Biography Of A Victorian Sensation, by John Sutherland

London - On the night he met his highly suspicious end, Jumbo the elephant had been entertaining visitors to the circus billed by its owner, the American showman Phineas Barnum, as “The Greatest Show On Earth”.

Forced into years of highly reluctant stardom at London Zoo, Jumbo — the first elephant to be so named — had then been sold into Barnum’s travelling menagerie.

Now, on that fateful evening in the summer of 1885, the unfortunate creature, who should have lived out his days in the African bush from which he was snatched as a baby, was about to face his final moments in the Canadian town of St Thomas, Ontario.

As befitted Barnum’s most popular attraction by far, Jumbo travelled in a specially converted train carriage which gleamed with gilt and crimson varnish, and which was emblazoned with the words Jumbo’s Palace Car.

To reach the train, the animals had to cross the railway line nearest to the field in which the circus had been pitched. The line had supposedly been kept clear for this purpose but, just as Jumbo lumbered across it, a freight locomotive thundered towards him.

Confused by its headlights, he trumpeted wildly and ran towards it, before attempting to veer off at the last minute. It was too late.

His massive rump took the full impact, he was thrown over, and one of his tusks was driven back into his brain, killing him instantly.

Newspapers around the world reported details of what Barnum would have them believe was a terrible accident. That has been the accepted view ever since — until now.

A new book puts forward a startlingly different interpretation of events, suggesting that Jumbo may have been murdered.

Indeed, author John Sutherland speculates that the hapless elephant was tricked into the path of the train by the man portrayed as his saviour and only true friend, his keeper Matthew Scott.

If so, then this was one final act of cruelty endured by a creature thought to have been born in around 1860, on the borders of modern-day Ethiopia and Sudan.

The name Jumbo is thought to have come from the Swahili word “jumbe”, meaning chief, but there was nothing commanding about Jumbo, following the brutal slaughter of his mother by tribesmen when he was two years old.

They were keen to exploit the growing demand for young wild animals among European zoos, but in Jumbo they had found something of a runt, according to Samuel White Baker, a British adventurer who chanced upon their encampment in 1862 and recalled little Jumbo cowering in a pen.

Standing just 40 inches tall, smaller than a pit pony, Jumbo was still getting by on his mother’s milk when he saw her butchered in front of him, and, driven by the tribesmen’s whips and cudgels, was soon on his way to Europe.

After three years in a Parisian menagerie known as the Jardin des Plantes, he was finally acquired by London Zoo in the summer of 1865.

Growing to a height of almost 11 feet (about 3m) and weighing more than five tons, he was to become the zoo’s most celebrated resident. His name became slang for anyone overweight, Selfridges had Jumbo-themed window displays and he had fans at the very highest levels of society.

As boys, both Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed rides in the huge “howdah” strapped to Jumbo’s back, and Queen Victoria’s children were also rumoured to have boarded Jumbo during clandestine visits to the zoo with their mother.

The public were charged tuppence for these rides. They paid another tuppence for the thrill of feeding Jumbo one of the many currant buns he ate each day — and most of these coppers were pocketed by Matthew Scott who was soon making himself an extra £800 (about R14 400) a year, the equivalent of around £60,000 today, from the proceeds.

Much to the fury of the zoo’s superintendent, Abraham Bartlett, this made the humble keeper better paid than he was, but there was nothing he could do because of Scott’s unique relationship with his charge.

Behind the gentle facade presented to the paying public, Jumbo was a very troubled elephant. Suffering from lifelong claustrophobia, he was tormented by the cramped enclosure in which he was kept, and by the rats which invaded it and gnawed constantly at his hooves.

Also, he appears never to have recovered from the trauma of his younger years.

Research has shown elephants to be capable of grief, which may explain why he was prone to sudden explosions of wrath during the long nights in his quarters, hurling himself against the walls and deliberately snapping off his tusks.

Bartlett, to stop what he described as these “lively tricks”, enlisted Matthew Scott in brutal sessions of chastisement.

“Scott and myself, holding him by each ear, administered to him a good thrashing,” he wrote. “He quickly recognised that he was mastered by lying down and uttering a cry of submission.”

With the back-up of a pointed hook, used to jab at tender parts of the anatomy, such methods worked while Jumbo was still relatively small. But as he grew bigger, the only person who dared approach him in one of his “moods” was Scott.

In his early 30s when he first took charge of Jumbo, Scott was a bachelor who seems to have had far stronger relationships with animals than humans. He regularly slept in Jumbo’s stall at night and they shared an extraordinary bond, based not least on their mutual love of alcohol.

Jumbo was said to enjoy a keg of beer daily and Scott liked to share a bottle of Scotch with him at night, reportedly breaking into song with a loud, trumpeting accompaniment from his elephantine companion. They appeared to communicate via sounds and signals which only they could understand.

Scott’s position seemed unassailable, but in 1881, after 16 years of exemplary service, Jumbo reached elephant adolescence and experienced his first annual outbreak of “musth”, the tsunami of testosterone which impels bull elephants to mate.

Both Scott and Bartlett feared that he might harm a keeper, or worse still a visitor, but the real problem had more to do with Victorian modesty. The aroused male elephant’s appendage typically reaches four feet in length and they could not risk ladies and children witnessing such a monstrosity.

Since this was decades before the first successful castration of an elephant, Bartlett believed he had no option other than to order that Jumbo be shot. But then the zoo received an unexpected telegram.

Over in America, Phineas Barnum knew nothing of the problems which London Zoo was experiencing with Jumbo but, in December 1881, he contacted Bartlett, demanding to know the lowest price he would accept for Jumbo.

As he later admitted, this was a publicity stunt, much like a previous bid he had made for Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon to be transported brick by brick to his local Stratford in Connecticut.

He expected a polite letter of rebuttal, but instead Bartlett fired off a telegraph offering to sell Jumbo for £2 000, a fraction of the price Barnum might have expected to pay.

A deal was struck despite numerous outraged letters to the newspapers, petitions to parliament, and threats on Barnum’s life.

On the day of his scheduled departure, Jumbo refused to walk into the crate in which he was to be carried off by his new owners. Chains were put around his legs and neck and pulled by the mightiest tug-of-war team the zoo could recruit, but he would not budge.

Scott was ostensibly helping, but there were suspicions that he was secretly signalling to Jumbo to stay put while he negotiated a favourable contract for himself with Barnum.

If so, they clearly reached an agreement because, two weeks later, Jumbo was finally coaxed into a vast crate by Scott. Borne on a wagon which took ten dray horses to pull, they left the zoo at 2am one cold March morning to avoid protesters blocking their path to the docks in East London.

During the two-week crossing to New York by steamship, a terrified Jumbo bellowed continuously, but Scott calmed him with plentiful beer and whisky, and the chewing tobacco for which he had developed a taste. He was also visited by a stream of first-class passengers who fed him canapés and champagne.

In the years following his arrival on April 9, 1882, Jumbo proved as much of a hit in America as he had been in England.

Jumbo was never the biggest elephant in the world — Jingo, his successor at London Zoo, was two inches taller than him — but that did not stop Barnum adding two feet to his height in press bulletins and proclaiming him “The Towering Monarch Of His Mighty Race, Whose Like The World Will Never See Again”.

Strangely, there were no signs of the behavioural problems anticipated in London. One explanation was that Barnum’s circus had veritable herds of elephants and, since these animals are gregarious by nature, this was in itself a calming influence on Jumbo. Whatever the reason, he became so popular that his name was used to market everything from suspenders to laxatives, but all was not going well for his new owner.

Barnum had over-extended himself with his other business interests and eventually found himself approaching bankruptcy. He also faced a formidable foe in the ASPCA (the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) which deplored the use of the spikes with which his elephant handlers controlled their charges. Soon, he had another problem. In the autumn of 1883, Jumbo succumbed to a mysterious wasting ailment.

Then estimated to be 23 years old, Jumbo might have been expected to live into his 60s in the wild, but the illness persisted and, at the beginning of September 1885, just two weeks before his “accident”, a revealing letter was written to Tufts College, the Massachusetts-based university which had been promised Jumbo’s hide for study after his death.

It came from Henry Ward, a taxidermist friend of Barnum’s who hoped to be given the job of stuffing Jumbo and clearly thought that this opportunity would come sooner rather than later.

“His keeper … does not think he will live long, that it is now nearly a year since he has been able to lie down,” he wrote.

If Jumbo was terminally ill, his lingering death would have been bad business for Barnum. Nobody would pay to see an elephant in decline. And any suggestion of illness would provoke awkward questions from the ASPCA.

Far better all round for Barnum to plan a spectacular exit for Jumbo. This was something of which the world master at staging events was certainly capable, but it would have been impossible without the connivance of Scott.

A number of things point to his complicity. On the night of Jumbo’s death, Scott held the elephant far back behind the other animals and allowed him to proceed only when they had all crossed the track safely. It also seemed strange that Jumbo appeared to run up the line towards the oncoming train, even in the close care of the keeper who could seemingly make him do anything.

Why did Scott not divert Jumbo from his deadly path? Might he even have urged him on, perhaps because Barnum had paid him to do so, or, more likely, because he preferred to see his beloved companion dispatched instantly rather than waste painfully away?

Guilty or not, Scott was devastated by Jumbo’s demise. It took the pulling power of some 200 men to haul the massive carcass off the line, after which Scott stood guard over it all night, weeping with rage as he fought off the souvenir-hunters who seized chunks of ear and toenails which they later fashioned into ashtrays.

The biggest souvenir-hunter of all was one Phineas Barnum. Ever the showman, he had Jumbo’s hide stuffed and even subtly enlarged in the process, leading The New York Times to note, wryly, that death had not prevented Jumbo from continuing to grow. Jumbo’s upholstered remains raked in huge takings for Barnum all over America. It was not until 1889 that this masterpiece of imaginative taxidermy finally came to rest at Tufts College.

Thanks to a fire there in the 1970s, all that remains of Jumbo today is his tail and a sample of his ashes, the latter still kept in an old peanut butter jar which was to hand at the time of the blaze.

As for Matthew Scott, he appeared to go mad with grief and lived a life of near destitution at the circus’s winter quarters in Bridgeport, Massachussetts. Barnum gave him a small pension, but this came to an end following the showman’s death in 1891.

Scott is thought to have expired a few years later in the local almshouse. There, he spent his final days talking despondently to an imaginary Jumbo, perhaps begging forgiveness from the elephant whose name is still used to describe everything large in our lives, but could as well serve as a byword for all that is cruel. - Daily Mail

* JUMBO: The Unauthorised Biography Of A Victorian Sensation, by John Sutherland, is published this week by Aurum