Biography of a true giant, fleshed out with social history.
Chambers traces Jumbo’s life from his capture in Africa through his long, often controversial residencies in Paris and London zoos to his last days in America. At the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where the elephant arrived after a grueling nine-month journey, shockingly laissez faire treatment left him undersized, diseased and generally dispirited. He was sold to the Zoological Society of London, where mercurial and devious keeper Matthew Scott turned around his fortunes. Thanks to Scott’s nursing, Jumbo grew into one of the largest creatures ever exhibited in the West, and the marketing ploys of the zoo’s crafty superintendent Abraham Bartlett made him an international sensation. Children lined up for hours to ride in a howdah atop the elephant’s willing back. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, battles were raging between Scott and Bartlett, whose mutual loathing gives the narrative a jolt of suspense, and between the zoo and Jumbo, whose temper was almost uncontrollable when he was in musth, a hormonal rush similar to heat. After many years in London, the elephant was sold to P.T. Barnum, expert purveyor of public hokum. When Jumbo refused even to sniff inside the massively reinforced box designed to transport him to America, Barnum transformed a publicity debacle into a coup. Editorials questioned the zoo’s right to export one of England’s major tourist attractions as the general public came in huge numbers to tearfully bid farewell. In America, Jumbo was widely feted as a circus performer, but after several seasons with Barnum’s traveling menagerie, he was killed in a collision with a freight train. It was the end of an era, but his tragic death cemented Jumbo’s legacy.
Using a wealth of documentary material, the author depicts with exceptional vividness the life of an elephant that became an icon.