New research solves mysteries about Jumbo the elephant’s life and mysterious death

An international team of scientists conduct an unprecedented examination of Jumbo’s bones to uncover answers 130 years after the elephant superstar’s death in Canada.

Jumbo, the most famous elephant in the world, met his end in Canada, while at a tour stop in St. Thomas, Ontario. But his story began in Africa when he was captured by hunters who killed his mother. 

At only four years of age, he was sold to the London Zoo in 1860. It was there that he met Matthew Scott, his keeper and one of the few friends he would ever know.  In England, Jumbo lived alone in a tiny elephant stable and spent his days rides to children  — sometimes as many as a dozen at a time.

In declining health and suffering from troubling night rages, Jumbo was sold to circus impresario P.T. Barnum and shipped to New York City at the age of 21 in 1882. Hyped as ‘the biggest elephant’ in the world, Jumbo was met by a record-breaking crowd and hauled up Broadway in his crate.

More than a century after his death, mystery still swirls around Jumbo.  Was he really the tallest elephant in the world? How was he treated? Was his death part of a conspiracy?

In Jumbo: The Life of an Elephant Superstar, Canadian and British filmmakers gained unprecedented access to Jumbo’s bones held at the American Museum of National History since his death.  Together with an international team of scientists, they examined Jumbo’s skeleton and made discoveries that, for the first time, reveal the true story behind this extraordinary creature.

Was Jumbo Really ‘The Biggest Elephant in the World’?

P.T. Barnum claimed that Jumbo was the largest elephant in the world standing 4 metres at the shoulder. But Barnum also refused to let anyone photograph his elephant raising questions about Jumbo’s real size.

By measuring the length of Jumbo’s femur, the longest bone in his body and the best indicator of its height, the Nature of Things team discovered Jumbo was an impressive 3.2 metres tall. Although this was smaller than Barnum claimed, it was still 20% bigger than the average height of elephants his age and, at the time of his death, Jumbo still had another sixteen years of growth ahead of him.  “He was exceptional,” says John Hutchinson, a member of the team, and a mammal expert from London, England.

How was Jumbo treated?

Jumbo was the first African elephant anyone in North America had ever seen. Over his lifetime it is estimated that more than 20 million people came to visit him. But very little was known about elephants in the late 1800’s, and since his death questions have been raised about how he was treated.

To find out, team member and isotope specialist Holly Miller drilled samples from Jumbo’s bones and extracted hair from his tail to reveal what he ate 130 years ago. “Jumbo’s diet wasn’t particularly good for him. He was getting a lot of grasses, hay and oats.” During the dry season elephants in the wild can eat 300 kilograms of twigs, leaves and bark a day.  The grinding wears down their teeth, making room for new molars — elephants grow six sets over their lifetime.

Examining Jumbo’s massive skull, paleopathologist and team member, Richard Thomas, discovered the devastating results of Jumbo’s soft diet in captivity: the elephant’s teeth did not wear down.  This blocked the new set trying to come in bending them out of shape. “What is immediately striking is the deformity that we see in

Jumbo’s teeth is like nothing I’ve seen in any other elephant,” says Thomas.  “It would have been really painful,” and inevitably caused terrible pain.

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But Thomas and Hutchinson discovered much more when they examined Jumbo’s bones. They knew that he spent his days giving rides and that he was chained up at times. Even though Jumbo died when he was 24-years-old, they found that his bones and joints looked like those of an elephant of 60. 

“Just the overall configuration of the knee joint really yelled out to me that this was not a normal elephant’s knee,” says Hutchinson. “This was an animal that had problems.”

The Conspiracy Theory: How did Jumbo die?

There were also rumours that Jumbo’s death was engineered because of his failing health.  In September of 1885, the Barnum and Bailey Circus arrived in St. Thomas, Ontario. After the show, Jumbo and a small elephant called Tom Thumb were being loaded into a circus boxcar when an unscheduled freight train came hurtling down the tracks towards them.  Tom Thumb survived. But Jumbo was mortally injured and died minutes later with his longtime keeper and friend, Matthew Scott, by his side. 

Two different versions of the event emerged: one, that Jumbo was hit trying to run away from the train and the other that he was deliberately led toward the oncoming locomotive.  The possibility that Jumbo was running toward the train, gives rise to a conspiracy theory:  that Jumbo’s death was staged because a sick and dying elephant would leave Barnum open to accusations of animal cruelty,” reports David Suzuki in Jumbo: The Life of an Elephant Superstar.

FROM THE FILM: Two accounts of Jumbo's death emerge

To discover whether the conspiracy theory was true, the scientific team examined Jumbo’s jawbone where they found a long crack.  But further analysis showed that it happened long after his death.  Traveling to the Elgin County Museum in St. Thomas, David Suzuki unearthed a long-forgotten photograph of Jumbo. Taken after his death it revealed a series of abrasions along  Jumbo’s rear flank — he was rear-ended after all.  Although the accident didn’t break any of Jumbo’s bones, it must have caused massive internal trauma that, ultimately, led to his death.

For the full story watch Jumbo: The Life of an Elephant Superstar on the Nature of Things.

Available on CBC Gem

Jumbo: The Life Of An Elephant Superstar

Nature of Things