Jumbo Arrives in America

On this week in 1882 Jumbo arrived in the United States.

P.T. Barnum bought Jumbo, the most remarkable African elephant of his (or almost any) era, from the Royal Zoological Society in London for two thousand pounds – the modern equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The elephant’s impending trip to the U.S. touched off a media storm, with Americans excited to welcome him and the British in an uproar that their large friend (popularly referred to as the “Children’s Giant Pet”) had to leave.

Jumbo in History of Animals
Souvenir booklet sold to circusgoers between 1882-1885.

Then there was the most pressing question: how do you get an elephant across the Atlantic? With considerable difficulty, as it turned out. Jumbo refused to get into the crate designed to carry him on his steamer voyage, and each night he returned to the London zoo, to try again in the morning. Barnum was not as concerned as you might think, since the longer Jumbo dragged out the will-he-or-won’t-he exercise, the more coverage the press devoted to it. It was fantastic publicity: a Harper’s Weekly cartoon from April 1882 depicted Barnum cuddling Jumbo and cooing, “You are a humbug after my own heart. You have even beat me at advertising.”

Finally crews got Jumbo on board ship: in part because zoo staff figured out that Jumbo’s trainer, the eccentric Matthew Scott, was doing his best to stall Jumbo with false commands, all the more time to stay in England and make profit off of elephant rides and swelling sentiment. Poor seasick Jumbo crossed the Atlantic on the Assyrian Monarch and arrived in the United States late on April 8, 1882, in time to make his grand entrance the following morning in New York City on April 9th – Easter Sunday.

The P. T. Barnum Digital Collection hosted by the Connecticut Digital Archive showcases many of the wonderful artifacts associated with Jumbo and his reign over the Barnum circus, including a beautiful linen handkerchief adorned with scenes from the elephant’s life; a glass bottle embossed with his image; sheet music for the “Jumbo March,” and a sawn cross-section of the elephant’s tusk.