The Story of Jumbo

 
Jumbo stood on display in Barnum Hall at Tufts until fire destroyed the building - and Jumbo - in 1975

In a vote organized by the National Directory of College Athletics, the Tufts Jumbos are ranked among the Top 25 College Nicknames. It placed 18th, wedged between the Gorillas of Pittsburgh State and the Nanooks of Alaska-Fairbanks, but far behind the first-place Banana Slugs of California-Santa Cruz.

Many Tuftonians have wondered how they also became Jumbos. The answer relates to Phineas T. Barnum and his famous elephant. Barnum, a master showman and promoter, was an original trustee of Tufts because of the college's association with the Universalist Church, of which he was a member. With $50,000, Barnum endowed a museum of natural history to be built on campus. In true Barnum fashion, he wanted this to be the biggest and best natural history museum on the east coast. The Barnum Museum (later Barnum Hall) was opened in 1884 and he donated many of the specimens.

Meanwhile, Jumbo, whose name comes from the Swahili word “jumbe,” which means chief, was the star attraction of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. He was billed as the largest land animal ever in captivity. Born wild in the Sudan in 1859, Jumbo became the main attraction at the London Zoo for many years due to his tremendous size and mild temperament. It was said that he could carry 100 children upon his back, and it was widely known that he loved gingerbread.

However, in 1882 the Zoo sold him for $10,000 to Barnum. Jumbo's sale caused a great uproar throughout England, with Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales among many expressing. Despite attempts to block the sale, the ever-resourceful Barnum managed to secure his elephant. On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1882, Jumbo arrived in America. In the elephant's first year with the circus, Barnum earned $1.5 million. Preparing to board trains in St. Thomas, Ontario on September 15, 1885, Jumbo was hit by an oncoming locomotive and killed. According to legend, Jumbo sacrificed his own life to save a baby elephant.

 
Moving Jumbo into Barnum Museum, 1889

After the tragedy, Barnum commissioned what was called the world's largest taxidermy job ever performed, and donated Jumbo's stuffed remains to Tufts. He gave the skeleton to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Before Jumbo came to rest at Tufts, there was money to be made for Barnum.

After a four-year world tour with the stuffed Jumbo as the centerpiece, the pachyderm's hide finally arrived at Tufts with much celebration in March 1889. Jumbo instantly became the main attraction of the Barnum Museum and was adopted by the university as its mascot.

For 86 years, Jumbo stood sedately in Barnum as it changed around him. In 1939, the museum was closed and turned into student lounges, leaving just Jumbo, a companion albino elephant, and a display of Barnum's life. But Jumbo remained a center of attention for students, as it was customary around exam time to place a penny in his trunk for luck.

In 1949, Jumbo's place at Tufts was threatened by the University of Bridgeport, who also wanted to claim the enormous pachyderm for its own mascot because Bridgeport had been home to Barnum and his circus. This challenge was based on the grounds that Barnum owned only half of Jumbo (with Bailey owning the other half ), and he could only bequeath his half of the elephant to Tufts.

President Leonard Carmichael answered Bridgeport's request by gracefully stating that since Tufts had been good stewards of Jumbo, the college had the right to choose which half of the elephant it wanted and naturally decided upon the front. Bridgeport declined to take Jumbo's rump, but as a gesture of goodwill Tufts gave the albino elephant that stood beside Jumbo to the Connecticut school.

Tragedy struck again when Barnum Hall had a major fire on April 14, 1975 which consumed Jumbo, leaving just a piece of a charred tusk and ashes. Phyllis Byrne, an administrative assistant in the athletic department, reacted quickly to the tragedy to make sure that all relics of Jumbo were not lost forever. She gave an empty peanut butter jar to Tufts maintenance man George Wilson and he collected the ashes, which currently rest in the office of Athletic Director Bill Gehling.

More than any physical reminder of Jumbo, his spirit is alive and well on the Tufts campus! Jumbo is more than a nickname.

Jumbo's death, with trainer

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