The story behind Jumbo the Elephant

Jumbo the elephant, a figure that most Tufts students wear on sweatshirts, hats and hoodies with pride, is one of the only animal mascots in the nation chosen for his heroism. The elephant is a circus legend of bravery who also gave origin to the modern use of the term “jumbo” to mean “large in size.”

Tufts’ mascot, however, possesses a rich legacy shrouded in mystery that has often blurred the line between fact and fiction. While Tufts remains in possession of Jumbo’s ashes, how did he actually die?

“There are some interesting firsthand accounts of the death of Jumbo,” said Anne Sauer, Director and University Archivist in the Department of Digital Collections and Archives.

According to the common legend, Jumbo died saving a smaller elephant named Tom Thumb from an oncoming train. Both Sauer and Professor of Art and Art History Andrew McClellan dismiss this account as a myth, saying that Jumbo was probably just acting out of instinct.

“The legend was that he saved Tom Thumb from the oncoming train and sacrificed himself, but, of course, the reality is that Jumbo was an animal and there was a train heading for him,” Sauer said. “So there are accounts that say, ‘Well, no, Jumbo was fleeing the train and knocked the smaller elephant out of his way in a frenzy to get out of the way of the train.’”

Athletic Director William Gehling also questioned the legend, though he said he enjoys the values that have emerged from the story in connection to athletics at Tufts.

“For me, anyway, I like the story of Jumbo saving the baby elephant,” Gehling said. “It’s about taking one for the team, sacrificing yourself for the good of the group, of the whole. I think that’s the main value that I attribute to Jumbo that I think is what sports should be all about.”

Despite debates over the veracity of the Tom Thumb incident, the tale of the majestic Jumbo is an interesting story. Captured in Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) and sold to a collector, Jumbo was delivered to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where he fell ill, according to McClellan.

The elephant was moved to the London Zoo in 1865 when he was purchased by the Royal Zoological Society, where he flourished and became a favorite of zoo visitors. Jumbo was sold to P.T. Barnum in 1882 and quickly became a star in America, traveling with the circus and captivating audiences with his massive size, which was unusual even for an elephant.

“[P.T. Barnum’s purchase of Jumbo] was very controversial because Jumbo was a very popular part of the London Zoo, and so the thought that this brash American would come over, throw money and say ‘I’m taking your elephant,’ was really shocking to everyone,” Sauer said. “So there was some controversy over Jumbo being bought by an American and then leaving his adoring fans.”

When Jumbo died after being hit by a train, with the explanation for the tragedy still unknown, P.T. Barnum donated his body to Tufts in 1889. He was then put on display in Barnum Hall where he stayed until the building burned down in 1975.

While the stylization of Jumbo has changed over the years, he has remained as Tufts’ mascot since his adoption by students soon after his arrival on campus. Few other colleges have an elephant as their mascot and Jumbo stands out even in the interesting mix of mascots from other New England schools, such as the White Mules of Colby College, the Ephs of Williams College or the Lord Jeffs of Amherst College.

Some schools have discussed the need for new mascots. Middlebury, for example, has debated changing their mascot from the panther, which some have found too common and feel lacks meaningful history and connection to the college. While Jumbo has been the consistent mascot of Tufts since he was donated by P.T. Barnum, the university was without a mascot before then.

“Jumbo really became [our mascot], very quickly after arriving. He was adopted by the students as the mascot, though he didn’t become the official mascot until much, much later,” Sauer said. “It was [former Athletic Director]  Rocky Carzo who led the effort to officially make Jumbo the mascot. It was when Rocky was working on the athletics’ history … that he was able to put together the proposal to officially recognize Jumbo.”

When Gehling took over Carzo’s position as Athletic Director, a ceremony for the passing of the ashes to the new director that also brought the story of Jumbo to more prominence.

“It really was when Rocky retired and I became the [athletic director], that this became a bigger deal,” Gehling said. “Rocky had [the ashes] in his office, but it wasn’t really something that he celebrated. It turned out to be one of the coolest events you have ever seen.”

“[The passing of the ashes] was really moving and it was cool, and it actually got picked up by Yankee magazine and the Wall Street Journal, and it got some coverage,” Gehling said.12