The following is a feature article from the LARB Quarterly Journal: Winter 2016 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
IN THE ARCHIVE LIBRARY at Tufts University a bearded young man opens a cardboard box to show me a relic; about six inches long, wrinkled, gray (too gray, it’s been painted) with hairs like iron filings and a metal spike down the middle — it’s a little frightening and more than a little obscene. This is the tail of Jumbo the elephant, who died 130 years ago. Circus elephants have always been symbols of gentle majesty, but Jumbo was the first to become a celebrity.
Jumbo was born in Ethiopia, but he died in show business at age 24. It was his fourth season with The Greatest Show on Earth, and he was out for his daily exercise along the train tracks when an unscheduled freight train came around the bend. Jumbo couldn’t scramble away fast enough. The cowcatcher at the front of the train was destroyed, the engine derailed, and “The Giant Monarch of His Mighty Race” was killed. Jumbo had once led a herd of 20 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge to prove to a wary public that the newly constructed bridge was safe. Now he was dead on the tracks in Canada.
By then P. T. Barnum had spent what amounted to a fortune on Jumbo, who was brought over from the London Zoological Gardens in 1882 amidst a storm of publicity — the children had loved riding the elephant at the zoo (even Queen Victoria wanted him to stay) — but a buck is a buck and Jumbo came to New York. A crowd of 10,000, the largest the city had ever seen, turned out for his arrival. His traveling crate was pulled by eight horses and a pair of elephants from the ship’s landing in Battery Park to the newly opened Madison Square Garden. (The horses could have done the job — but Barnum had a genius for publicity.) Jumbomania ensued: there were Jumbo mugs, Jumbo playing cards, Jumbo neckties, Jumbo earrings, Jumbo canes; there was Jumbo candy, Jumbo peanut butter, even Jumbo perfume — the “Jumbo” size treats that Americans still guzzle and gobble are our last remnants of the craze. Jumbo had been the star of the three-ring show — though his kingly duties were limited to leading the parade — until his untimely end. At which point Barnum still had a business to run: just because the elephant was dead didn’t mean he couldn’t go on tour.
Jumbo was not the first circus performer to be displayed after death as long as the public was willing to fork over a nickel. The Mexican “Ape Woman,” Julia Pastrana, was mummified for the public by her own showman husband after she died in Moscow in 1860, five days after giving birth to their hirsute son, who lived only three days. The dead infant was presented alongside his mother. (The showman ended up in a Russian mental asylum, where he, too, eventually died. Justice can be cruel in circus stories.)
In Canada in 1885, Barnum knew an opportunity when he saw one — according to his press release, Jumbo had died in the act of saving a baby elephant from an oncoming locomotive. Two days later, Barnum cabled Henry Ward, the most famous taxidermist in the country. The news was making headlines with photographs and drawings of the heroic and violent death of “The Lord of the Beasts,” and Barnum wanted Jumbo stuffed before he rotted on the embankment. Ward arrived with his brightest apprentice, Carl Akeley, who had grown up poor on a farm in upstate New York. A loner with a talent for drawing and a fascination for animals, Carl wasn’t cut out for the family business. Taxidermy was a common hobby at the time; magazines like The Youth’s Companion and The Boone and Crockett Club gave instructions, and the arsenic powder needed for preservation was easily available at local pharmacies. As a teenager, Carl would spend hours at his taxidermy bench, preparing mounts of small animals and birds. To supplement his new hobby, he also took painting lessons. One relative wrote, “Was he not far more than queer?”
Akeley’s older brother had gone to the University of Rochester to escape the farm, but Carl hated school as much as his hometown, and besides, there was no money. When he was hired as a taxidermist at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York, it was his dream come true; Ward’s was the cream of the crop, an exotic charnel house where animals were prepared for display at natural history museums around the country. Its entrance was framed by the jawbones of a whale.
In Canada, Ward and Akeley had to work quickly; the stench from Jumbo’s putrefying carcass could have gagged a maggot, Akeley later said. Once salted and packed (six local butchers were hired to help), the elephant’s skin alone weighed 1,500 pounds; his bones came to 2,400. Inside Jumbo’s stomach hundreds of coins and small toys were found, souvenirs of a life in captivity. Once back in Rochester, Ward received further instructions from Barnum. He wanted two Jumbos for display — the mounted skeleton and the taxidermied hide — and here was the kicker: the taxidermied animal should be made to look even larger than the real one.
Akeley was a man of science, not the circus. Eventually he’d develop a new technique to pose dead animals in lifelike positions, but it would be many years before he changed the art of taxidermy forever, and a decade would pass before he was hired to work inside that chateau to Natural History rising up on Central Park West. For now, it was 1885, and this bright young man had his first big assignment, the one that would make his name: to recreate Jumbo the elephant, twice.
He couldn’t, however, use Jumbo’s bones, and anyway the whole scale of the beast was flimflam. Akeley turned to bent wood and iron to support the hide, and a touch of paint completed the illusion. He then structured the skeleton so that it could travel easily; the skull was detachable and the rib cage and spinal column could be removed and replaced by any roustabout. For three years, Barnum dragged Jumbo around the country, finally donating the beast to Tufts University in 1889, which displayed him as the centerpiece to the “Barnum Museum of Natural History,” a building dedicated to science and funded by Barnum, who was a college trustee. Jumbo is still Tuft’s mascot, though the carcass itself, monument to Barnum’s humbuggery and Akeley’s skill, burned in a fire that destroyed the museum in 1975. By then the tail had been yanked off by generations of undergraduates who liked to wag it for luck before their exams. On the morning after the fire, someone from the athletics department gathered up some of the ashes and put them into a Peter Pan Crunchy Peanut Butter jar. That very jar is still brought out to inspire college athletes before a game; but like the shriveled foot of the last Dodo on display in Oxford, England, this tail, tucked away in a white cardboard box in Medford, Massachusetts, is all that remains of “the King of the Elephants.”
Carl Akeley never worked for a circus again, but he was nearly killed by an elephant on a hunting expedition for the American Museum of Natural History in what was then called “British East Africa,” now Kenya. Akeley’s biographer, Penelope Bodry-Sanders, calls this elephant his “white whale.” The cover of her book shows Akeley dressed like an aging undergraduate circa 1910 in a three-piece suit complete with watch chain and tie, posed next to a huge elephant skull suspended by a thick rope. He rests a hand near the top of one long veined tusk as tall as himself. By this time, Akeley had come a long way from Clarendon, New York. He was now recognized as a visionary by the ruling elite, who were developing the American Museum of Natural History in close competition with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Six months before he was mauled, in fact, Akeley hunted elephants with President Teddy Roosevelt, who was, himself, on an expedition for the Smithsonian. Like so many great white hunters, Akeley had come to consider himself a conservationist and a scientific collector of specimens.
On this particular morning, he was hunting alone (well, not really alone; he was just the only white man on the scene), unaware that the large male elephant he stalked was apparently similarly interested in him. He’d put down his gun to rub his chilled fingers together when the elephant burst out of the bamboo. With presence of mind that is hard to imagine, Akeley grabbed the tusks and swung himself between them so that he wouldn’t be gored. The elephant pressed Akeley to the ground with his forehead and curled trunk, until Akeley heard his ribs crack and passed out. The elephant then pulled away, a tusk ripping Akeley’s face apart as the animal stepped back and ran into the jungle. The Kikuyu and Swahili porters scattered, and when they eventually returned they assumed that Akeley was dead. They kept watch over the body so that wild animals wouldn’t eat it, and sent a message to Akeley’s wife Mickie, back at the base camp, that her husband had been killed. Hours later, Akeley regained consciousness, having been left as a corpse out in the rain. He called for Mickie and whiskey, and when the safari workers realized that he was alive, they brought him closer to the fire. More than 24 hours later, Mickie (Starbuck to his Ahab) arrived and began to clean his wounds as he slipped in and out of consciousness. According to her description, as later told to their mutual friend Roy Chapman Andrews (the real-life model for the film icon Indiana Jones, and author of “Akeley of Africa”),
Carl was a dreadful sight. The elephant’s trunk had scalped his forehead, closed one eye, smashed his nose and torn open one cheek so that it hung down and exposed the teeth in a horrible grin. Many of his ribs were broken. Several had punctured his lung and blood was running out of the corners of his mouth.
It took three days to get Akeley off the mountain and months for him to recover; but after being mauled he was more determined than ever to bring back a large bull of his own. While he lay in his cot, refusing to leave Africa until he bagged the great male tusker he desired, he conceived of what is now the Akeley Hall of African Mammals almost exactly as seen today at the Natural History Museum.
Months later, in spite of fever, and illness, and hardship, he finally shot an acceptably large bull. At the end of the 1909 expedition Akeley brought four elephants back to the museum, and this time he was able to recreate them as exactly as possible — he even incorporated actual bones from the animals to support the taxidermied hides. The elephant herd took him six years to complete, and in the process he created his new method of taxidermy. It was Akeley the sculptor (a true artist, if inclined to the grisly) who first created a clay model of the elephant, and eventually used a thin layer of clay to reproduce every fold of skin on the actual hide. The clay was then scraped away from the inside and layered with papier-mâché and burlap. The crucial difference this time was that the mold was made to fit the hide from inside out, rather than the hide being stretched over an armature that only approximated — or in Jumbo’s case, exaggerated — the animal. Each elephant therefore retained its own specific dimensions and musculature. The animals were no longer ideas of elephants, they had characters as different as they’d had in life. This small invented herd shot by Akeley, Roosevelt’s son Kermit, and Mickie (uncredited, the public was told that her elephant was shot by the president, himself) strides through the middle of the African Hall, an eerie sight for tourists when they get lost between the dinosaurs and the butterflies. Children still reach up to stroke their hides.
In the 1980s, Flora, a baby African elephant, was adopted by circus impresario David Balding. Flora had been orphaned by poachers, and at the time, groups concerned about the survival of baby elephants looked for homes for them with circuses and zoos. Flora came to Missouri, and for 20 years she performed in the ring as the namesake of Circus Flora out of St. Louis, well cared for and beloved by her circus family. Balding was practically Flora’s father, husband, and brother, but unlike dogs and cats, elephants are more than likely to outlive us. When Balding was in his 60s and Flora was in her early 20s, he knew that it was time to plan for her retirement. As she’d aged, she’d had episodes of unpredictable and violent behavior, perhaps a result of hormonal changes. She no longer belonged in the circus, and he rightly understood that he couldn’t take care of her himself. A documentary, One Lucky Elephant, was made about Balding’s search for the right home, and Flora eventually ended up at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, which seemed the perfect solution; the woman who ran the sanctuary had her own performing elephant, now retired. However, once Flora was there, Balding was barred from visiting, and for a time Flora became even more antisocial. Her caretakers clearly believed that Flora had to break her attachment to Balding; to adapt to being a member of a herd rather than continue as a species of human child in an elephant’s body. But it was too late — Flora had become a changeling.
It may be easy to say that Flora never should have been adopted, but 30 years ago, this wasn’t the way people thought about orphaned elephants. Watching the documentary, it’s hard not to empathize with Flora’s anger and confusion after she was separated from her human family. Today animal rights activists would probably say that it is better for an orphaned elephant to die in the wild than to become dependent upon human companionship. They’d insist, too (and who could argue?), that it’s unnatural for any animal to become a circus performer.
There is a famous Indian parable meant to explain the manifold nature of truth: Six blind men are led into a room with an elephant to learn what the animal looks like. Each of them touches a different part of the body. The man who feels the leg says that an elephant is a pillar. The one who feels the tail says an elephant is a rope. The one who feels the trunk says the elephant is a tree branch. The one who feels the ear says the elephant is a fan. The one who feels the belly says the elephant is a wall. The one who feels the tusk says the elephant is a pipe.
We know that elephants have sophisticated intelligence: they live in matriarchal societies, they are loyal to family members, and they grieve. But it is their eyes, seen close up in so many photographs, that undo us — the dark pupil set into the wrinkled skin can communicate whatever wisdom we decide. This is the gaze that holds us, even when that pupil is made of glass. The dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History almost always have one animal in the group staring out at the humans staring in. This is the impossible moment, held much longer than if one were to actually encounter an animal in the wild. Our own longing to be seen by wild animals is revealed through the way we have captured, killed, and posed them. We force them to look at us longer than they would like.
At the dinner at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment following the successful taxidermy of Jumbo, Henry Ward held a banquet for the press. There was a small, colorful booklet published by the circus, describing Ward’s great achievement, titled The Life and Death of Jumbo: An Illustrated History of the Greatest, Gentlest and Most Famous and Heroic Beast That Ever Lived. Slices of Jumbo’s tusk were inscribed for the circus owners with a rampant lion and elephant in the style of the British royal arms above the inscription “Jumbo et mon droit.” The crowning dish of the evening was a jelly dessert made with finely ground powder from one of Jumbo’s tusks.
Do I believe the whole of the story of Jumbo the elephant? Mostly, yes. I only wonder about the ashes in the peanut butter jar. But this I know for sure: Jumbo’s tail is in Medford, and his skeleton is still with the American Museum of Natural History. My repeated requests to see it, evoking the commitment of the museum to the arts, have so far resulted in polite refusals from the Department of Mammalogy. It could be that it is simply too much trouble for the museum to allow a novelist to accompany a conservator to their warehouse in Brooklyn. Or perhaps the museum is uneasy with its complicated colonialist history, and even with the great dioramas that display dead animals for a fee — just as Barnum did in 1866. For the herd of elephants walking through the African Hall is not only evidence of science — it is art and it is theater. The elephants in the Akeley herd are heading toward the front entrance of the museum as if they could pass beneath the skeletons of dinosaurs and march down the steps past the mounted statue of Teddy Roosevelt, flanked by a bare-chested African American and a Native American wearing a ceremonial headdress.
This year, for the first time in its history, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it will stop using elephants. They are developing an elephant sanctuary of their own in Florida, where retired performers will still be on view — for a fee.
Although African elephant populations have rebounded slightly from the slaughter that reduced them from some 4 million in the 1930s to 600,000 in the 1980s, they are still being poached and killed at the rate of one elephant about every 20 minutes. Their numbers are on the rise, thanks almost entirely to wildlife preserves managed like enormous, free-range zoos. But it’s too late for Flora — David Balding’s first choice had been to send her to a sanctuary in Botswana, but when a civil war broke out in the region, he decided that Africa was unsafe. He died in 2014, without ever seeing her again. Flora still lives in the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, but whether or not she misses him, nobody knows.
A friend who worked as a clown in Circus Flora tells me that Flora’s trunk once brushed his face during a performance, taking out his contact lens — her touch was so delicate that she left the tiny disc on his eyelashes.
In addition to the books cited, I am indebted to Jumbo: Marvel, Myth, and Mascot by Andrew McClellan, African Obsession: The Life and Legacy of Carl Akeley by Penelope Bodry-Sandres, and Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History by Stephen Christopher Quinn.