Local history always has much to say about those occasions when famous people come to town—national leaders, celebrities and Presidents. But what happens when the most famous animal in the world comes to town? The answer is: all the businesses and industries shut down so everybody can go watch the parade.
That’s what happened on August 2, 1883 when Jumbo walked around the Square. He was, after all, the first African elephant to set foot in America.
The Size of Fame
The story started in England. In the 1860s their national zoo was having bidding wars to get an elephant from Africa. There were plenty of elephants around Europe and America at that time but they all came from India. No one had ever seen one from Africa then, but everyone had heard they were bigger, meaner, dangerous and probably very scary. Naturally everybody wanted one of those.
When the first live African elephant to make the treacherous journey to England arrived, he was a little over five feet tall, 400 pounds, rather moth-eaten, and not very scary. They named him Jumbo.
The name didn’t have much of a meaning at that time—it was taken from an African trickster god named Maamajomboo. To English speaking folk the name translated as ‘Mumbo Jumbo.’ The British zoo already had an ape from Africa named Mumbo, so they named their African elephant Jumbo.
It was only in subsequent years, when the elephant grew so huge and famous that his name came to represent ‘extra large’ in the language. Everything you buy today that is jumbo size owes that descriptor to the celebrity elephant.
It took a number of years for Jumbo to reach his full, impressive size, and as his height and weight expanded so did his fame. His celebrity status skyrocketed in 1882 when PT Barnum, the circus magnate, bought him from the British zoo to bring to America.
The story went global because Jumbo didn’t want to leave England—he physically refused to walk out the door—and the English people suddenly didn’t want to lose their national pet. The ensuing drama of getting Jumbo packed across the ocean was documented day by day in newspapers everywhere, and by the time the elephant arrived on American shores there wasn’t anyone who hadn’t heard of him.
Obtaining Jumbo was a terrifically profitable feat for PT Barnum, and his circus quickly became the biggest attraction overnight. The gargantuan amount of money he laid out to get Jumbo delivered was all made back in ticket sales within two weeks of his debut.
When the circus went on its summer tour in 1883 every city in America wanted to be on the schedule to see the world’s first four-footed superstar.
Jumbo in Mansfield
Reporters in Mansfield writing about the circus day afterward were all amazed at the size of the crowds who showed up. The Mansfield Herald said, “Barnum attracted a crowd to Mansfield on Thursday which is claimed to even exceed that which poured into the city when Webb was hung.”
Towns from a 50-mile radius each sent hundreds of folks to the circus in special train cars, and the hotels in Mansfield were happily overwhelmed. All the manufacturing establishments in the city shut down on show day to give their employees an opportunity to see Jumbo.
Newspapers were pleased to note that in spite of the massive crowds no one had reported any pickpockets.
The Barnum ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ arrived in town early in the morning in 66 train cars that were sidetracked in the flats to unload. Their ‘route book,’ or daily diary, indicates that they had to transport all of their equipment one mile to the fairgrounds, and that the parade had to travel two miles.
The circus parade stepped off at noon, traveled up Diamond Street, around the Square, down Main to Fourth; then cut over to Mulberry and thence north out Springmill Street to the fairgrounds. The circus tent (the Herald called it ‘the immense canvas’) was set up approximately where the Taylor Metal Products plant is today.
Fleeting memories/paper documentation
There have been many elephants on the streets of Mansfield after Jumbo, as dozens of snapshots can attest. There were elephants here as early as 1865, as newspaper ads can document. But there was never another elephant who claimed the hearts of folks like Jumbo.
How can we know this? By taking a look at a family Bible that turned up in a garage sale. It is one of those heavy oversized volumes from the 1800s—today it might be called a ‘Jumbo Bible.’ Among the faded brown ink of family births, deaths and marriages; among the crumbling newspaper clippings of obituaries and birth announcements; some family historian pasted a small tobacco card picture of the one character whose appearance was a landmark in their lifetime.
Whoever preserved this image in the safest place they could imagine was probably standing on the side of Springmill Street and watched in awe as a four-footed moment in history passed close enough to touch.