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How Jumbo the elephant paved the way for jumbo mortgages

The 11-foot-tall elephant reshaped our language, which has proved surprisingly apt

Jumbo, a famous elephant that belonged to showman P.T. Barnum, at the London Zoo. (London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
7 min

Americans have long been fascinated with “jumbo” things: jumbo shrimp, jumbo jets, jumbotrons. Perhaps few know, however, that the word and the imagery it invokes of larger-than-life objects is rooted in the legacy of Jumbo, a celebrity elephant of the 1880s made famous by the London Zoo, P.T. Barnum and the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

While Jumbo is remembered for his ability to entertain circusgoers, the elephant also left a nuanced legacy in our language. For example, jumbo mortgages are loans exceeding the limits set by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Unlike ordinary mortgages, jumbo-size loans are also not fully securitized or guaranteed, elevating risks to the lender. In other words, jumbo mortgages are both excessively large and excessively risky. This apparent double meaning for “jumbo” better captures the legacy of Jumbo the elephant in American pop culture than simply his size alone.

The public has long been captivated by elephants because of their immense size, remarkable strength and ferocious temper. None of these adjectives were appropriate to describe Jumbo when he first arrived at the Jardin des Plantes, in Paris, in late 1862. Captured in Sudan, Jumbo was the first African elephant in Europe in nearly two millennia, but he lived in relative obscurity. He was a scrawny calf at just four feet tall, with a disposition described as “filthy and miserable,” and was overshadowed in Paris by two larger Asian elephants and two new African elephants — Castor and Pollux — brought to the Jardin des Plantes in 1863. It was an inauspicious start for the world’s most famous elephant.

Abraham Bartlett, then the superintendent of the London Zoo, arranged Jumbo’s purchase from the Jardin des Plantes in 1865 for 450 pounds, accomplished by trading Jumbo for a rhinoceros and several other rare animals. Acquired sight-unseen, Jumbo’s poor initial health came as a startling surprise to Matthew Scott, who was destined to become the elephant’s longtime keeper. When he first saw Jumbo in June 1865, Scott described him as “full of disease, which had worked its way through the animal’s hide, and had almost eaten out his eyes.” Undeterred, Scott slowly nursed Jumbo back to health, and the gamble by the zoo paid off. By the time Jumbo reached adulthood, he was 11 feet tall and close to seven tons, the largest of his kind in captivity.

At first, Bartlett’s desire to house an African elephant was scientific, given the notable morphological and behavioral differences between the species and its Asian counterpart. At the time, African elephants were thought to be more aggressive than Asian elephants. It was also believed that only Asian elephants could be tamed enough to give rides to zoo visitors, which was popular at the time.

But Bartlett remained determined that, with the proper training, Jumbo could be tamed to become the only ridable African elephant in Europe. By the late 1860s, Jumbo was tame enough to be fitted with a small riding saddle, which was later upgraded to a larger, boxlike howdah for up to eight children as he grew. By the end of his zoo tenure in 1882, Jumbo was estimated to have given 1.25 million rides, including to the children of Queen Victoria as well as a young Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt. “The sight of so enormous an animal taking orders from a human being was a wonder all its own to an audience which, as a nation, suffered and puzzled over questions of scale and dominance,” according to scholar Jennifer Mosier. It is hardly surprising, then, that Jumbo was also a favorite of Queen Victoria, who herself was overseeing a British Empire that had grown during her reign to encompass a quarter of the world’s population.

Yet as Jumbo grew older, he became increasingly aggressive and unpredictable with his human keepers. He took to head-butting his surroundings and driving holes in his enclosure with his tusks, breaking them in the process. It is likely that his hot temper was fueled both by musth, a periodic upsurge in testosterone that occurs in male elephants, and from severe dental pain caused by malformed molars.

Fearful of public incident or injury, the London Zoo sold Jumbo to American circus showman P.T. Barnum in 1882. Barnum knew the perils that accompanied the purchase. Along with Jumbo’s temperament being well known, the British public’s adulation regarding the elephant was so great that large protests erupted at word of the sale, including protests from Queen Victoria herself. Undeterred, Barnum predicted that Jumbo would produce lucrative returns for his circus, where people would clamber to see, in Barnum’s words, the “towering monarch of his mighty race.”

Barnum’s risky investment paid off. As calculated by Jumbo historian Les Harding, Barnum & Bailey spent nearly $30,000 to buy and ship Jumbo across the Atlantic, a sum they made up within 10 days of his inaugural display to American audiences. By the end of his first circus season, Jumbo had brought in close to $2 million in revenue.

But fame cost Jumbo his health. Touring in the United States did little to improve Jumbo’s physical well-being, and he declined in weight and energy as his circus schedule became more rigorous. This decline culminated in his death in 1885 from an accidental nighttime collision with an unscheduled locomotive, a mysterious death for a beloved star attraction. Some accounts claimed that Jumbo’s death may have been planned by Barnum himself, to cover up Jumbo’s ailing health and to deflect long-standing accusations of animal cruelty. Barnum disputed these accusations, instead claiming that the Grand Trunk railroad — the owner of the unscheduled train — was primarily at fault. Barnum even filed a $100,000 suit against the railway company for negligence. His suit eventually was dropped, and the circumstances surrounding Jumbo’s death remain a mystery.

The legacy of Jumbo lived on, however, through both his hide and skeleton — which were quickly preserved and put back on tour with the circus until 1890. Touring Jumbo’s skin and skeleton brought new publicity to Barnum, who estimated that the body would provide $100,000 per year on exhibit. It also brought new risks, as circusgoers could now see if Barnum was truly honest when he called Jumbo “the only mastodon on Earth.” To try to prevent scrutiny of Jumbo’s actual size, Barnum had the height of Jumbo increased postmortem while the elephant’s skin was being stuffed. Yet it was a fire in 1975 that proved the greatest risk of all to Jumbo, as the skin was destroyed in a fire at Tufts University, where the elephant was on display at the Barnum Museum of Natural History.

While Jumbo’s name lives on today in descriptions of large objects, this history also suggests we should equate “jumbo” with ideas of financial risk. Jumbo’s life was shaped by human risk-taking and mitigation, from his captive origins at Jardin des Plantes, to the London Zoo, and finally to the train yard where he died. Jumbo’s story is ultimately a tale of human hubris.

As it stands today, no jumbo-size mortgage carries the same risks to investors as did an 11-foot-tall circus elephant suffering from a toothache. Like Jumbo, these large and risky mortgages may prove unpredictable and dangerous, especially when prodded by outside and competing forces that do not have people’s — or elephants’ — best interests at heart.