The Jumbo the Elephant statue at Tufts University.

Credit: Craig LeMoult / WGBH News

Probably Not A Hero, But Definitely A Mascot, Jumbo The Elephant Is Honored With A Statue At Tufts

April 21, 2015

Maybe you remember your school mascot as just a classmate in a bear outfit or some kind of pirate get-up at half time. But at Tufts University, the mascot is much more specific — and historic. Friday, the Tufts community gathered to unveil a huge new statue of their unique mascot.

If I asked you what the word "jumbo" means, you'd probably say something like "really big." But if you ask Tufts University students, you get all kinds of answers, like "fierceness,"

"pride," and "family."

That's because Jumbo the Elephant is the Tufts mascot. And, yes, if I seem way too interested in this, I admit, it’s because I’m a Tufts alum.

Jumbo and his keeper Matthew Scott, in 1882.
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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But stay with me — here’s why Jumbo’s a cool mascot. He’s not just some mythical creature or generic animal species. He was a real elephant.

And he was a huge sensation in his time, touring the country as the star of P.T. Barnum’s circus. But like many of our biggest stars, Jumbo died tragically. He was hit by a train in 1885. Barnum, who knew how to tell a good tale, told everyone there was a baby elephant named Tom Thumb on the tracks at the time.

"[Jumbo] went up and he pushed Tom Thumb off, and he sacrificed his own life to do it," said Rocky Carzo, who was Tufts’ Athletic Director for 23 years. Carzo says "mascot" isn’t really the right word for Jumbo. He says the elephant is a role model.

"That was much more related to his personality and what he did and all the bravery he showed," he said.

Jumbo is killed while saving Tom Thumb.
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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The thing is, the story might not be all that true. Tufts art history professor Andrew McClellan says Barnum made it up to make Jumbo’s death seem even more tragic.

"And it stuck," McClellan said. "I cannot get the Tufts tour guides off of that story. And so in a way it's like, 'Whatever,' you know. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?"

In any case, Barnum had Jumbo stuffed, and kept touring him around in the circus for a while before giving him to Tufts, where Barnum was a founding trustee.

Mary Wren Swain grew up the granddaughter of a Tufts Dean, and remembers peering in the windows of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn., as a child to catch a peek of the huge stuffed elephant inside.

"So we always did that, going and coming," Swain said. "So when it burned, oh, it took away part of my childhood."

The building caught fire in 1975, and Jumbo burned up with it. There’s a jar of Jumbo’s ashes in the athletic director’s office. And there was a statue on campus when I was a student there that everybody called Jumbo 2. But it was kind of small, and actually the wrong species of elephant. So an alum decided the time had come for a new statue. Something that would really represent Jumbo. Sculptor Steven Whyte was asked if he’d be interested in creating it.

"You know, I am a sculptor, but I do figures and I do heroes and I do statues of the great of the country," Whyte said. "And they said, 'Well, this qualifies.'"

Student Madeleine Gene says they were told the new Jumbo was coming in September.

"We've been talking about it all year," Gene said. "And it's like the end of the year now, and I think everyone is really excited about it."

A P.T. Barnum poster for a Jumbo showing.
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Photo Credit: WIkimedia Commons

Well, mostly everyone. Not student Brianna Lavelle.

"It's a kind of a waste of money I think," she said.

It wouldn't be a Tufts event without some student activism. At the big unveiling ceremony, a group protested custodial layoffs with a sign that said, "Jumbo wants justice for janitors.”

But hundreds of others gathered on the academic quad and waited eagerly for the big moment. A blue tarp covered a massive structure, and elephant feet poked out from the bottom.

The tarp comes off, and there he is. Jumbo is huge. Eleven feet tall and 18 feet long. 5,000 pounds of bronze. He’s a pretty realistic elephant, with wrinkled skin and an up-curled trunk. Students Jessi Kahn and Emily Elkin approve.

"We like him," Kahn said.

"We're so excited," Elkin said. "We're graduating, so we're excited that we get to see this before we leave."

The thing about leaving here is, though, no matter where you go, you’re not just an alum. You’re a Jumbo.


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