Jumbo’s Ghost Elephants and Machines in Motion
On September 15, 1885, twenty-five years after his capture in Sudan, Jumbo the elephant tragically died when struck by a freight train. Ross Bullen takes us on a spectral journey through other collisions between elephant and machine — in adventure novels, abandoned roadside hotels, and psychic science — revealing latent anxieties at the century’s turn.
July 20, 2022
In his 1886 book The Ivory King, the American naturalist Charles Fredrick Holder describes the status of elephants through a conservationist lens. While acknowledging that the elephant is “the true king of the beasts, the largest and most powerful of existing land animals, and to young and old a never ceasing source of wonder and interest”, it is nevertheless “doomed”. Citing prehistoric hunters and the contemporary ivory trade as major factors in the elephant’s decline, Holder also mentions the “rapid advance of the British in the East, the introduction of railroads and improvements which mark the progress of civilization in India, where heretofore the elephant has been employed, cannot fail to have a fatal effect, and their extermination is only a matter of time.”1 Although Holder sympathizes with elephants, he still lauds the technology that will displace them as an “improvement”: a mark of the “progress of civilization”. The elephant may be the “king of the beasts”, but it can offer no competition to the steam locomotive and other Western technologies.
While comparisons between elephants and machines are a common feature of twenty-first century consumer culture — elephant-adjacent terms like “mammoth” and, of course, “Jumbo”, are regularly used when marketing motors and countless other commodities — the idea truly gained traction in the nineteenth century. The invention of steam locomotion coincided with the expansion of European imperialism in the parts of the world (Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia) that elephants call home. From a Western perspective, elephants were powerful and impressive animals that performed much of the work that machines did in Europe and North America. At the same time, it was clear to colonial observers that modern technology was not only superior to the physical labour of elephants, but it would also eventually displace them, perhaps even to the point of extinction. In his 1854 Hard Times, Charles Dickens famously describes the resemblance between “the piston of [a] steam engine work[ing] monotonously up and down” and “the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness”, an image he returns to four more times in a relatively short novel.2 The elephant functions as something like a technology of the colonial Other, and thus is subject to fantasies of Western dominance and displacement. At the same time, the blend of “melancholy” and “madness” that was so often used to portray captive elephants also speaks to cultural anxieties about the powerful, unpredictable, and disruptive industrial machinery of the Victorian era.3
The symbolic clash Holder discussed between railroads and elephants has often resulted in literal collisions — and the best-known collision remains the death of Jumbo in 1885.4 Holder devotes a whole chapter to Jumbo, recounting the story of his capture and purchase in Africa, his many years at the London Zoological Gardens, his sale to P. T. Barnum, the outrage this purchase caused among the British public, and the scene of Jumbo’s death in St. Thomas, Ontario. After a final performance of Barnum’s circus, Jumbo was being led to his boxcar, when an unscheduled freight train bore down on him. Attempting to stop, it nevertheless struck Jumbo, whose body — weighing more than six thousand kgs — derailed the engine and two cars. The elephant died some fifteen minutes later. In the 1889 edition of his autobiography, Barnum described the death of Jumbo as a “universally announced and regretted tragedy”, and claimed to have received “hundreds of telegrams and letters of sympathy”.5
Jumbo’s death produced a curious catalogue of material (and perhaps immaterial) remainders. To commemorate the tragedy’s centenary in 1985, the city of St. Thomas installed a life-size statue of the elephant, crafted out of concrete and reinforced steel by the self-taught Canadian artist Winston Bronnum (who made a career creating giant animal sculptures as roadside attractions). And after Jumbo’s death, his hide was stuffed and continued to tour with Barnum, eventually retiring to the showman’s eponymous natural history museum at Tufts University, where the elephant became a school mascot. The taxidermied Jumbo was destroyed by a fire in 1975. All that remains of his great hide is the tail — accidentally severed and stored in the university archives — and a small pile of ashes, kept in a Peter Pan Crunchy Peanut Butter jar, which still resides in the office of Tufts’ athletic director.
The material objects of Jumbo’s afterlife exist at extremes: heavy statues, a handful of ashes. This tension between the corporeal and incorporeal was noted at the time of Jumbo’s death as well. While Barnum was displaying his skeleton, trying to cash in on the elephant’s corpse, at least one writer imagined that death had somehow freed Jumbo from his bulky materiality. A jokey aside published in the September 26, 1885 issue of Chicago’s The Current speculated that, “It may possibly be said that Jumbo’s ghost will not have so much trouble in getting around the world as Jumbo had.”6 Indeed, in the decades after his demise, the elephant’s spirit seemed to haunt a variety of media. In what follows, I would like to accompany Jumbo’s ghost on a spectral journey through a series of collisions — in children’s adventure novels, abandoned roadside hotels, bizarre electrical experiments, psychic science, and beyond — between elephants and technology in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
Our first stop is India, a decade after the Rebellion of 1857. A group of European explorers in Calcutta are planning a voyage across Northern India. Among their group is an engineer, Banks, who has invented a new way of travelling through the country: a giant steam-powered elephant — known as the “Steam House” or “Behemoth” — that will pull two carriages (one for the adventurers, one for their servants) across any terrain, including water. Although The Steam House (1880) is one of Jules Verne’s lesser-known fictions, his novel offers a heady variation on the elephant-as-machine metaphor. Not only does the steam engine replace the elephant’s role in India, it replaces the elephant itself, as the iron “Behemoth” towers over and outshines its animal competition. Maucler, the novel’s narrator, relates the impression it first made on the local people:
First, and apparently drawing the caravan, came a gigantic elephant. The monstrous animal, twenty feet in height, and thirty in length, advanced deliberately, steadily, and with a certain mystery of movement which struck the gazer with a thrill of awe… His huge feet were raised and set down with mechanical regularity, and he changed pace from a walk to a trot, without either the voice or the hand of a mahout being apparent.
The spectators were at first so astonished by all this, that they kept at a respectful distance; but when they ventured nearer, their surprise gave place to admiration.
They could hear a roar, very similar to the cry uttered by these giants of the Indian forest. Moreover, at intervals there issued from the trunk a jet of vapour.
And yet, it was an elephant!7
The Steam House seems to pass as a real elephant with the people of Calcutta, despite its massive size (twice as large as a typical Indian elephant), “mechanical” movements, and the suspicious jet of steam issuing from the elephant’s unusually stationary trunk. Although Maucler claims that “all his members were endowed with movement”, he also concedes that the Steam House is quite obviously a machine, “a marvelous deception… encased in steel”, which any observer who dared to approach it would quickly discover.8 By straddling the line between Western technology and Eastern animal life, the Steam House seems to have an uncanny effect on its Indian viewers, who both do and do not recognize it as a familiar and useful elephant. The scene revolves around the well-worn trope of the credulous native struck with awe by Western technology. In fact, Verne’s entire novel is fueled by this colonial fantasy, as the troupe of Europeans and their mechanical elephant frequently battle and establish dominance over the Indian landscape, wild animals (including real elephants), local potentates, and eventually “Nana Sahib”, a.k.a. Nana Saheb Peshwa II, the rebel leader at the siege of Cawnpore, who — in Verne’s imagination — has been living in hiding for the past decade.
Published a little over twenty years later, Frances Trego Montgomery’s children’s novel The Wonderful Electric Elephant (1903), and its sequel, On a Lark to the Planets (1904), imagines an elephant machine similar to the Steam House, but — keeping pace with new technology — it is powered by electricity. This upgrade also corresponds to an increase in the elephant’s range, as the children in Montgomery’s stories travel first around the world, and then the solar system, in their wonderful electric beast. Although Montgomery’s books are more fantastical than Verne’s novel, they rely on the same trope of technology dominating and deceiving awestruck non-Westerners. The Wonderful Electric Elephant concludes with Montgomery’s two child protagonists, Harold and Ione, painting their elephant in order to trick the Siamese (Thai) into believing it is an auspiciously-coloured elephant, or chang pheuak. “They both took a white-wash brush and began to work for dear life, and in a couple of hours had finished”, Montgomery writes. “There before them stood their beautiful elephant, transformed from a plain, ordinary, mouse-coloured elephant into a beautiful, rose pink one.”9 The children then allow their elephant to be captured by the “head hunter of the prince of Siam” and brought to the prince’s palace, where it is bathed, fed, and lavished with gifts and jewels by “two rows of boys, black as ebony, with silver trays on their head”.10 This scene serves a double purpose: it is both a send-up of the (supposedly) lavish treatment that Siamese monarchs extended to auspicious elephants, and it presents the familiar spectacle of racialized natives worshipping Western technology.11
Montgomery’s creation was not the only electric elephant to make its debut in 1903. Edison Studios’ notorious film Electrocuting an Elephant came out in January of that year. The seventy-four-second film depicts the execution of Topsy on Coney Island. Named after a character from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Topsy was an elephant captured in Southeast Asia and sold to Adam Forepaugh’s circus. Eventually sold on to Sea Lion Park, these new owners deemed her impossible to handle or trade, and so they scheduled her to be hanged as a public spectacle. After objections from the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), this gruesome plan was modified to involve cyanide-laced carrots, strangulation, and 6,600 volts of electricity delivered via copper-lined sandals.
Electrocuting an Elephant depicts Topsy being led by a handler to the site of her execution. After a cut, the camera frames the elephant in the centre of the screen, kicking once to try to remove a sandal. Topsy stands still until she suddenly stiffens, as flames rise from her feet. A few seconds later, stiff and smoking, she collapses forward. This happens around the forty-five second mark. The remainder of the film — nearly forty percent of its total running time — is a sustained shot of Topsy’s uncannily still body, as the smoke slowly blows away. Toward the end of the film, an otherwise seamless cut introduces a human figure into the shot: a man standing behind Topsy observing her, like a spectral presence inserted into this scene of death. The figure then walks out of the frame, and the film ends.
While Montgomery uses electricity to bring a mechanical animal to life, Electrocuting an Elephant uses it to bring death and stasis to a real elephant. And yet, the collision between Topsy and 6,600 volts did produce a kind of mechanical motion: a seventy-foot reel that would play in a coin-operated kinetoscope, an early device for showing short films to paying customers. Like a train on its track, the perforated film strip of Electrocuting an Elephant would roll through the mechanical pathways of the machine, at first reanimating Topsy and then replaying her death for anyone who could spare some change.
The site on which Topsy was electrocuted — which would become Luna Park amusement park, from 1903 until 1944 — was already an elephant graveyard. The same location had housed the “Elephantine Colossus”, a seven story, thirty-one room building that functioned as a tourist attraction, hotel, concert hall, and — reputedly — a brothel. The structure was designed by James V. Lafferty and constructed in 1885, a scaled-up version of Lafferty’s “Lucy the Elephant”, which was built near Atlantic City in 1881 (and is still standing today). Destroyed by fire, the Elephantine Colossus weirdly anticipates the fate of Jumbo’s hide at Tufts University nearly 80 years later. There is no record of anyone saving the Colossus’ ashes in a peanut butter jar, but like Jumbo’s ghost, the elephantine spirit of the scorched hotel made contact with at least one receptive witness.
A story titled “A Remarkable Vision”, published in the “Department of Psychic Experiences” section of the April 1897 edition of The Metaphysical Magazine, recounts the unusual experiences of one “Mr. M.”, vacationing on Long Island in September 1896. After spending the evening with some neighbours discussing “telepathy and psychic phenomena in general”, he and his wife were walking home along the beach when they “were amazed to see the western sky brilliantly illuminated by what was undoubtedly a very large and disastrous fire.”12 At home, Mr. M. decides to take one final look at the conflagration from his balcony, at which point he witnesses the following remarkable vision:
At that moment I chanced to glance upward in the sky at about an angle of sixty or seventy degrees, and a small white cloud attracted my attention. Its outline seemed peculiar, and its shading in white and pink was also unusual. Suddenly this cloud assumed the perfect outline of an elephant. The phenomenon seemed so strange that I called the attention of the other men to it. Without any further hint on my part, they declared it to resemble the figure of an elephant most strikingly. The fire soon died out, and with it — in fact long before it — the image. No further thought was then given to the matter.13
The next morning, Mr. M. reads the following headline in the New York Herald: “The Elephant at Coney Island Burned”. This news obviously casts last night’s elephant vision in a new light, and Mr. M. reaches out to the editor of The Metaphysical Magazine. Just below this account, the magazine’s editor offers his own hypothesis:
The minds of many people near the burning edifice were in a state of intense excitement and possessed with the one idea, uttered or unuttered: “The Elephant! The Elephant is on fire!” Noticing the reddened sky, Mr. M. mentally reached out to them and received their thought. Cloud-forms are hazy at best, and attain distinctness only from the mind of the observer. The elephant-cloud was doubtless shaped by the thought transferred to the mind of Mr. M.14
Like Jumbo’s ghost, this immovable building attained a new mobility in death, becoming a kind of psychic telegram that travelled from the minds of those who witnessed its destruction to the receptive consciousness of Mr. M. On the same spot, a few years later, Topsy the elephant would meet a similar fate, her death transferred to celluloid film by the Edison Studios’ crew.
Charles Frederick Holder, author of The Ivory King, would not be surprised to learn that in the early twenty-first century, the world’s elephant population has greatly diminished since the 1800s. It is perhaps understandable that, as these remarkable animals are driven toward extinction, humans have found new ways to memorialize them: statues, buildings, locomotive machines, photographs, films. One irony of many of these memorials, though, is that while they commemorate the death of elephants, they also celebrate the technology that displaced or destroyed them. On June 20, 2022 — some two-hundred km north-east of St. Thomas — the Art Gallery of Ontario unveiled its first-ever public art commission, a large sculpture of an elephant standing on a circus ball by the contemporary Canadian artist Brian Jungen. According to Jungen, the statue was inspired in part by the story of Jumbo. Constructed of discarded leather sofas and cast in bronze, the sculpture is titled Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch'ill (the sculpture’s Dane-zaa subtitle translates as “My heart is ripping”). Couch Monster invites spectators to consider the contrast between its subject matter — an elephant, animated, alive, and, perched as it is on a circus ball, seemingly on the verge of movement — and its form: discarded sofas, associated with rest and stillness, cast in solid bronze. A great virtue of Jungen’s Couch Monster is that it openly acknowledges the way that humans have treated elephants like disposal commodities, as indicated by the statue’s unique construction materials, and by its subtitle. “Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch'ill”, the statue — or perhaps Jumbo’s ghost — says to us. “My heart is ripping.”
Ross Bullen is a writer and teacher living in Toronto. His work has appeared in The Public Domain Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, American Literature, and elsewhere. Ross is an Assistant Professor of English at OCAD University. You can read more of his work here.