7/23/09 - manufactured controversy

In today's encore excerpt - Jumbo, named after an African word for 'elephant', stood 11.5 feet tall, weighed 6.5 tons, and was perhaps the most famous and celebrated animal in history:

"A baby elephant captured in the African jungles ... the internationally famous Jumbo carried hundreds of thousands of children as they flocked to the Royal Zoological Gardens in London in the 1870s for rides.

"From across the Atlantic [impresario of 'The Greatest Show on Earth' P.T.] Barnum greedily eyed the colossal pachyderm, 'but with no hope of ever getting possession of him.' Nevertheless, he made an offer to the London Zoological Society of $10,000, and not long afterward what had been the impossible suddenly became a distinct possibility. Jumbo had thrown some uncharacteristic temper tantrums in his zoo quarters, and in 1881, fearful that it might have a potential danger on its hands, the society decided to accept Barnum's offer. Back home, the delighted showman realized he couldn't just pack up his acquisition and sail away. An international tableau had to be created first, by means of a bit of cunning, double-barrel brainwashing. In order to prove to Americans what a prize was coming their way, he set about convincing the English that they were being tricked out of a national treasure. Once the seeds of discontent were planted, loyal Britishers from the man on the street to the Prince of Wales were duly outraged. ... 'Jumbo-mania' now swept across both countries. ...

"Letters from England poured in to the showman, begging him to reconsider. No, Barnum would not change his mind. A deal was a deal. After all, Jumbo wasn't born a British citizen. American children deserved him, too. Now, with protest and excitement seething, an enormous rolling, padded, boxlike cage was built of oak and iron in which the continental switch was to be made. But try as they might, Barnum's agents were unable to persuade Jumbo to step inside. 'Jumbo is lying in the garden and will not stir. What shall we do?' they wired home. Barnum's answer was to 'let him lie there a week if he wants to. It is the best advertisement in the world.' Huge sums were now offered to Barnum to relent, Parliament and the Queen pratically begged, and lawsuits were brought against the society's officers for making the sale. ... Barnum stood firm. 'Hundred thousand pounds would be no inducement to cancel purchase' [he cabled.] ...

"Not even Barnum knew quite what he had. ... Thousands of New Yorkers met the ship delivering Jumbo on April 9, 1882, and followed the procession through packed and cheering streets to the Hippodrome building—now named Madison Square Garden—where the circus was about to open. Barnum claimed the elephant had cost him $30,000 in all [almost $1,000,000 in today's dollars], but that sum would prove to be nothing beside the earnings power Jumbo proceeded to demonstrate. In the first three weeks, he pulled in $3,000 a day, covering more than his entire cost. For the years ahead, astronomical receipts were credited to his presence."


Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III and Peter W. Kunhardt


P.T. Barnum: America's Greatest Showman


Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.


Copyright 1995 by Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III and Peter W. Kunhardt


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