Jumbo: The Greatest Elephant in the World
by Paul Chambers
(Steerforth, $24)

The next time you ride on a jumbo jet or guzzle a jumbo-size Coke, spare a thought for the African bull elephant that gave gigantism a fun name. Born near Sudan around 1860, Jumbo the elephant was a runt not expected to live long by the hunters who sold him into French captivity. But after a brief career in Paris, he was purchased by the London Zoo and nursed to robust health by a devoted keeper. Patient with children and partial to whiskey, Jumbo was already the world’s most famous pachyderm when the Barnum and Bailey circus brought him to America in 1882. Three years later, he was struck by a train in an Ontario rail yard. The circus said he was trying to protect a smaller elephant when the fatal accident occurred.

From “impoverished childhood” to “posthumous exploitation,” Jumbo endured a journey that could be “the stuff of an E! True Hollywood Story,” said Gary Susman in Entertainment Weekly. Even though author Paul Chambers fails to fully explain how Jumbo became so famous, his slim new book “does a remarkable job” of re-creating the elephant’s strange world and bringing his human handlers to life. Some of the most touching passages in this “gentle, well-wrought book” concern Jumbo’s “marriage” to a younger elephant named Alice, said Carol Herman in The Washington Times. Alice apparently put up with Jumbo’s occasional drinking, and Chambers’ descriptions of the couple’s bonding give this bittersweet tale a warm heart.

P.T. Barnum squeezed every cent he could out of his investment in Jumbo, said James Sullivan in The Boston Globe. Barnum duped the public into believing that Jumbo was the largest mammal in captivity, and he probably manufactured the heroic details about the animal’s demise. Barnum eventually shipped Jumbo’s skeleton to his American Museum in New York and used the animal’s mounted hide as the centerpiece of the Barnum Museum of Natural History at Tufts University. Though a 1975 fire destroyed most of stuffed Jumbo, his tail escaped: Visitors had made such a tradition of tugging the tail for luck that it had broken off years before. Today it resides “in an old Peter Pan Crunchy Peanut Butter jar” in the office of the university’s athletic director.