Sunday, March 13, 2011

Elephant exhumation

Next month, Welsh archaeologists will determine if the rumors are true. Is there really a Victorian circus elephant buried behind a pub in Tregaron? They will dig in the garden behind the Talbot Hotel in search of the bones of an elephant that died in the 19th c. while on tour with Batty's Travelling Menageries. "To have seen a live elephant in 1848 walking through Tregaron must have been astounding,” says Michael Freeman, curator of the county's Ceredigion Museum. Dr. Jemma Bezant of the University of Wales explains that the project is primarily about collecting the oral history of the community: "This project is about celebrating the story of the Tregaron Elephant and less about 'finding out the truth'." John Watkin, co-owner of the inn admits that the acidity of the soil may mean that the bones have dissolved. But Freeman holds out hope, commenting, "It would be fabulous if the story was confirmed as true - it is such a great local story."

Another circus elephant, the legendary Jumbo, died in St. Thomas, Ontario, giving that town an odd claim to fame (link to local brewer of Dead Elephant Ale). After he was born in the French Sudan in 1861, Jumbo was imported to Paris's Jardin des Plantes. At the age of 4, by which time he was more than 10' tall and weighed several tons, the elephant was transferred to London Zoo. Although he was the star attraction, Jumbo had become hard to control, so the zoo made the difficult P.R. decision to sell him to American showman P.T. Barnum in 1882. Less than 3 years later, while touring with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, Jumbo was walking on the track when he was hit and killed by an unscheduled express train. Storied American taxidermist Carl Akely (1864-1926), whose biography I quoted yesterday, was called upon to preserve and mount the skin, so that the elephant could continue to tour with "The Greatest Show on Earth." In 1889, Barnum donated Jumbo to Tufts University, where he became the school's official mascot. Although the mounted hide was destroyed by a fire in 1975, a statue of the famous elephant can still be seen on the Massachusetts campus (and in St. Thomas, Canada), and actual pieces and parts of Jumbo are still extant, including his skeleton, ashes, and tail.

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