The Father of American Taxidermy Tackles the World’s Largest Elephant

Jumbo the Elephant is DEAD!!! Struck by a train! Ringling Brothers is wringing its hands! A star attraction is gone!

But wait! Not forever! P.T. Barnum, who’d made $1.5 million in the first year after he bought Jumbo for $10,000 from the London Zoo, never missed a beat. A dead elephant could be exhibited just like a live one, and the profits would be even higher because you don’t have to feed him. Call the Taxidermist! But not just any taxidermist! Call the Best There Is: Ward’s Natural Science in Rochester, NY, the foremost contemporary animal taxidermy specialists in the US!

Illustration from The Life and Death of Jumbo, Barnum’s best-selling book
Jumbo’s death scene
Jumbo was so brave, he and his compadres proved that the Brooklyn Bridge, the world’s longest suspension bridge at the time, was perfectly safe for human traffic a year after it opened

Ward’s sent their top expert, William Critchley, with his prodigy, Carl Akeley, the man who would later become known as the Father of American Taxidermy. Akeley had been innovating in the trade since the age of 10, when he earned a lot of karmic points by revivifying his elderly neighbor’s dead canary. Would Jumbo be the job that earned him enough points to enter Nirvana?

When it came to taxidermy, guys like Bill and Carl never seemed to fall short, but Jumbo almost had them over a barrel. When they reached St. Thomas Ontario a few days later, Jumbo was already more than ripe. Taxidermists have to get used to a considerable amount of stench. But a week-old old rotting elephant carcass sitting in the late summer sun is an entirely different ballgame. Neither man had ever dealt with an elephant, with skin as thick as a foot in some parts of the body. And there was alot of him. Research for a new documentary, Jumbo: Life of an Elephant Superstar, now streaming on CBC, shows that Jumbo, billed by Barnum as the world’s largest elephant, really was 20% bigger than any of his contemporaries.

David Suzuki, leaning over Jumbo’s bones, headed the American Museum of Natural History Museum team researching Jumbo’s vitals for the new CBC dicomentary

Bill and Carl’s rendering of Jumbo was so lifelike Barnum kept him on tour for another four years, when he retired Jumbo to Tufts University’s Barnum Hall until it burned to the ground in the 1975, taking Jumbo with it. American Museum of Natural History had received Jumbo’s skeleton when he died, making the new research possible.

Jumbo’s stuffed remains were displayed at Tufts Barnum Museum

Akeley revolutionized taxidermy, moving the field from its initial wooden-looking, at times preposterous mounts to the moving and lifelike models he did for the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago. ‘Fighting African Elephants’ is still on display in Stanley Field Hall in Chicago. A man of vision, Akeley’s dream was to “give a dignity and fineness to taxidermy which should lead men of great genius to be attracted to it.”   

Akeley was never a sissy, leading collecting expeditions in Africa. On one of these expeditions, he killed an attacking leopard who wanted him as a trophy with his bare hands. When he needed a new tool, he invented it, including Shotcrete (spray concrete) and a portable video camera used in World War I.

Akeley with the leopard that almost got his goat

For more on Carl Akeley, Kacie Rice of Tufts Museum, suggests the following:

Badass of the Week: Carl Akele (credit for bad taxidermy and lion mount photos) and The Field Museum: Carl Akele, Jay Kirk’s in depth study of Akeley’s life and legacy, Kingdom Under Glass

Stephen Christopher Quinn’s Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History

Douglas J. Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History

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