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Home > News, Articles & Multimedia > Blog Entry > Canadian Pickers Unpack the Mystery of the Bell from the ‘Train that Killed Jumbo’

Canadian Pickers Unpack the Mystery of the Bell from the ‘Train that Killed Jumbo’

by Mike Wilcox (03/21/12).

Scott Cozens and Sheldon Smithens, stars of Canadian Pickers. Mike recalls on episode where the guys check out a brass bell supposedly from the train that killed Jumbo the elephant.

As an appraiser and long-term antique addict, I love the fact we now have so many television shows that feature this fascinating topic. One I regularly follow is “Canadian Pickers,” which is broadcast on the History Television (only available in Canada), on Mondays at 10 p.m. One particular episode broadcast earlier this year, titled “A Jumbo Pick” really interested me, because I love an antique mystery more than anything else.

This episode relates to one of the most famous celebrities of the late 19th century and his untimely death on Sept. 15, 1885, in St. Thomas, Ontario. I’m talking of course about Jumbo the elephant, star of the world famous Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.

Jumbo was a large African elephant, estimated to have been born in 1861 in the French Sudan, he was imported to a Paris zoo and later transferred to the London Zoo in 1865. At the London Zoo, this gentle giant was famous for giving rides to children and when the news became public he was going to be sold to P.T. Barnum and shipped to America, 100,000 English school children wrote to Queen Victoria begging her stop the sale, but to no avail, Jumbo was purchased by Barnum in 1882 for $10,000 and, being the businessman he was, made back the $10,000 (and the $30,000 it took to ship the elephant to North America) in just four days, displaying the animal at Madison Square Gardens.

Jumbo was a major draw for Barnum’s Circus, and could truly be said he was bigger than life. The bull elephant’s height was estimated to be 10 feet, 7 inches at the London Zoo, but was advertised to be 13 feet, 1 inch by the time of his death, his size no doubt inflated by Barnum to draw crowds. From accurate records preserved by the Museum of Natural History, Jumbo was 10 feet, nine inches tall.

There’s no mystery to Jumbo’s death however. On the night of Sept. 15, 1885, in St. Thomas, Ontario, he was killed in a railroad accident. Jumbo, and the dwarf elephant named “Tom Thumb,” were being led down the railway tracks to be loaded on their railway car when they were struck by an unexpected train. Jumbo, lying on the side of the track on his side, died 15 minutes later. (Barnum, always looking to make buck any way he could, profited from Jumbo’s popularity by licensing the pachyderm’s name and image for various advertising pieces, jigsaw puzzles, books, paper weights, peanut butter jars, children’s plates, buckets, toys and banks. He ability to capitalize on the Jumbo craze one that did not end with Jumbo’s death.)

Jumbo the elephant died in St. Thomas, Ont., after being struck by a train. P.T. Barnum, nerver one to pass up an opportunity to make a buck, had Jumbo’s skin stuffed and continued to exhibit it for years.

Where the mystery begins is with the killer train’s brass bell. It’s been said that during the collision it was ripped free of its mount and never found. In the Canadian Pickers episode, a bell of a type used on Grand Trunk Trains is offered by its owner to Scott Cozens and Sheldon Smithens, stars of “Canadian Pickers,” with a verbal provenance to possibly tie the bell to the train that killed Jumbo. Stories like this always get my attention, because you just never know what’s true.

In the case of this piece, it does resemble bells used, it is said that it has been verified by retired Grand Trunk employees.

A Grand Trunk Train. Notice the bell is very similar to the one offered to the Canadian Pickers as from the train that killed Jumbo (below).

The story is interesting, but has not been verified as far as I know. Only time and research will tell. My own thoughts on this are that the story has some merit, but probably has been like many such stories that were “improved in the telling.” To me, the original story seems to be a bit of a stretch, as one would think that the force required to rip away the massive bolts fastening this bell to the train would have left substantial damage to Jumbo. Also, the landing of a bell weighing over 100 pounds, flying at say, 50 miles an hour, would also leave considerable damage to the bell itself, as the bell being brass and the yokes being cast iron, would show dents or ding. Brass is fairly soft and dents, while quite strong, cast iron is brittle and snaps rather bend or dent.

There appeared to be no damage at all to this bell examined by Scott and Sheldon. A more likely story—and the one I would think closer to the truth—would be would be that in the confusion of the aftermath of the crash, the bell was “removed” ( read stolen) by some souvenir hunter or a salvage operator. Still, it was a great find, and a wonderful story.

The purported killer train’s brass bell.

A bell from WorthPoint’s Worthopedia.

Locomotive bells of this vintage, even those with no provenance, are still quite valuable. According to WorthPoint’s Worthepedia, comparable bellshave sold at auction in the $1,400-$3,000 range.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.


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14 Responses to “Canadian Pickers Unpack the Mystery of the Bell from the ‘Train that Killed Jumbo’”

  1. Robin says:

    History on the bell the Canadian Pickers purchased and then sold at auction for a loss is incorrect. I had looked at this bell 6 months before The Pickers did. If anyone is interested in finding out what their locomotive bell is off of I can identify the steam locomotive manufacturer/foundry and in most cases identify the exact steam locomotive the bell is off of. For a fee of course. I will include a photo of the locomotive or type of locomotive and railway the bell is from.

    • Mike Wilcox says:

      As I mention in the article, “The story is interesting, but has not been verified as far as I know. Only time and research will tell”. One often hears stories like this when dealing with antiques and collectibles, determining the provenance is what makes the difference.

  2. Robin says:

    I have one question that always comes to mind. How does one appraise a steam locomotive bell if the locomotive it came from is not identified. Depending on what railway and what locomotive a bell comes from makes a huge difference in it’s value.

    Something to think about.

    • Mike Wilcox says:

      What one would check first in my opinion would what type engines were used by the Rail line in question (Grand Trunk). Then I’d follow up with all available information regarding the accident from company records and news accounts.

      Thanks to enthusiasts and historians, there is large amount of information regarding locomotives, the companies that made them and historical images to track stories like this down. As for values at auction, a lot depends on the research provided by the auction house and how knowledgeable the bidders are about the piece in question.

  3. Deborah says:

    Check out the link below. P.T. Barnum was an early trustee and benefactor of my alma mater, Tufts University (located in Somerville, MA). After Jumbo was killed by the aforementioned train, Barnum generously donated Jumbo’s stuffed hide to Tufts. Jumbo was much beloved by Tufts athletes, and they adopted him as their mascot; indeed, Jumbo is the official mascot of Tufts University.

  4. Steve Peters says:

    I have been collecting JUMBO stuff for over 25 years. I never believed this bell was from the engine that struck Jumbo. The newspaper accounts of the day say it was GTR Engine 88 aka Special Freight 151 that hit him. Yes the bell was knocked off. In later days it was renumbered 297 as well as 788. It was well known because a tin elephant was affixed to the headlamp. The bell in question came from the Ukrainian Catholic Church in St.Thomas. The church was built by the local community with most of the construction being donated and recycled. I spoke with one of the founders of the Church. The bell was donated by a member who worked in the New York Central Railway shops. This was the era of the end of steam and he secured it for the Church.

  5. Mike Wilcox says:

    I never did either, but it is a good yarn ;~)I’m not sure when the church was built, but the “Age of Steam” didn’t really end until after World War Two, the big push to Diesel began in the 1950′s.

    • Steve Peters says:

      The Church was built in the early 1950′s. It is still standing but has been converted to a residence. It is interesting to note that I send the Shows’ production staff all the details but they chose not to use it. It also bugs me that they filmed items from my collection that are currently on display at the Elgin Miltary Museum in St.Thomas. They did not credit either one of us. Always on the hunt for new and interesting JUMBO pieces. steve

      • Gerry says:

        If any one would have found or have authentic information on the Jumbo Bell ,IT WOULD BE STEVE PETERS !I doubt if there is any one more of an authority on Jumbo than Steve.

  6. terry cook says:

    I find this conversation very troubling, first and foremost the pickers called me three times, all of which I explained to them exactly what Mr.Peters is saying above, long story short we know the bell isn’t from the engine that hit Jumbo.The church was built in 1952, the basic life span of a engine is 20 years, that puts the engine back to 1932, I explained that to the people that had the bell, and to the pickers in ALL coversations. I tried to refuse thier little visit to me and should have stuck to my guns, I’m personally very disapointed in the out come of the show. I told them the whole story over and over for 5 hours and they edited it all out down to the 5 minutes you see in the show. But for Mr. Peters to take this opportunity to grandstand knowing full well I told the truth, and the pickers edited the show to thier liking in order to fullfill thier little ideals is very offensive,and your very disapointing too Mr.Peters. terry cook

    • steve peters says:

      Just to clarify and back Terry up. I did provide him with my background research as well. My beef was not directed at Terry because I know he had doubts about the bell too. Apologies to Terry.

  7. Mike Wilcox says:

    Well legends die hard and the truth, while sometimes stranger than fiction, is quite often not as entertaining. In this business one runs into them all the time, some of the provenances I’ve heard over the years defy any kind of reality.

  8. Denny Barch says:

    It is obvious to a careful eye, that this bell is NOT from the train in the photo presented. Now, there are variables, which I’ll spell out here.After 20 years of being in the canadiana antiques biz, dating items, mostly fruit-wood canadiana furniture, i have learned to have a discerning eye for extremely small detail. This bell, as shown here, has a different yolk than the one shown attached to that train. Possibly the brass ringer had been set into a diff yolk? Also the clackers were often replaced in these things as the mount wasn’t brass and could become corroded. Look at the two yolks, in each pic. The one on the train is french curved, the one on the bell has a bend in each side on the top arms. I can say for sure that at least the yolks on each bell are completely different. Considering the likelihood that a bell yolk would be replaced, id say not; these bells are different. just my educated opinion.

    • Mike Wilcox says:

      Indeed, it’s all in the details, but there could be different bells on the same model of engine depending on the contractor who supplied the bells during the production period. In any event my thought on it is as I’ve stated before. If there was enough force to rip the bell from the engine during impact and it was flying through the air at 50MPH , there should be considerable damage to both the iron yoke and the brass bell. I did not see any evidence of either on the show.

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