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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