Everyone Loves a Circus

Everyone loves a circus. Right? The Big Top, the acrobats, the cotton candy, the animals—especially the elephants. Well, in the late 1800s the Smithsonian Institution may have disagreed. Accession records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives provide insight into how and why certain objects became part of the Smithsonian collections. Or, in this instance, why one did not. Phineas Taylor Barnum, (sculpture), Cast after 1883 plaster, by Thomas Ball, Bronze, Smithsonian Ame Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum, the great showman, had long wanted to create his own natural history museum. As early as 1873, he had established a reciprocal exchange between the Smithsonian Institution and himself whereby he provided the National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) with any deceased circus animals for the purposes of mounting, while the Institution supplied Barnum with duplicates of specimens for his own museum. Enter Jumbo. In 1882, Barnum acquired the beloved elephant from the London Zoological Society. Because of the exchange agreement, the Smithsonian was promised to receive either the skeleton or the hide of Jumbo upon his death. It was decided that the Smithsonian should receive the skeleton while the hide would go to the Barnum Museum at Tufts College. On September 15, 1885, Jumbo was tragically struck and killed by a train in St. Thomas, Ontario. A week later Barnum promised again that it was his "full intention that the Smithsonian shall receive Jumbo's skeleton in due time." Letter from P.T. Barnum to Spencer F. Baird (click to enlarge), September 27, 1885, Smithsonian Inst Letter from P.T. Barnum to Spencer F. Baird (click to enlarge), September 27, 1885, Smithsonian Inst Stuffed Jumbo next to elephant skeleton, n.d. (Permanent URL: hdl.handle.net/10427/2584), image from The "double Jumbo" (the skeleton and the hide) traveled with the circus for some time after Jumbo's death. In the meantime, tensions arose between Barnum and the Smithsonian. Barnum continued to indicate his personal wish that the skeleton go to the Smithsonian though he stated his partners might not feel the same. Upon visiting Washington, D.C. in late 1885, the curator at the Barnum Museum, Professor John P. Marshall, felt slighted by his reception and the Institution's lack of cooperation with providing lists of specimens from which he could get duplicates and casts for the Tuft's museum. The relationship was strained from then on. At one point in 1888, Barnum expressed regret that the Smithsonian no longer wished to reciprocate specimens, which turned out to be a misunderstanding that William T. Hornaday, Chief Taxidermist at the Smithsonian, immediately tried to put to rest. Memorandum from William T. Hornaday to George B. Goode (click to enlarge), April 17, 1890, Smithsoni In a letter dated April 16, 1890 to Hornaday, Barnum stated, "I confess that I have felt that the National Museum did not contribute as much as she easily could, and ought, toward the Tuft's Museum; but this feeling has not extinguished my paramount desire to do what I reasonably can for this great National Museum." While stating that it was still his intention that Jumbo's skeleton be given to the Smithsonian, Barnum also explained that it had been "loaned" to the American Museum of Natural History. Upon reading this, Hornaday wrote a memo to George B. Goode, who was at that time in charge of the National Museum, that the Smithsonian should end the relationship with Barnum for the Institution would never get Jumbo's skeleton. Ultimately, Jumbo's skeleton was indeed given to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

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