In Search of an Elephant in Hardin County

Three men with a dead elephant

It has been said that every legend or urban myth has an element of truth. Before newspapers, books, and the internet stories were passed down from person to person throughout the generations. Now every good storyteller knows that to make stories interesting there is a bit of embellishment that goes on. Stories grow and grow until only a fraction of the truth remains. A couple of months ago I heard such a story from one of our local news reporters. He had contacted the museum asking if the museum had any information about an elephant that was said to have been buried out near Hardin Hills Nursing Home. I had heard the story throughout the years but was not able to find anything, just rumors and urban myths. Being the history nerd that I am however, I continued to keep an eye out for any information hoping I would get lucky.
Flash forward to a couple weeks ago. I recently watched a documentary on the circus that focused mainly on the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. In the documentary, they showed a map of the places the circuses had visited and on it, one of their routes ran near Kenton. Therefore, I decided to do a little digging to see if anyone had information about a circus coming to town. Here is where the internet can be a marvelous thing. I posted on a Facebook page called You Knew You Grew Up in Kenton If… asking if anyone remembered their parents or grandparents talking about a circus coming to town during the early 1900s. Boy was I in for a surprise! The story of the elephant came up and I was flooded with information! I learned that in fact an elephant had died in Kenton in the early 1900s. One of the members of the pages stated that her grandfather owned a rendering shop in Kenton during that time and he and his crew in fact rendered the elephant. What was even better was she had a picture of her grandfather, his crew and the elephant! I of course, asked if I would be able to see the picture and make copies to which she readily agreed.
The cause of elephant’s death also was a part of the mystery of this story. Some on the page stated that the elephant went on a rampage and had to be shot. The other story, and the far more likely one in my humble opinion, was that the elephant had broken its leg, had gotten an infection and had died from the injury. This story was told to me not only on the Facebook page but was also reiterated by Charles Jacobs, the former curator of the Hardin County Museum. If you look closely at the picture, it does appear that the leg of the elephant has been injured. While I have been unable to find any newspaper articles about the incident, I have been able to find, with help from the staff at the Mary Lou Johnson- Hardin County library articles talking about the Ringling Brothers being in town around the same time as this incident.
Another topic that came up while researching this story was where the town of Jumbo got its name. The town of Jumbo was in fact named after the elephant Jumbo, who was owned by P.T. Barnum in the early 1880’s. Jumbo traveled with his circus and was billed as the biggest elephant in existence. Jumbo stood at 13 feet tall and weighed in at 7 tons. In 1885, while in Ontario Canada with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, Jumbo was hit by a train while crossing a railroad track. He was fatally wounded and died within minutes. This was not the end of his career however. Barnum had his hide removed and stuffed and his skeleton was put on display as part of the attraction of the circus. His skeleton is still at the Natural History Museum in New York City. When the town of Jumbo established a post office in 1883, it was decided that the town should be named in honor of Jumbo the elephant.
Its stories like these that make me love history. I love digging for facts and discovering new things. I hope you enjoyed reading about this interesting tidbit of Hardin County history. It also goes to show that myths and legends start somewhere and if you look hard enough, you may just find some truth in what is being told. Thank you to Deborah Dick for sharing her picture with me and for providing the information about her grandfather. Also, thank you to the other members of the You Knew You Grew Up in Kenton… Facebook page for the information they provided. If you have an interesting story, please feel free to share it with me at director@hardinmuseums.org or on our Facebook page. I’m always looking for ideas for articles!