Thursday, November 10, 2011

Barnum's White Elephant

The Life of P.T. Barnum: Written by Himself by P. T. Barnum, 1888

Originally christened Toung-Taloung by the monarch, for the purposes of his travelling show, Barnum renamed the elephant “Buddha.” Toung-Taloung arrived in England in January 1884 and was displayed at the Royal Zoological Gardens in London. In the 1888 edition of his autobiography, Barnum writes:

This absolutely unique curiosity was accompanied by a Burmese orchestra and a retinue of Buddhist priests in full ecclesiastical costume, the sacred animal being surrounded by the same attendants and the like paraphernalia as during the performance of religious ceremonies in his native country.

Scientific American March 8, 1884 described the elephant as “seven feet six inches high, and of a piebald color. His face, ears, the front of his trunk, and his front feet, and part of his breast are of a pinkish flesh color; the rest of his body is of light ashen hue.”

The spectacle garnered much curiosity, but overall, according to Barnum, “a large portion of the public, having expected to see a milk-white elephant, were disappointed.” In March of that year, the elephant was shipped to New York where it was first shown in a private reception to

several hundred naturalists, scientists, Eastern travelers, scholars, leading physicians and clergymen, editors of New York and other papers, and other persons, whose closest scrutiny I invited, but who none of them doubted that the animal was what he was described to be, namely, a genuine white elephant from Burmah.

Toung-Taloung’s stay in America, however, would be short-lived. In November 1887, with the exception of thirty elephants and a lion, Barnum’s “entire menagerie perished in the flames” that engulfed his circus’ winter quarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Amongst the dead was Toung-Taloung. Barnum writes:

The white elephant determinedly committed suicide. Liberated with the rest of the elephants, he rushed back into the flames. Driven out again and again, each time he returned until the keepers were forced to abandon him to his fate. In the fiercest of the flames he was seen wildly thrashing his trunk in the air, then with one loud cry fell and was seen no more.

In his 1891 book, The Wild Beasts, Birds, and Reptiles of the World: The Story of Their Capture, Barnum writes: “Like the public, I was greatly disappointed in [Toung-Taloung]. He was as genuine a white elephant as ever existed, but, in fact, there was never such an animal known. The white spots are simply diseased blotches… I cant say that I grieved much over his loss.”


Daniel Otis said...

I love all the white elephant info on your blog.
I don't love that you ripped this story off mine without crediting me:
Credit the source of this post(my name and website) or remove this content immediately.

Wade G. Burck said...

Relax, life is short. You are credited.


Daniel Otis said...

Whether or not you write your own material, your site is an excellent compendium of information. But don't copy and paste articles without crediting their source. Exercise good blogmanship. Your site deserves it.


Wade G. Burck said...