The Great Barnum Fire: An Oral History
When the Barnum Museum of Natural History opened in 1884, it marked the first time in the 32-year history of Tufts College that a building on campus was contractually obligated to carry the name of the person who financed its construction. That would be P.T. Barnum, the legendary circus showman whose gift of more than $50,000 was the equivalent of more than $1.2 million today.
Barnum, one of Tufts’ first trustees, saw the museum, in part, as a space for his memorabilia: among other things, his letters, his writing desk and the taxidermied remains of animals that had performed in his circus. Chief among those animals was Jumbo, once the tallest elephant in captivity and the most famous circus attraction in the world. When the 1,500-pound, 12-foot-high stuffed hide of Jumbo was delivered in 1889, Barnum Hall’s front entrance had to be temporarily widened to fit him inside.
Over the next eight decades, Jumbo stood in the open atrium of the hall, even as the building around him transformed into the home of some Tufts science departments. Then one night in April 1975, an electrical fire tore through Barnum. No humans were hurt, but the building burned to the ground, taking with it Jumbo, countless research records and a number of research animals.
For those who experienced it, the fire was unforgettable, but the memory of it has faded in the years since the rebuilt hall opened in 1976. “If you’re on the campus with people who are students today and you walk by Barnum, you might say, ‘Did you know that there was once a real elephant in there?’” said Tufts trustee Jeffrey Kindler, who raced to the fire as a student journalist and whose daughter is a 2011 Tufts graduate. “Everybody knows about Jumbo, but I’m not sure everyone knows the whole story.”
Here, then, is the whole story, told in their own words by more than 20 people from the university’s past and present.
Biology Professor Emeritus Nancy Milburn: P.T. Barnum was one of the original Universalist trustees. He gave the money to build Barnum Hall, and it was really meant to be a museum for the animals of his that had died. We also had posters from the Barnum shows, and we had many smaller stuffed animals and birds, some of which were quite rare and valuable. Barnum was very pleased with himself about all of this, so he ordered that “Barnum Fecit” be in letters on the front of the building. It’s Latin for “Barnum Made It.”
Geology Professor Emeritus Bert Reuss: Barnum Hall was later the science center. It had a museum in the lobby, that’s why P.T. Barnum ended up putting Jumbo there.
Milburn: Dear Jumbo—he did smell a bit on rainy days. But he was very popular with the students, and that’s how he came to be the mascot of the college. They used to put pennies in Jumbo’s trunk as good luck. One of the senior members of the faculty, zoology professor Bud Carpenter, would carefully collect the pennies. He made enough money to replace the ashtrays in the lounge that students kept stealing for their rooms.
Michael Tapscott, A80: Back in our generation, most of the images we’d seen of traditional New England colleges were these big, oddly decorated rooms with historical mementoes of various kinds. So Barnum did look like what a big old college biology building entry foyer would look like.
Robert Wolff, G78: You had all these nooks and crannies, and creaking wooden steps when you’d go up, and little rooms off in corners. I liked it, but it certainly wasn’t a cutting-edge science building, even for that time.
Tufts College became Tufts University in 1954, but its budget didn’t rise with its ambitions. Maintenance backlogs were routine, and by 1975, the campus was suffering a plague of fires, some caused by problems like old wiring, others by accidents.
Former Provost Sol Gittleman: When I came to Tufts, it had just changed from Tufts College to Tufts University a few years earlier, and it was trying to compete with the 800-pound gorillas in research. And it couldn’t. It didn’t have the resources. Buildings were burning down because we didn’t have resources for maintenance.
Julie Salamon, J75, A11P, A16P: In the previous 11 years they had 13 fires—that’s a lot of fires.
Jeffrey Kindler, A77, A11P: At the time, there were big financial challenges, and fixing all these buildings takes a long time.
Former Tufts Executive Vice President Steven Manos: Auditors had said that Tufts was functionally bankrupt. My own view is that this was a little bit of hyperbole, but we weren’t spending a lot of money on anything, including deferred maintenance.
Gittleman: There was no successful fundraising, there was nothing going on, and the Barnum fire was a manifestation of that. It was a building that needed attention, didn’t get it and burned down, along with Jumbo.
Sometime in the early morning hours of April 14, 1975, faulty wiring in a refrigeration unit on the second floor of Barnum Hall sparked and ignited.
Salamon: [Looking at a Tufts Observer newspaper article from 1975] There’s a story here about a graduate student, Robert Wolff, who remembered smelling smoke before the fire.
Wolff: I was doing research that night in Barnum Hall and smelled some sort of smoke or electrical fire type of smell, and reported it down to the main administrator or somebody in buildings and grounds. Then I went home, I think about one or two in the morning.
1975 Tufts Observer article (written by Jeffrey Kindler): Tufts police received a call at 3:28 a.m. Monday from a Medford cruiser that reported sighting and smelling smoke from the Hill. As a Tufts patrol car was on its way to the scene, an unidentified West Hall student called saying he had spotted an “unusually large amount of steam or smoke coming from Barnum.”
Tapscott: I was in Carmichael Hall, which is at the other end of the quad from Barnum Hall, and we started hearing students: “Oh my God, there’s a fire!” “Oh my God, is that Barnum Hall?”
John Granatino, A75, J01P: A bunch of us were night owls. We were in the apartment and heard the fire engines, and so we walked up to the Hill and the saw the fire was going on.
Tapscott: The first, ridiculously immature thing I did with a couple of other people was I had a stereo system in my room. There was a musical group called the Ohio Players, and their big hit that year was a song called “Fire.” Like a dope, I thought it was cool to point the speakers out the window and play the song. Then I started thinking, this is actually a very serious thing, let me not do this anymore.
Paul Taskier, A78, A10P: I went outside and climbed the Hill and saw these massive flames erupting, and these fire trucks responding, and crowds gathering around the building to see what was happening.
Wolff: I got a call from another grad student worried about me that woke me up. When I answered the phone she said, “Oh my God. Thank God you’re there!” Because I often worked late at Barnum, everyone was thinking that I had burned and was dead. I immediately drove over.
Milburn: I got a call. We lived in Winchester then. I got dressed and took my car out and I stopped at the top of the golf course. There’s a little lookout spot—it’s a very good place to look down over Medford and Somerville and Boston. I could see the flames leaping up in the air, even from that point of view, which was a number of miles away from the Hill.
Gittleman: All of a sudden you get a bulletin on your radio or television: fire on top of the Tufts campus. We lived in Winchester, so it was an eight-minute drive.
Granatino: There were many hundreds of people looking on, even though it was the middle of the night.
Tapscott: Here’s where the story starts to get really sad. What we could see from Carmichael Hall was just the fire was burning through the roof. So you’re thinking, oh, this isn’t a major thing. But as we walked up the quad and started to look around, we could see that the entire building was on fire. And that’s when it started to hit us that this entire facility is destroyed, and there was literally nothing we could do.
1975 Tufts Observer article: Throughout the early morning hours, between 10 and 15 fire trucks fought the blaze. The equipment and personnel of the eight communities—Medford, Somerville, Revere, Everett, Malden, Boston, Winchester and Arlington—were directed by Medford Chief Leo McCabe and Deputy Chief O’Hare. By 4:30 a.m., the building was completely engulfed in flame.
Gittleman: It was a conflagration! It was the whole damn building.
Kindler: It was a huge blaze, the building was completely engulfed in fire. You were worried whether it would go to the adjoining buildings.
Tapscott: It’s shocking. If you were taking a biology class, you were thinking, my research, my papers, my classroom is in there.
Taskier: The most significant thing I remember—the one that’s really burnt into my memory—is standing in front of the main doors of Barnum and looking through that and seeing Jumbo just entirely on fire. The flames just licking over the entire body of the elephant. It’s a sight I can never forget.
Kindler: As firefighters got control of the building, that’s when they let a couple people in for various purposes. And that’s when the biology professor said there are hazardous chemicals that we need to remove.
Biology Professor Emeritus Saul Slapikoff: I was an activist against the Vietnam War, and I wanted to do a piece of research that had some relevance to it. Well, I had a couple of brands of very pure dioxin in my fume hood, which was in the basement of Barnum. Dioxin was the main contaminant in Agent Orange in Vietnam—a very potent poison, and it’s a neurotoxin and may well be carcinogenic. I got ahold of the fire chief, told him what the situation was, and he and I together went into the building to my lab, and rescued the dioxin. It worked out.
Granatino: At some point around dawn they were starting to get control of the fire. As it started to get lighter you could see the smoke for the first time.
Tapscott: That’s when people slowly began to disperse.
Kindler: As a student reporter, I went into the building with the fire department. It was really kind of spooky being inside there, because all that was left was a shell of a building. Here had been this biology lab that was thriving, and our mascot, which had been around for a hundred years, and it was all gone.
Despite the scope of the fire, no lives were lost. By another stroke of luck, Bud Carpenter, the zoology professor who had overseen the Barnum collection, had moved some of the materials to the university archives years earlier. Around 6 a.m., fire officials declared the blaze under control, though the remains of the building would continue to smolder for several days.
Biology Professor Emeritus Mary Ella Feinleib: Several colleagues tried to reach me as the building burned, but I used to unplug my phone at night. So I arrived at Tufts completely unaware of what had happened. A friend dropped me off at the bottom of Packard Avenue. I looked up and, instead of the roof of Barnum, I saw the sky through the skeleton of what had been the roof.
Milburn: We tried to wake Mary Ella and tell her that her department was burning down, and we were not successful. So when she saw what was happening on top of the Hill, either she fainted, or tripped on a fire hose. Anyway, she collapsed completely and had to be revived.
Feinleib: I tripped over a fire hose and fell flat on my face into the mud. I was wearing pink wool pants. I must have been in shock.
Milburn: The other thing we tried to do was phone Bud Carpenter, who had been the collector of all of the Barnum memorabilia. I was afraid that when he heard this on television that he might have a heart attack—he was quite elderly and fragile at that point. I did manage to get ahold of his daughter, who managed to tell her mother, who then broke it gently to Bud.
Gittleman: We came back the next day and saw the smoke still coming out of the building and the ashes. The outside was still there—it was only the inside that was gutted. Thank God it was a stone building, so the shell stayed OK.
Slapikoff: There was a bust of P.T. Barnum that was kept on the first floor—it was like an altar to P.T. Barnum, really.
Milburn: Jean-Antoine Houdon was the artist. The heat from the fire was so strong that it drew all the water out of the marble, so when somebody just touched the thing it all crumbled into a little heap of marble dust. It was very sad. That was really a big loss.
Feinleib: We had just hired Francie Chew. And Francie I think read about the fire, and she said, “Oh, I think that’s my department.” And she sent us a postcard very discreetly inquiring whether she still had a job.
Biology Professor Emeritus Frances Chew: I’m sure I was relieved I still had a job. I joined the department in September 1975.
Jumbo had burned to ash, but an administrative assistant from the athletics department arrived with an idea for a kind of rescue—a story that’s been told and retold over the decades since.
Tapscott: Did you hear the story about Phyllis Byrne from the athletics department? The story is that she took a mason jar—she took a jar of some type and she walked up to the building and was able to get in the area that was still standing. She was able to go there and scrape up some of the ashes from Jumbo’s carcass and took them back to the athletics department and they placed them in the safe. My understanding is the ashes of Jumbo have remained in that safe since that week.
Reuss: She had someone related to buildings and grounds go in and scoop up ashes from Jumbo in some sort of can, or bottle, or something like that.
Gittleman: They could find little bits of him left and they put them in a mayonnaise jar.
Milburn: That’s an apocryphal story! The story has been that she scooped up the ashes and put them in a little urn, and when the football team goes out for a difficult game, they all touch the urn. Now, I don’t think any of this is true. But it’s a wonderful story!
Former Director of Athletics Rocky Carzo: Well, it’s true! Phyllis knew a guy named George Wilson in the maintenance department very well, she’d been here 25 years or so. Phyllis and I talked about it and said the one thing we’ve got to do is make sure we perpetuate the legacy of Jumbo.
Phil Byrne Jr., son of the late Phyllis Byrne: I think she just would have recognized that something had to be done. This can’t just be swept up and thrown away—this is Jumbo. She recognized that and did it. Rocky called her the ultimate team player.
Carzo: When we talked to George in maintenance, he said, “What the hell am I going to do, the thing’s all ashes?” I said, “I know it’s ashes, that’s what we want.” Coincidentally, Phyllis had a peanut butter jar that was empty and George used that.
Tapscott: Peanut butter makes sense. You know: elephant, peanuts.
Carzo: So I put this jar in my office until I retired, and they turned it over to my successor, Bill Gehling. I don’t know where it is now, but I assume it’s with the new guy.
Director of Athletics John Morris: It’s just on this bookshelf over here, let me go grab it. OK. It’s a glass peanut butter jar. The label is a very old file folder sticker, and the inscription is typed on it: “Enclosed ashes are remains of Tufts’ Jumbo lost in a fire at Barnum Museum on 4-14-75.” It’s an honor for me to be the keeper of the ashes while serving as athletics director.
The loss of Jumbo became international news. Less noticed were the losses to the biology department of invaluable research and research animals—including 155 gerbils, some 50 mice and a colony of cockroaches.
Feinleib: I actually received a clipping from the Krakow Echo in Poland, reporting the loss of the elephant.
Wolff: It was reported on Walter Cronkite, the national news. If I recall, Cronkite said Jumbo the Elephant burned up.
Walter Cronkite, CBS Evening News, April 14, 1975: In Medford, Massachusetts, early today a three-alarm fire burned through Tufts University’s P.T. Barnum Hall, a 91-year-old building that housed the circus showman’s memorabilia. Fire officials said there were no injuries, but three quarters of the building was destroyed, including the preserved remains of Jumbo the Elephant, the hall’s most famous exhibit.
Wolff: I don’t think Cronkite focused on the research faculty. That was a much more major aspect, from my point of view as a researcher, than Jumbo. I was doing some behavioral research on wild mice. My entire colony burned up.
Ira Dinnes, G77: I was doing a Ph.D. dissertation on gerbils. I had taken over the top two floors of the Barnum Museum where I’d set up two naturalist areas, where I could bring in a lot of sand. So that was gone. All the data I had obtained was on paper batch cards, so that was all done. It was pretty devastating.
Milburn: A few days after the fire, they brought in a piece of large equipment and they were scooping the material out of the hulk of the building and putting it on the lawn, so that the graduate students could go through it to find their missing notes.
Dinnes: It took me two additional years to create a Ph.D. dissertation, because all my data was gone. And in the two years that it took me to redo the work, the job market changed so then I couldn’t get a job. Instead, I went to business school.
Wolff: It delayed me a year, year and a half, getting my doctorate. I would have been devastated if I had not copied a lot of my baseline data a few months before the fire. Had I not done that, I’m not sure I would have finished. A lot of graduate students didn’t finish, if I recall.
Milburn: One faculty member, Ben Dane, lost a lot of material, and that was a very serious blow to his research. I think he was the one who probably lost the most.
Feinleib: Dr. Benjamin Dane lost 20 years’ worth of filmed data on mountain goat behavior.
Biology Professor Emeritus Benjamin Dane: What I did over the years was accumulate a huge volume of 16-millimeter film—the upshot was I lost 120 feet of movie film. It certainly ranked as about the worst day of my life.
Kindler: The 70s were a very challenging time, and here you had a campus that had a lot of infrastructure problems and financial problems. What could symbolize all that more than a building right in the center of campus, containing the university symbol and mascot, burning to the ground?
Gittleman: The fire came at a low point in the history of Tufts. We didn’t know that out of the ashes of Barnum another university would grow.
The planning to rebuild Barnum Hall started almost immediately, thanks in large part to more than 2,000 students, faculty and alumni who contributed to a fire relief fund. Eventually, the prolific fundraising of Tufts’ new president, Jean Mayer, ensured that the university could address its maintenance backlog and prevent more fires.
Feinleib: We resumed teaching almost immediately after the fire, in classrooms all over campus. For six weeks the faculty and staff were all housed in one big room in what would now be called the human resources building. The first place we moved back to was the wing called Dana.
Milburn: The Dana wing survived quite well, so that was helpful. The real problem was the large classes, especially the introductory biology course for premed students. For a period of two or three years, we had to give those lectures two or three blocks away, and things like the projection equipment all had to be carried down the Hill and brought back again.
Feinleib: I remember a faculty member running through the snow, carrying her enzyme samples from one wing to the other, to reach the equipment where she could make her measurements.
Barnum Hall reopened in 1976 without Jumbo. Over time, students began to wonder how they might replace the elephant, at least symbolically. At first, a papier-mâché statue that had once stood at Benson’s Wild Animal Farm in New Hampshire served that purpose.
Manos: It had been used by a zoo that went defunct and some alums bought it. And that was Jumbo for actually quite a long time.
Dick Reynolds, A67: It really had no defining features—was only about half or two-thirds scale, wrong kind of elephant. It served its purpose for a while, but it was starting to fall apart and didn’t really represent the university the way I thought it should.
Reynolds and a university committee, headed by Professor Andrew McClellan, decided to remedy the situation by commissioning a bronze Jumbo statue from the California sculptor Steven Whyte. The 5,000-pound statue, paid for by a gift from Reynolds, a former interim vice president of operations at Tufts, was unveiled in 2015.
Art History Professor Andrew McClellan: The statue was supposed to be delivered in 2014, the 125th anniversary of Jumbo’s arrival on campus, but production delays led to its arrival in 2015.
Reynolds: As I said at the unveiling, it was literally two years from the time we picked Steven Whyte to that date of the unveiling. And if you look it up in the science books, two years is exactly the gestation period of a baby elephant.
McClellan: The most gratifying part of the story has been the positive response to the sculpture by students and campus visitors. It is surely now the go-to photo-op site at Tufts.
Kindler: I think you could argue, with the long vantage point of time, that the Barnum Hall fire was a low moment for the university in terms of its finances, its infrastructure, the level of energy and enthusiasm.
Gittleman: There was, to my mind, something symbolic about Jumbo’s ending in the great Barnum fire. Out of the destruction came a rebirth, a new president the next year and in many ways a new Tufts. The new bronze Jumbo is the final affirmation of that rebirth, four decades later.
Francis Storrs is editor of the Boston Globe’s Sunday magazine.
This article first appeared in the fall 2016 issue of Tufts Magazine.