WARNING: These entries will be discussing death, taxidermy, and the use of animal parts both in spiritual practice and for research and display. If these subjects bother you, please don’t continue reading. Thanks!
“A four-legged friend,
A four-legged friend,
He’ll never let you down.
He’s honest and faithful right up to the end,
That wonderful one-two-three four-legged friend”
-Roy Rogers, “Son of Pale-Face”
So far in this series we’ve explored skin spirits that ended up “leftovers” in taxidermy mounts put on display in museums, in the public eye not of their own choice. We’ve also taken a look at skin spirits who’s only public is whoever the shaman working with them decides to show them to.
But there’s another category of skin spirits – those who were a big part of the public eye in life, and continue to be so after death.
The pachyderm family has lent some words to the English language. Most people aren’t aware that the usage of the word “mammoth” to mean something huge didn’t begin until after public knowledge about what Mammoths are and how large the extinct elephant cousins were reached a certain point. But there’s another word that most people might not realize came from an elephant.
“Jumbo” is a common word – to the point that it’s used to describe the size of a serving of fries. But “jumbo” originally entered the English language as a name. It comes from the Swahili word jumbe which means “chief.” Why would something that originally meant “chief” come to mean “something huge”? Well, that’s the whole point of the story.
In the early 1860’s a young wild male African Elephant was captured and taken from his native home in the Sudan. He spent the first five years of his life in a French zoo before being transferred to the London zoo, where he received his soon-to-be-famous name, Jumbo. By 1881, the giant had already established his wonderful demeanor with people by giving rides to school children and other zoogoers, and he was sold to P.T. Barnum – owner of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and thus came to America.
Jumbo was the largest elephant that had been measured at the time, weighing in at 13,000 lbs, and standing over thirteen feet high. To give an example of just how large this is – the average Woolly Mammoth only stood about eleven feet tall. And a Columbian Mammoth – the largest mammoth species, was only a little taller than Jumbo – we’re talking a foot or so difference at most. So even the most “jumbo mammoth” ever, to use both words, was not much larger than this individual elephant.
Jumbo lived his entire life in the public eye, from his capture to his very tragic death. While waiting to board a train to go on to the circus’ next stop, Jumbo was struck and killed by an oncoming freight train. However, this was not the end of the elephant’s travels, nor his fame.
In what was, at the time, the largest taxidermy project ever commissioned, Barnum had the elephant’s hide stretched and mounted. Unlike more modern representations of elephants – such as the rotunda at the American Museum of Natural History, Jumbo’s hide was stretched to remove all life-like wrinkles, allowing him to seem even larger than he had in life. The elephant’s bones were also kept and mounted by Barnum, and he toured for many years with these macabre remains as part of his show.
Jumbo, who had loved people in life, I have no doubt continued to do so in death. As I have never had any personal interaction with either of the mounts (the hide specimen was donated to Tufts University, where Jumbo became their mascot, and was eventually destroyed in a tragic fire in April of 1975, and the skeleton was donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. While it was on display for many years, it currently rests in the museum’s storage), you might ask where I come by thinking Jumbo’s skin spirit enjoyed remaining in the public eye.
Honestly, I get this feeling from reading accounts about the hide specimen’s time at Tufts University, as well as the skeleton’s time at the AMNH in New York. Students at the university felt that putting a penny in the elephant mount’s trunk would bring good luck on exams. When his exhibit hall was turned into a study area, students claimed they felt “safe” and like they were doing better in their classwork if they studied near the mount.
Similarly, the skeleton drew in crowd after crowd to the American Museum of Natural History, still appealing to children and adults alike even as the elephant himself was long out of the “center ring.” People are aware of far more than they usually give themselves credit for. Definitely more than most people are aware of. I think these feelings of awe and safety were the skin spirit of Jumbo enjoying in death just what he had in life – entertaining and making people smile.
While I hope to one day get to visit the American Museum of Natural History, I can only hope that it’ll be during one of the times that Jumbo is out to be seen, so I can attempt to communicate with the elephant himself and see if my assumptions are right about his feelings. In the mean time, I do hope he’s enjoying his quiet retirement in the AMNH archives. He’s in good company.
Like Jumbo, it was a particular creature – famous in life and brought back into the spotlight post-mortem, that actually inspired this entire series in the first place. And now, it’s time to talk about him.
I have started and ended this particular post with quotes from Roy Rogers songs for a reason. When I was growing up, Roy Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans-Rogers, were big deals on the christian broadcasting network that my family watched regularly. I remember hearing them sing Happy Trails at the end of whatever show they were on…I’m sure my mom remembers. If you’re reading this, mom, please remind me?
Anyway, my mom told me about Roy Rogers and the movies and shows he did when SHE was growing up. She told me all about his famous horse, Trigger.
I don’t remember when I found out that Trigger had been mounted after his death. I do know it was at a time that I didn’t really understand what “to be mounted” meant. I lived under a delusion for awhile that there were still guts and stuff inside a taxidermy animal. But I know I found out before Roy Rogers died in 1998. I remember my mom talking about him more after that, as his wife continued to do the TV shows until she died three years later.
Roy Rogers and his horse slipped out of my mind for a long time. Then in 2009, Trigger was brought back into stark focus.
In life, the horse had performed many tricks, and Rogers had ridden him in most of his films, only moving on to another horse – Trigger Jr. – when Trigger himself became too old and infirm to continue to ride. Trigger was, by all accounts, a “ham,” who could tell when the cameras were rolling and always did his very best. He seemed to enjoy acting for people, getting laughs or gasps, and very rarely missed a mark. He was called “the smartest horse in the movies,” for most of his life.
When he died, Rogers couldn’t imagine burying him. He commissioned a taxidermist to mount his beloved horse in his famous rearing position. Trigger went to be part of the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans museum, in an exhibit with a fake backdrop evocative of a barnyard. Just as they had in life, children and adults alike loved to visit him. While there was more than a little controversy over Rogers choosing to mount the horse, it was undeniable that Trigger was just as much of a ham in death as he had been in life.
Following suit, Evans’ horse, Buttermilk, was mounted when he died and joined the exhibit. Later on, Trigger Jr. and Bullet the Wonder Dog also became immortalized by taxidermy and joined the post-mortem menagerie.
Following Evans’ death, however, the museum finally seemed to lose steam. It moved locations at one point, but even that couldn’t save it. And in 2009, the collection went on the auction block.
The family was not happy to see Trigger and the others sold. I can only imagine the feeling of loss that must have accompanied the sales. I’ve been looking for over a month now but haven’t been able to find any record of what happened to Trigger Jr. or Buttermilk, but Bullet and Trigger went to the same highest bidder – a television studio that specialized in western-style programs: RFD-TV.
And so, for three years or so, Trigger and Bullet “lived” in the studios of RFD-TV. I’ve seen evidence that they had both mounts in the main studio indoors as the first thing a visitor would see upon walking into the offices, though I haven’t been able to find any photographs to prove that.
Then came the moment in 2012 that I, ironically, would not find out about for a full year.
2012 would have been Roy Rogers 100th birth year. It was decided that some sort of special memorial would be a part of the annual Rose Parade. However, could you really celebrate the life of Roy Rogers without his very special four-legged friend, Trigger?
RFD-TV thought not.
For the first time since the auction, Trigger and Bullet were both brought back into the public eye. To see the float in action, check out the link at the bottom of the references section on this post. Further YouTube searches can bring up images of the float in progress while it was being built and the mounts were being secured.
What does this necessarily have to do with skin spirits?
When I found out about the 2012 Rose Parade float, I felt compelled to hunt down all the information on it, Trigger, and Bullet that I could find. There’s surprisingly little about Bullet (the “Wonder Dog” doesn’t even have his own wikipedia page – but he does have a Find-A-Grave entry, also linked in the references), but there’s quite a bit about Trigger – both in life and after death.
And when I found the video of the parade in action, I couldn’t help but stare. There were Trigger and Bullet, in front of cheering crowds, as Happy Trails blared from the float’s speakers, a huge flower portrait of Roy Rogers smiling down at his old friends. I simultaneously felt two things – I had tears in my eyes realizing there were still people out there who loved the old horse and dog after so long…and I felt the tug in my gut that I’ve come to associate with spirit communication.
I’m watching a year old video. So why do I feel as if the spirit of the horse is reaching out to me through it? It took me watching the video several times, but I finally put my finger on it. I wasn’t feeling an active communication. I was feeling the residual pleasure the skin spirit had experienced, being in front of thousands of cheering fans once again. There were people in the crowd singing along with Happy Trails, people who had traveled to the Rose Parade specifically to see Trigger and Bullet back in action.
And Trigger, ever the ham, had loved every moment of it. Decked out in his parade finest, rearing at the front of the float, a bastion against the ravages of time – a piece of history that still had some kick to him despite not having had muscles for over fifty years, there he was in front of crowds again.
I later found a closeup of Trigger and Bullet on the float that I sent to my best friend, Nyx Goldstone, and told her what I had found out about the mounts. She asked me if I thought that they were happy about being treated like that. I remember responding that at first I hadn’t been sure. But then I watched the video and felt what I did, and so I told her yes – I thought they were very happy about it. Thinking back on it, I realize that I didn’t see them being sold at auction as the travesty that some people did, even – after all, a horse is bought and sold quite a bit in his life.
Trigger’s original name was Golden Cloud, and he was a trained movie horse before Rogers bought him. The auction was another changing of hands for a horse who just wanted to do one thing – entertain. And it was obvious from what I felt watching the video, and again looking at the image of Trigger and Bullet ready to go on the parade route that the old horse had gotten his wish.
I’m sure Trigger and Bullet are back in the RFD-TV lobby now, and I hope to one day get to visit and see them in person. Unlike Jumbo, I have the opportunity to meet this particular skin spirit in person in my lifetime, and I sincerely hope I will. If for no other reason than I’d like him to know that even now, all these years after not only his death, but Roy Rogers’ death as well, he is still able to inspire and awe whole new generations – simply by being who and what he is.
He’s Trigger, the smartest horse in the movies. And thanks to the art of taxidermy and an extraordinarily powerful spirit, now some part of him is eternal.
I dedicate this entire blog series to all the skin spirits out there – in and out of the public eye. May the people around you give you love and respect. May you find what you need in this life and beyond. May those who work with you care for you to the best of their abilities. May you bring wonder and knowledge to generations of people – public and private. And if you have any last wishes, may they be fulfilled before you move on.
Death is an ending. But it’s also a beginning. There are realms and worlds that we can barely process wrapped around and tied within our own. So when a beloved animal friend passes on, remember – they aren’t gone. Give them love, show them respect…And ultimately it’s only a matter of time before you get something back.
Death is just another trail to blaze.
“Happy trails to you,
Until we meet again.
Happy trails to you,
Keep smilin’ until then.
Who cares about the clouds when we’re together?
Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather.
Happy trails to you,
‘Till we meet again”
-Dale Evans, “Happy Trails”
RFD-TV (Trigger & Bullet 2012)
Various Photographers – Roy Rogers Museum (All RMM Era Photos)
Jumbo photos curtesy of Tufts University & Wikimedia Commons
Roy Rogers (Wikipedia)
Dale Evans (Wikipedia)
Trigger Jr. (FindAGrave)
Bullet the Wonder Dog (FindAGrave)
Roy Rogers Museum Auction (USA Today)
The Immolation of Jumbo (AmericanHeritage)
The Story of Jumbo (Tufts University)
Barnum’s Jumbo Back in Museum Center Ring (New York Times)