Jumbo: A “Civilized” (and Giant) Terrapin

Could Jumbo be one of Testudo’s ancestors? Photo credit: UMD Libraries.

When I was researching for my “Dutch Belted Cow” post, I came across a neat 1886 newspaper article called “The True Story of a Pet Land Turtle Named Jumbo.” Being a University of Maryland graduate, this story of a huge terrapin that could perform tricks and was a beloved family pet was a lot of fun to read.

Jumbo and his Mistress.JPG
Artists’s depiction of Jumbo from the original article.

Jumbo the terrapin was a seriously impressive creature! Weighing in at around 100 pounds by the author’s estimate, Jumbo could walk around his yard with a boy balancing on his back and liked to eat bananas and other fruit that his mistress would feed him.  Jumbo was devoted to his mistress and liked to lay his head in her lap, especially whey she had some tasty fruit for him to munch on! He also loved company and would play with the cat and anyone who would spend time with him. I’ve transcribed the entire article below so you can read the whole thing.

According to the author, Jumbo was “so large that when his mistress sits upon a chair Jumbo’s head can reach up and touch her cheek.” I didn’t know terrapins could get that big! I’ve seen Testudo in person and she is wayyy smaller than Jumbo. In fact, Jumbo sounds to be about as big as the Testudo statue that you can see at UMD! The author never said what kind of terrapin Jumbo was (Testudo is a diamondback), so now I’m very curious. Anyone have any guesses?

Can a terrapin really get this big?

One last interesting note (I want to keep this post short!) The author of the article, which was published on the 3rd of December, 1886, was a “Eliza Archard.” After some quick searching, it seems that the author may have been Eliza Archard Conner, a prominent newspaper woman and supporter of women’s rights/feminist (I’m not sure what term she would have used…) in the 19th century. The sources I’ve looked at don’t get into a lot of depth, but I did find some good information in History of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Ohio (1894). If I have the right person, Eliza Archard was born in 1838 near Cincinnati and was known from an early age as a woman who didn’t take kindly to any sort of gender discrimination. By 1865 she became a “regular contributor” to the Saturday Evening Post and spent the rest of her life in the industry. “It is said that she has done as much newspaper work as any woman living,” one admirer wrote, “her daily average having been about two thousand words.” That same admirer went on to write this glowing praise:

“In her girlhood she was enthusiastic for the higher education of women. She has organized classes among sex for instruction in parliamentary usage, and extempore speaking, and in addition to her regular page of general editorial matter, she finds time to edit a special live-stock and dairy department. She is a phenomenal worker, and her life is an instructive illustration of what may be accomplished by a woman in America provided she has brains and pluck.”

Its a shame that there isn’t more information on Archard that’s easy to find! Apparently she wrote a series of articles on the Civil War that I’d like to read sometime.

This is the only image of Archard I was able to find… Photo credit: wikitree.com

There is a slight possibility that I got the wrong person, since my author signed the terrapin article “Eliza Archard” even though she had been married to George Conner for a while by 1886. Since it was the 19th century, I would have expected her to use her married name when publishing material. However, since Archard made a name for herself as an author before she was married, and because of her strong feelings on women’s rights, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if she used her maiden name many years after in her writings.

As promised, here is the full text of Archard’s article on Jumbo the terrapin. the original article can be found on the Library of Congress’ historic newspaper site here. Enjoy!


The True Story of a Pet Land Turtle Named Jumbo

Did you ever hear of a pet turtle? I dare say not. Of all the queer pets that is the queerest. Yet some nice people in Brooklyn really have one in their family. It is a terrapin or land turtle. To their certain knowledge it is 50 years old, and maybe 100, for terrapins live to a great age and grow larger as long as they live.

The turtle of my story is named Jumbo because he is so big. He weighs at least 100 pounds. He has been in the family that now own [sic] him for thirty years. He is so large that when his mistress sits upon a chair Jumbo’s head can reach up and touch her cheek.
He is very fond of fruit, and when he sees his mistress eating an apple he will waddle toward her, crawl upon her lap, stretch up his long neck and snap the apple out of her mouth. This is one of the cute tricks which the lady has taught him. You would never believe a turtle had so much sense. If the lady calls “Jumbo! Jumbo!” he creeps up to her in his awkward way as fast as he can and lays his queer head in her hand. He is very fond of her, and so gentle that he never bites anybody. The kind lady buys bananas for him. He snaps them up in a way that is funny to see.

In summer Jumbo is in clover. He wanders through the yard, eating grass and snapping at flies and insects. If he sees the cat asleep in the sun he moves clumsily up and lies down beside her. He seems lonesome and fond of company. His back is so broad that a large boy can sit in a chair upon it. Then Jumbo crawls about the yard and gives the boy a ride in fine style. When the family move from one house to another Jumbo is loaded upon a wagon and moved with the other property.

Jumbo is what is called a hibernating creature. That is, he goes into a warm place and sleeps all winter, and does not eat anything at all. At the return of warm weather out he comes, lively and hungry. Wild terrapins burrow down deep in the ground, below frost, at the approach of winder, and lie there dormant. In the spring they come up with the earth sticking upon their backs. Bur being a civilized turtle, Jumbo has a house built for him. It is in the basement of the large house, and is lined with cotton batting, and is made very warm. At the first frost he creeps into this snug nest, and nobody sees Jumbo again till next summer. And there he is at this moment.

Eliza Archard


PS- UMD didn’t actually use the terrapin nickname until 1932, they originally used the nicknames “Aggies” and “Old Liner. For more on the history of UMD’s famous terrapin “Testudo,” the UMD University Archives has two great blog posts you can read here and here.


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