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On Washing Elephants Naked

On Washing Elephants Naked
March 15, 2011 Jennifer Boylan

Today we introduce a new feature in this blog which we’ll call “Stories Our Friends Swear Are True Though We Actually Doubt That Very Much.”  As our first example, I’ll share the following, told to me this week by Colby’s resident scholar in Greek and Latin, Dr. Kerill O’Neill, Ph.D.

It seems that a few years ago Colby employed a professor whose primary area of study involved the lives of circus performers.  This individual, whom we’ll call Professor Barnum, was a woman who had come to academia, like most intellectuals, after a failed career in the circus.  She allowed as how among circus people, the highest possible honor is being given the opportunity to scrub down the elephants; you know you’ve “made it” among circus people if they hand you a long handled brush and a bucket and say, “Wash Jumbo.”

The other part of this tradition, apparently, is that washing the elephants is to be done topless.

So there was our future professor, Ms. Barnum, washing down the elephant in a small, run-down circus in the American south, on the bank of a swiftly running river, when all at once, the bank she was standing on suddenly gave way, and a moment later Barnum found herself being carried away by the raging torrent.

As she rushed toward what she feared was certain doom, she says she was comforted by one thing only—the sound, reaching her ears through the rushing waters—of Jumbo, back on dry land, stampeding along the river bank.

Professor Barnum had given up hope for her own survival at this point when suddenly she felt herself being uplifted.  She opened her eyes to find that—I believe the proper interjection is “lo and behold,” she had drifted into the arms of a Southern Baptist minister who was even at that moment baptizing the members of his congregation in the rushing river.

And our minister held our future professor in his arms (remember of course that she is still topless) and said to her, “I baptize you with water for repentance.”

At which point the trumpeting, stampeding elephant rushed into the church campground, stamped its feet, and plucked our heroine out of the minister’s arms, placing her, with his trunk, upon his mighty back.  And with that, the elephant turned around and headed back toward circus town, trumpeting in triumph.

I asked my friend Richard “They Made My Movie” Russo about this story the night after Professor O’Neill told it to me, and he said, “You know what’s suspect about this story, Boylan?  That business about washing the elephants topless.  That’s such an awkward, clumsy element of the story that I assumed it would somehow play into the punchline. Which it doesn’t. Which can only mean one deeply scary thing:  the story must be true.”


  1. Eugenia Urban 7 years ago

    P.T. Barnum himself said that a sucker is born every minute!

    Enjoyed seeing and hearing you in Plattsburgh last Thursday. I hope you were impressed with the attendance and SUNY Plattsburgh. I wish that the sound system would have been better and that I had a chance to say hello to you after your presentation.


  2. Jenny Sand 7 years ago

    That was a lovely read. Best story i’ve heard in a long while, no contest! The people at the next table must have wondered why I was laughing so hysterically …

  3. Stacy Beaumont 7 years ago

    I adore your writings and this short tale is a wonderful example of why. Thank you for sharing with us all! Stacy

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