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Soon after the Michigan State Prison was built at Jackson, “Agents”—the term for prison wardens at the time–began contracting inmates out to companies that wanted cheap labor.

The Jackson Wagon Company built a factory on the grounds of the Michigan State Prison. Their wagons had earned a reputation for strength and durability during the 1849 California gold rush.

In the early 1880s Jackson Wagon Company received a telegram from the world-famous circus master P.T. Barnum.  He inquired whether the Jackson company could build a wagon that was sturdy enough to hold 13,000 pounds. It seemed that one of Barnum’s star attractions, Jumbo the Elephant, was getting old and could no longer walk in circus parades. The show must go on and the elephant needed help.

Inmates working at the company built the wagon and it was shipped to London for Barnum and Bailey’s European tour. Once assembled, the wagon bore the weight of the mammoth pachyderm and he was mobile again, travelling the world in his own custom-made Jackson Wagon.

But the story of Jumbo and his wagon did not end happily. On September 15, 1885, at a track crossing at St. Thomas, Ontario, Jumbo was struck by a locomotive and dragged 300 feet down the rails until the train derailed. Overcome with grief, Jumbo’s handler wept and held the elephant’s trunk as he died.

But Barnum was a showman after all, and he had the elephant stuffed and put on display at his circus. Jumbo’s skeleton was assembled and exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for many years.

Sepia photograph of a large group of men in suits and bowling hats standing around a large deceased elephant.
Jumbo passed away tragically in 1885 after being hit by a locomotive. [Wikipedia, public domain]
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Prison Labor in Michigan

The selection of Jackson for the site of the Michigan State Prison in 1837 was a decision based on economics. Several Jackson businessmen had lobbied the State Legislature for the prison because they were seeking a source of cheap labor for their factories. … Read More

Monument work at Jackson Prison, c. 1910-1930. [Archives of Michigan]
Featured Story

States of Incarceration

Learn more about the history of incarceration in the traveling exhibit, States of Incarceration

Many fascinating stories like this one were featured in our special exhibit, States of Incarceration, from September 2018 - May 2019. This national traveling exhibit explores the history and impact of mass incarceration nationwide. During its run at the Michigan History Museum, it included stories throughout to reflect specifically on Michigan’s place in the past and future of mass incarceration.

Purple block with four white bars. Text overlaid on white bars reads "States of Incarceration"

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