The Bonehunters' Revenge: Dinosaurs and Fate in the Gilded Age

The Bonehunters' Revenge: Dinosaurs and Fate in the Gilded Age

by David Rains Wallace


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When dinosaur fossils were first discovered in the Wild West, they sparked one of the greatest scientific battles in American history. Over the past century it has been known by many names—the Bone War, the Fossil Feud—but the tragic story of the competition for fame and natural treasure between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, two leading paleontologists of the Gilded Age, remains prophetic of the conquest of the West as well as a watershed event in science.
With a historian's eye and a novelist's skill, David Rains Wallace charts in fascinating detail the unrestrained rivalry between Cope and Marsh and their obsession to become the first to make available to the world the abundant, unknown fossils of the western badlands. This story will surely fascinate anyone who has had to confront the myriad facets of professional jealousy, its sterile brooding, and how it leads to an emotional abyss.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618082407
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 12/14/2000
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: (w) x (h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

David Rains Wallace is the author of fifteen books, including The Turquoise Dragon, The Quetzal and the Macaw, The Monkey's Bridge (a 1997 New York Times Notable Book), and The Klamath Knot,which won the Burroughs Medal in 1984. He was raised in Connecticut and graduated from Wesleyan College. He now lives in Berkeley, California.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue: Assassination by Newspaper

In January 1890, the New York Herald devoted a great deal of
space to a squabble between two paleontologists. Professor E. D. Cope
accused Professor O. C. Marsh of scandalous crimes against science
and morality, and Marsh responded by accusing Cope of worse. A crowd
of other scientists and officials jumped or were dragged into the
fracas, trading accusations, threats, and insults through column
after close-printed column for three weeks, to the bemusement of
readers who were, at most, vaguely aware that a paleontologist was a
kind of hybrid biologist-geologist who studied evidence of
prehistoric life.
Occurring years before dinosaurs became good copy,
this "fossil feud" was not the usual stuff of 1890s mainstream
journalism. The readers of some academic review might have expected
it (Cope and Marsh had been fighting in such reviews for years), but
the New York Herald had been the nation's leading newspaper for
decades; its circulation only recently had become challenged by that
of Joseph Pulitzer's World. In what was regarded as the metropolitan
daily, a month of paleontological squabbling must have seemed a
bizarre lapse, a kind of journalistic petit mal, and the affair,
predictably, was little noticed by a public better versed in the
natural history of love nests than of extinct beasts. Its descent
into the oblivion of most newspaper scandals also must have seemed
predictable; it was certainly craved by the officials and
academicians who'd become caught in it. A 1902 book entitled Leading
American Men of Science contained biographies of bothantagonists,
but didn't mention the feud. "It was an embarrassment," wrote the
historian James Penick, "and held to be unrelated to the achievements
of either man."
Yet the "bone war" did not lapse into oblivion. The feuding
paleontologists, Cope and Marsh, had been the leaders in their field,
and, as time passed, their rivalry became legendary as a colorful if
cautionary sideshow to scientific history. "The most important
feud ... hindered and hampered the younger generation for years,"
commented William Berryman Scott, professor of geology and
paleontology at Princeton from 1884 to 1930, and himself an unhappy
figure in the Herald affair. "Even yet, its effects persist, although
in no very important ways, and crop out when one is least expecting
them." The legend was mainly oral at first, but it crept into print
after Cope's friend, the influential paleontologist Henry Fairfield
Osborn, published the lengthy biography Cope: Master Naturalist, in
1931. The book was meant to rescue Cope from the disrepute partly
resulting from his role in the Herald squabble, but it prodded a
Marsh ally, Charles Schuchert, professor of paleontology at Yale, to
even the score by publishing, in 1940, an equally lengthy biography,
O. C. Marsh: Pioneer in Paleontology.
Since then, an unsteady but persistent stream of publications
has established the feud as a kind of hairline crack in American
science, suggestive of obscure stresses within. The New Yorker
recounted it in a 1962 "Onward and Upward with Science" piece, and
several popular books about it appeared in the next two decades. In
the 1980s and 1990s, books and articles on new dinosaur theories
mentioned it many times. Jane Pierce Davidson's Cope biography, The
Bone Sharp, came out in 1997, and I often heard of writers and
scientists working on new Cope or Marsh books while I did the
research for this one. A 1998 book included the rivalry among
science's "ten liveliest debates ever," along with Galileo's struggle
with Pope Urban VIII and Newton's arguments with Leibniz. The feud
has persisted in oral tradition as well, and its story has taken on
strange forms, as stories do in the amorphous realm of hearsay. As
the feud has receded in time, hearsay has mingled with history,
adding a distinctly mythic element that consistently colors the
published versions.
The bone war crept into my own consciousness in much the same
way that it entered history. I kept coming across it while reading
about paleontology, and it gradually evolved from a diversion to a
fascination. The fact that the two paleontologists discovered and
named many of the creatures that first interested me in the
prehistoric past-not only dinosaurs but the giant marine reptiles
that shared the Mesozoic Era with them and the strange mammals of the
subsequent Cenozoic Era-contributed to the fascination. So did the
circumstance that they made most of their discoveries in the West
during the Indian wars. Yet many other paleontologists have
discovered strange creatures in adventuresome places. Something
deeper than scientific and historical picturesqueness underlies the
abiding interest in Cope and Marsh: competition. Their rivalry was
virtually unrestrained, without the checks and balances that cultures
usually put on such disagreements, and in this they were typical of
late nineteenth-century America despite their esoteric profession. In
competing for a natural treasure-the abundant, unknown fossils of the
western badlands-they might have been timber barons or mining
tycoons, and their story is an example of a primal instinct that
underlies the highest human endeavor along with the lowest.
Cope and Marsh are likely to fascinate anyone who has had to
confront the myriad facets of professional jealousy-its sinking sense
of annihilation, sterile brooding, impotent anger. It is an emotional
abyss that is alluring as well as disturbing, and there is a
temptation to jump in, to engage in intrigue, publish attacks on real
or imagined rivals, and so forth. Like most people, I lack the
willpower for a wholehearted plunge, but I've wondered what it would
be like to let full-blown vanity sail me out over the steep canyons
of unbridled rivalry. Drawing back seems as ignoble as letting go,
since it doesn't end the base emotions; it merely manages them. In
Cope and Marsh, I saw a classic story of those who had not drawn
back, and I wanted to explore it. This was partly as ignoble as my
own recoil from the abyss; I wanted to enjoy vicariously the vanity
balloon ascension while witnessing the historical punishment of the
daredevils who had risked it. But there may have been something of
the nobler instinct that draws people to tragedy. I wanted to know
what, if any, wisdom or transcendence might lie beyond the folly of
unrestrained rivalry.
The 1890 Herald evidently was on to something more than an
esoteric argument, which raises a question of why the paper devoted
so much space to the feud. Memoirs and histories largely have
attributed the Herald's role to the only bylined author of the
coverage, an associate of Cope's named William Hosea Ballou. Having
assumed that Ballou was on the Herald staff, they took for granted
the newspaper's participation. Evidence, however, suggests that
Ballou was not a Herald staffer, that he was not even a professional
journalist; he was a barely competent free-lancer who wrote only part
of the Herald's bone-war coverage and bungled that, faking interviews
and infuriating named sources. An eminent paleontologist, Alfred S.
Romer, later said of Ballou that if scientists "merely passed the
time of day with him, they were liable to be misquoted for a column
or so." Since it seemed unlikely that this hack had controlled the
editorial policy of a leading daily, I began to suspect that a much
larger figure lurked below Ballou's minnow-like one, a man as
monstrous in his way as the paleontologists' plesiosaurs and
mosasaurs. Like many monsters, this one preferred to operate in the
background, and I found little uncircumstantial evidence of his
involvement. But as I read what is known about him, I sensed that he
offered the beginning of an explanation not only of the Herald's
involvement in the feud, but of its historical resonance.
James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the Herald's owner and publisher
from 1868 to 1918, may be the most underestimated American figure of
the late nineteenth century. More than any journalist before William
Randolph Hearst, who imitated him, Bennett not only reported history
but made it, and the period from 1870 to 1900 bore his unmistakable
stamp. History would have been quite different, for example, if
Bennett hadn't sent Henry M. Stanley to Africa. Yet Bennett's
character was so repellent that it has obscured his historical role.
His only recent biographer, Richard O'Connor, introduced his book The
Scandalous Mr. Bennett by reflecting that the protagonist deserved a
serious scholarly study but wasn't going to get one from him because
he was too preposterous.
Instead, O'Connor luxuriated in what might be a case study
from Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis. "On midnight rides,
careering down country roads, he would often strip off his clothing,"
he wrote of the youthful Bennett. "Stark-naked in the box, he would
drive his four-in-hand along the turnpikes, cracking his whip and
yelling his head off in delirious pleasure." According to O'Connor,
Bennett had an owl fetish; he had the birds tattooed on his
mistress's knees, and planned to be buried in a 125-foot, granite owl
statue with "quite ferociously" glowing eyes. Bennett's photos
support O'Connor's Krafft-Ebing vision, showing a kind of debauched
dragoon with a strangely narrow head punctuated by a fleshy nose and
small, close-set, furiously staring eyes. In fact, Bennett was an
alcoholic sociopath who committed a crowning sexual peccadillo so
embarrassing that it still makes a reader squirm, over a century
later. On New Year's Day of 1877, he drunkenly urinated in the
fireplace (or grand piano) of his fiancée's parlor during a gala
party. For this, he was horsewhipped by the fiancée's brother and
permanently banished from New York society.
So it's no wonder historians have shied away from James
Gordon Bennett, Jr. As it happens, he was a controlled alcoholic
sociopath who knew what he wanted and pursued his desires with the
sociopath's singleminded energy. He may have deliberately committed
parlor urination to escape his engagement without incurring a costly
breach-of-promise suit. He also was a fabulously rich alcoholic
sociopath who could enact his desires on a grand scale. He had
virtually absolute control over his newspapers.
Bennett "regarded every word printed by his papers as
emanating from himself," O'Connor wrote. "If someone else happened to
put those words on paper, they came from what he was pleased to call
a 'hired brain.' His employees simply had to get used to the idea of
being treated as so many intellectual zombies." A Herald alumnus,
Albert Stevens Crockett, recalled that "each man who worked on the
Herald, no matter what his office or how important his job, must
perforce work to please Bennett, and the public only through him."
Like other dictators, he had no problem acquiring lackeys. "There was
something compelling about the tigerish proprietor, with his
fickleness and brutality," wrote Don Carlos Seitz, an editor on the
rival New York World. "Thus, for all their contemptuous ill
treatment, men were attracted to the Herald."
Bennett's father had founded the Herald in the 1830s as a
pioneer of modern journalism's mélange of advertising, news, and
sports as well as its emphasis on crime and other sensations. The
paper first captured public attention with a story featuring a rapt
description of a murdered prostitute's nude corpse as surpassing "in
every respect, the Venus de Medici." Another popular innovation was
the list of classified "personals" ads, which read very much like
today's: "Woman finds paddling her own canoe dreary task, seeks manly
pilot." Bennett Sr.'s idealistic competitor, the Tribune's Horace
Greeley, called him a "low-mouthed, blatant, witless, brutal
scoundrel." Yet Bennett used his smelly cash cow to finance an
efficient news-gathering organization. The Herald's Civil War
coverage was unprecedented in its speed and thoroughness.
After becoming publisher in 1868, Bennett Jr. continued his
father's leadership in news-gathering as well as in profitable
sensation-mongering. The Herald reported Custer's 1876 Little Bighorn
defeat four days before the other New York papers did, and before the
War Department even knew of it. Bennett Jr. also went his father one
better by his willingness to make news as well as report it.
Sometimes he simply lied, as when, in November 1874, the Herald
reported that escaped zoo animals had mauled 249 people in Central
Park. "The coming of the tiger was something terrible," the full-page
article panted. "I never shall forget the awful, splendid look of him
as he landed with a spring in the thick of them" (Other "wild
carnivorous beasts ... still at large" included a manatee, an
opossum, and "the paisano, a vicious beast, said to be on the west
side of town," but many readers panicked anyway.) More often, Bennett
chose a real sensation and injected one of his zombies into it as
The most famous zombie, of course, was Stanley, a
nonalcoholic sociopath who might have ended on the gallows (his
crimes included extortion, assault, and desertion from both the
Confederate Army and Union Navy) if the Herald had not hired him in
the late 1860s. His epic 1871 search for the missionary-explorer Dr.
David Livingstone was more a product of Bennett's imagination than of
Stanley's, as the publisher was quick to insist. Stanley had cared
little about Livingstone until Bennett summoned him to his Paris
hotel and declared, "I think he is alive and that he can be found,
and I am going to send you to find him." And Stanley's expedition was
only one of many Bennett financed to the ends of the earth-central
Asia, Siberia, the North Pole. The publisher's obsession with
penetrating the unknown not only reflected the nineteenth century's
exploration vogue, but magnified it. "In recognizing this new
curiosity, which eventually burgeoned into all sorts of national
ventures overseas, militant and peaceful alike," wrote Richard
O'Connor, "Bennett demonstrated the grasp-if not the temperament-of a
great editor."
Whether or not Bennett was a great editor, it's hard to think
of another who had a similar effect.Perhaps one reason he hasn't been
called great is that, unlike Stanley, he made little pretense of
acting for the benefit of civilization. He said he supported
exploration to sell newspapers, but he was disingenuous even in that
cynical attitude. Not a businessman at heart, he milked the Herald of
$30 million and left it nearly bankrupt at his death. At heart,
Bennett seems to have been not merely indifferent, but hostile, to
civilization's benefit. His zoo hoax suggests a fascination not with
taming savagery but with savagery's potential for dissolving
civilized constraints, which he found irksome. Livingstone's saintly
aura probably interested him less than the allegations of brutality
and consorting with native women that led Joseph Conrad to model, in
part, his Heart of Darkness anti-hero, Kurtz, on the missionary.
Bennett might have found some satisfaction by exploring
Africa himself, Kurtz-fashion. He didn't lack physical courage; he
raced his yacht across the Atlantic more than once. But he was
unwilling to forgo luxuries, and knew he lacked the stomach for the
extreme hardships of nineteenth-century expeditions. This didn't stop
him from bitterly envying the fame of those who did explore, and from
feeling that he deserved it. "He could only sponsor them," O'Connor
wrote, "and sulk in the shadow of their renown." He turned against
Stanley quickly, which was evident in his publishing a scathing
review of the explorer's 1872 New York lecture appearance, and flying
into a rage when he read of Stanley's exploits in other papers. In
1891, he sent a reporter to the Tyrolean resort where Stanley was
vacationing in an attempt to confirm rumors that the explorer beat
his wife. ("My God," said Stanley when he realized what the reporter
was after, "I used to do that.")
Bennett's wealth and craziness, interacting with his
boundless envy, made him behave like a trickster god, a lord of
misrule. Not even innocent bystanders escaped his spite. In swanky
restaurants, he would amuse himself by yanking off other diners'
tablecloths while well-bribed waiters stood by. Esoteric as it
seemed, the two paleontologists' squabble was just the thing to
attract his malice.
Its scientific antagonists were the kind of men he most
envied, highly respected explorers who had helped to open a new world
to civilization. That world, the fossil-rich plains of western North
America, may have been less sensational than Africa, but it was more
significant. It not only contained vast new geographical spaces; it
embraced vaster temporal ones, the hundreds of millions of years in
which monsters, not men, had ruled the earth.
If the paleontologists lacked Stanley's huge celebrity, one
of them, Professor O. C. Marsh of Yale, had attained a statesmanlike
eminence as an adviser to presidents, protégé of powerful congressmen
and bureaucrats, and confidant of scientific mandarins like Thomas
Henry Huxley. Indeed, Marsh often had figured prominently in the
Herald's pages, a sure way of arousing its owner's jealousy. Bennett
would have been quick to perceive that the bone war was about Marsh's
eminence. The rival, E. D. Cope, envied Marsh as bitterly as Bennett
envied Stanley, and felt that Marsh had attained a distinction that
rightly belonged to him-and had done so at his expense. For two
decades, Marsh, in fact, had been using his political power to block
Cope's scientific aspirations. Now Cope was trying to use the hack
Ballou, whom he naïvely characterized as "a rough customer," to wreak
revenge on Marsh by destroying his scientific reputation. It was the
scientific equivalent of a palace assassination, and if Marsh and
Cope had been Hellenic or Renaissance princelings, their quarrel
might have attracted a Euripides or Shakespeare. Bennett's barbaric
figure looms behind them like Dionysus in The Bacchae, a deus ex
machina inciting antagonists to greater hubris.
The newspaper spectacle of professorial beard-pulling may
have been comic, but the bone war was tragic in that it poisoned the
lives of both men, neither of whom survived the Herald scandal by a
decade. The paleontologists' quarrel also was like classic tragedy in
enacting social as well as personal conflicts. Bennett was the
embodiment of the conflicts, a boulevardier who marketed fantasies of
ladies devoured by tigers in what his paper called "a shocking
Sabbath carnival of death."
America has played out Bennett's-and Europe's-conflicted
desire to escape civilization while simultaneously imposing it
on "dark continents." Nineteenth-century United States history is a
story of colonies that freed themselves from a transoceanic European
empire only to fall subject-through competition among themselves-to a
transcontinental American one. Originating from states so different
that they might have had separate nationalities, Cope and Marsh
embodied this competition. A Pennsylvania Quaker, Cope rose from a
tradition of "colonialist" tendencies toward rural, anarchic
identification with the American continent. A native of residually
Puritan Massachusetts, Marsh came to represent an
opposing "imperialist" tendency toward an urban, hierarchical
subordination of such "nativism." In a way, the bone war was an
intellectual variant on the Civil War that just preceded it, one
largely enacted in that other great arena of North American conflict,
the West.
Indeed, the course of American empire might have been
different without the feud, because Marsh's and Cope's fossil-hunting
played a significant role in the geological surveys that prepared the
West for conquest. As Wallace Stegner showed in his classic study of
the period, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, the Herald's trumped-up
paleontological scandal contributed to the failure of a plan for
scientifically limited settlement advocated by John Wesley Powell,
director of the U.S. Geological Survey. Powell was allied with Marsh,
and the newspaper squabble damaged the reputations of both,
contributing to the downfall of each. "It is doubtful that any modern
controversy among men of learning has generated more venom than this
one did," wrote Stegner.
Although Powell's plan was a product of federal bureaucracy,
it might have led to settlement more in keeping with the anarchic,
agrarian tradition of colonial America than the centralized,
industrialized system that came to dominate the West after droughts
defeated the laissez-faire boosterism of Powell's opponents. At
least, his policies might have proved more environmentally
sustainable than the ones that haphazardly emerged. So the Herald's
1890 lunge into paleontological backstabbing helped to ensure that
the issue of North America's settlement would remain "unsettled" to
this day, as rural anarchism still wars with urban hierarchy in land
politics. Like the Civil and Indian wars, the bone war lingers in a
United States of ethnic-regional militias and antifederal terrorism.

Prodigy and Heir

When Edward Drinker Cope was born into a well-to-do
Philadelphia Quaker family in 1840, he inherited a century-old
scientific tradition. George Fox, the Society of Friends' seventeenth-
century founder, had encouraged his followers to garden and to study
plants as a way of knowing God through His creation. Barred from
universities and official posts for their nonconformism, the
temperate, industrious Quakers prospered as merchants and physicians,
and used trade networks to promote the collection and study not only
of plants but of all natural phenomena. One of the most important
connections was the one linking England with William Penn's North
American colony. In the mid-eighteenth century, a London merchant
named Peter Collinson dominated this informal structure, and asked
his Pennsylvanian co-religionists to supply specimens and information
that he could introduce into his scientific circle. Collinson was a
corespondent of Linnaeus, the century's major botanist, so that
circle was very high.
Collinson's main source of American information and specimens
was a down-to-earth Quaker farmer named John Bartram, who, it was
said, became interested in botany when, out plowing, he had noticed
the complexity of a daisy. With Collinson as middleman, buying an
endless stream of plants, shells, live animals, and other "natural
productions," and passing them on to noble patrons, Bartram became a
model New World naturalist, full of frontier self-reliance and
ingenuity and of devout optimism. In the Friends' tradition, he
saw "the immediate finger of God" in nature, and believed that "a
portion of universal intellect diffused in all life." His botanizing
was a way both to satisfy his intellectual curiosity and to
praise "the living God, the great I am." Scientific and religious
enthusiasm made a robust mixture that sustained him through dozens of
expeditions, often alone, beyond the narrow coastal band of European
settlement. Undaunted by Indians, although they had killed his
father, Bartram, between the 1730s and 1760s, explored upstate New
York, the Ohio River, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.
As Bartram's skill and reputation grew, so did his eminence
in the colonial intellectual establishment, which, if it did not
always share his Quakerism (Bartram himself broke with his meeting by
denying Christ's divinity), certainly shared his deist perception of
God in nature. He was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin, and helped
him found the American Philosophical Society in 1743. They made
Philadelphia the center of colonial science, even though neither had
had professional training in any scientific discipline, training that
was largely unavailable at the time and considered unnecessary. With
an almost unknown world before him, the colonial naturalist was free
to study anything without seeking authority. Bartram's writings
described not only plants but fauna, soils, rock formations,
ethnology, meteorology, medicines, and whatever else interested him.
The historian Daniel Boorstin saw this as a significant break
from the Old World's more elite, institutionalized scientific
community. "The ideal of knowledge which comes from natural history
was admirably suited to a mobile society," Boorstin wrote in The
Americans: The Colonial Experience: "Its paths did not run only
through the academy, the monastery, or the university; they opened
everywhere and to every man." Indeed, Boorstin regarded direct
observation of nature-as opposed to erudite hypotheses-as
distinctively American. "American life quickly proved uncongenial to
any special class of 'knowers,' he wrote. "Men were more interested
in the elaboration of experience than in the elaboration of 'truth';
the novelties of the New World led them to suspect that elaborate
verification might itself mislead ... No American invention has
influenced the world so powerfully as the concept of knowledge which
sprang from the American experience." Josephine Herbst, Bartram's
biographer, called colonial American naturalists "whole men
confronting a whole world, not human beings floating in a culture
Philadelphia's scientific pre-eminence continued after the
American Revolution. John's son William also had explored the
Southeast, and his 1789 book about it, Travels, became the first
major text of the United States' naturalist tradition ("a future
Biblical article," as Thomas Carlyle put it). Perhaps influenced by
Rousseau, William went beyond his father and Franklin. He was the
first colonial writer to integrate Native Americans with the deist
vision of God in Nature, as seen in his sympathetic picture of
Florida Creek culture. Travels evokes a naked Seminole who "reclines
and reposes under the odiferous shades of Zanthoxylon, his verdant
couch guarded by the Deity, Liberty and the Muses inspiring him to
wisdom and valor." Such evocations did much to shape the Romantics'
enthusiasm for untamed nature and "primitive" man. Wordsworth,
Coleridge, and Chateaubriand borrowed heavily from Travels.
The Bartrams' botanical garden outside Philadelphia fostered
a new generation of naturalists in the United States. Referring to
their activities, Thomas Jefferson, after serving as a delegate to
the 1787 Constitutional Convention, wrote to his friend William: "I
long to be free for pursuits of this kind instead of the detestable
ones in which I am now laboring." Jefferson's preference for natural
history over statecraft was hardly a pose; his Notes on the State of
Virginia is another early classic in the field. As he rose to
national leadership, natural history figured largely in his ideal of
the United States as a society of enlightened farmers, a "nature's
nation," wherein an educated, genteel population would not become
urbanized and etiolated, but would maintain a self-sufficient
agrarian base. When he was President, he sent Meriwether Lewis to
study with William Bartram and other Philadelphia naturalists before
setting out to explore the Louisiana Purchase. And after leaving
office, he shaped his University of Virginia, the first
nonecclesiastical college in the Americas, very much in the Franklin-
Bartram mode. It was to be an institution of self-guided learning,
without matriculation or degrees, without formal hierarchy.
In 1812, William and his friends founded another major
naturalists' association, the Philadelphia Academy of Natural
Sciences. At the same time, Philadelphia saw the first successful
attempt to diffuse natural history to the public. The local artist
Charles Willson Peale had painted famous portraits of Washington and
other Revolutionary heroes, but when he was asked to draw mastodon
fossils from Kentucky, he became so interested in them that he gave
up portraiture in favor of establishing America's first public
natural history museum. Installed in the room where the Declaration
of Independence had been signed, it displayed fossils and
realistically posed animals in lifelike settings (although it also
included a five-legged cow, costumed monkeys, and the occasional song
and dance act). Optimistic about its role, he told Jefferson, who
tried and failed to get government sponsorship for it, that "such a
museum, easy of access, must tend to make all classes of people in
some degree learned in the science of nature without even the trouble
of study ... Nature, opening new ranges of beauty and understanding,
length of days and joy of life." In 1810, a visitor named Catherine
Fritsch fulfilled Peale's hopes when she gushed: "Here we could
observe abundant instance of the wisdom of God in his Creation, as we
viewed, with astonishment, the many different animals, birds, and
fish, and the infinite variety of exquisite butterflies and insects."
Edward Cope's family seems not to have had a close social
connection with Philadelphia scientific circles, although his father,
Alfred, belonged to both the Philosophical Society and the
Philadelphia Academy. Edward grew up, however, in an atmosphere
infused with the Bartrams' spirit. His father presided over an eight-
acre estate, Fairfield, just outside the town, and there he botanized
and, according to Henry Fairfield Osborn's Master Naturalist, lent
his children "a splendid collection of books within the house, and
his own active intelligence out of doors." Descended from a 1686
English immigrant, Alfred's father, Thomas, had so prospered in
freight shipping that his son was free to devote himself to such
philanthropic pursuits as educating Indians and financing a
Philadelphia zoo.
Edward quickly began to behave like an heir apparent to the
Bartram tradition. At six, he started recording his natural history
observations in journals, letters, and drawings. One of the first
letters concerned an enthralling visit to the Peale Museum. He wrote
of the visit to his grandmother in 1846, "I saw Mammoth and
Hydrarchus. Does thee know what that is? It is a great skeleton of a
serpent. It was so long that it had to be put in three rooms. There
was a stuffed crocodile, and an alligator, and the crocodile looked
the ugliest and fiercest, and his mouth wide open. And I saw a
monkey's blacksmith shop, and one had a newspaper reading the Foreign
news." Cope may have been Victorian America's closest thing to a
naturalist child prodigy, since the type tends to be a late bloomer
(with Darwin the classic example). A playmate recalled "an incessant
activity mind and body ... People's attention was instantly caught by
his quick and ingenious thought, expressed in a bright and merry way.
His mind reached in every direction for knowledge."
Edward's later development confirmed his early promise. A
year after his charming but childish museum letter, he wrote and
illustrated a little hand-sewn journal of a boat trip to Boston with
his father, punctiliously dating each entry and describing his
observations with concision. "We saw some Bonetas swimming along-side
the vessel," read his fifth-day entry; "they're long slim fish and
twist about like eels. We saw a Man-of-war, which looked like a large
jelly-fish only he was dead. The night before we saw a great many
lights in the water which were made by Jelly-fish and here is a
picture of it." By 1849, when he went to a Philadelphia Quaker day
school, Cope had become a habitué of the Philadelphia Academy's
scientific museum, which he described that year as though working up
a curatorial inventory: "... several small skulls of birds of
different sizes and forms; some of them had red, black, and white
bills. Among them were about five skulls of toucans." More important,
he had begun to bring to the museum for identification animals he'd
collected in the countryside.
After his father sent him to the Friends' Boarding School at
Westtown in 1853, Edward wrote to his sisters to complain of the
natural history facilities: "I had expected a handsome large room,
but instead of that it was an old-fashioned room with whitewashed
walls and ceiling." And apparently he knew more about reptiles than
did his instructors. In another letter, home, he offhandedly
mentioned a scientific name for a turtle which a "Master Davis" had
been unable to identify. In a later letter, to a cousin, he described
a well-informed outing for a teenager: "I traced the stream for a
considerable distance upon the rocky hillside, my admiration never
ceasing, but I finally turned off into the woods toward some towering
rocks. Here I actually got to searching for salamanders and was
rewarded by capturing two specimens of species which I never saw
before alive. The first (Spelerpes longicauda) is a great rarity
here. I am doubtful of it having been previously noted in Chester
County." He would publish his first professional paper, "On the
Divisions of the Salamandridae with Descriptions of New
Species," in the Proceedings of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences
when he was nineteen. According to Henry Fairfield Osborn,
it "instituted important modifications in the accepted classification
of Salamders." Still in his teens, he also began working as an
assistant curator at the academy.
Cope probably would have been even more precocious if his
father hadn't spent the 1850s trying to rein him in. A devout Friend,
Alfred "rigidly supervised" his children's conduct and religious
training. Edward's letters home from Westtown were full of convoluted
protestations in defense of what Alfred considered unacceptably
willful behavior. "I only wish he would be a scholar with me for a
month or so," he wrote to his sisters in 1856, "and could come to
particulars and see what is enough to give one such conduct-I don't
think he would consider me such a wicked boy. Laughing a little too
loud and a great many little things go together, and make a bad
conduct number." The father's inflexibility would cause Edward mental
turmoil in later life, although maternal buffers ameliorated it
somewhat. From the time his mother, Hannah Edge Cope, died, in 1843,
Aunt Jane had cared for Edward and his sisters until Alfred married
again, in 1851. Rebeccah Biddle, the stepmother, evidently was
sympathetic to Edward. "She was his refuge and court of appeal when
his conduct displeased his father," Osborn wrote, "and she seems to
have interceded for him mildly but to good effect."
Despite his rigidity as a parent, Alfred evidently was an
enthusiastic Jeffersonian, since he tried to mold his son into an
educated gentleman farmer like the third President. Beginning in
1854, he sent Edward to work on relatives' farms every summer, and
after Edward finished Westtown, in 1856, Alfred set him to learning
agriculture full time, with the intention of buying him a farm when
he reached manhood. Edward underwent this laborious education
cheerfully, and seems to have enjoyed country life, but he had little
interest in farming. "I have been hoe-harrowing corn some lately," he
wrote to his father in 1859, "and the thought occurred to me several
times as I walked slowly back and forward across the field-how much
more money could a man make by applying himself to some other
business or rather while engaged in some other business, during the
days and weeks that the farmer pokes backward and forward across his
field, earning nothing beyond the cutting of a few weeds." The next
year, he asked Alfred for permission to attend lectures in
comparative anatomy given by Dr. Joseph Leidy, a zoologist and
paleontologist at the University of Pennsylvania. "The whole ground
is gone over in winter," he wrote reassuringly, "and the knowledge of
human and comparative anatomy would be of immense service to one
desiring a knowledge of the proper manner of treating stock and of
general comparative anatomy." Stock-raising, however, was not what he
had in mind; he was soon spending all his time on natural history.
Alfred Cope-a photograph shows him as a slight, subdued man-
evidently despaired of controlling his son after that year. From
Edward's photos, it's not hard to see why. Even in a stiff plate from
the 1870s, the younger Cope's bristling hair and sturdy body manifest
extraordinary will and energy. The protuberant eyes suggest an
overactive thyroid, a hint supported by his lifelong nervous crises.
Alfred did buy Edward a farm, the oddly named McShag's Pinnacle in
Chester County, but seems not to have protested when his son chose to
put a tenant there. After Edward spent the next few years doggedly
pursuing natural history, Alfred paid for him to study in Europe,
although this may have been an expedient for separating the high-
spirited young man from an undesirable romantic attachment and from
the equally undesirable Civil War.
The scientific education that Cope acquired between 1860 and
1864 had as much of the eighteenth century about it as of the
nineteenth. Without formal structure, it essentially consisted of
Edward's studying collections-first at the Philadelphia Academy and
Smithsonian, then at the British Museum and other European
institutions-and talking with their curators. These were activities
suitable to a young Enlightenment patrician with serious tastes, and
they proferred no degree or other professional credentials. Cope's
education was equally old-fashioned in its lack of specialization.
Although he gravitated toward vertebrates, he seems to have studied
living and fossil organisms pretty much as the spirit moved him. Nor
did he or his father see any disadvantage in this quaint program.
Opportunities for university training in natural history were still
limited; as Osborn observed in the 1930s, "What great university of
our day could offer the educational influences of the series of great
men whose acquaintance Edward eagerly sought and whose friendship and
companionship he cultivated during this transitional period?"
Edward's precocious election to the Philadelphia Academy in 1861 and
to the National Academy of Sciences in 1871 certainly spoke well of
such influences.
Cope's genteel Bildung did depart from the Enlightenment
model in one vital way. After the 1859 publication of Darwin's On the
Origin of Species, the "great men whose acquaintance Edward eagerly
sought" would have been less interested than their predecessors in
the evidence of Divine Wisdom in nature and more inquisitive about
the evidence of evolutionary change. At first, Edward apparently
responded with equanimity to Darwinism, although it must have been a
sharp break from his father's ideas about nature. He'd read Darwin's
Voyage of the Beagle at Westtown in 1856, and had found
it "exceedingly interesting, only it had a little too much geology in
it." In Venice, at Saint Mark's Cathedral in 1863, he expressed a
viewpoint that departed sharply from biblical literalism. "Near the
entrance is a large flag of red conglomerate in the floor where one
of the Popes received the homage of Barbarossa," he wrote to his
sister. "All this seems very old, but I spied ammonite [extinct
fossil cephalopods] in another piece of the same stone in the lower
part of the wall. It made me grin to think how all that it had seen,
from the early Doges to Marino Faliero and the white coats of
Austria, were in the last few minutes of its existence."
Even more significant is that Cope seems to have grasped the
profound implications of a fossil he saw in Germany that year. "The
collections from Solenhofen are exceedingly interesting and
numerous," he wrote to his father. "Prof. Opfel who has charge of it
was the first to obtain the Archaeopteryx lithographica, and he
believes that he has a skull which he showed me. It is very bird-
like, but has a long, slender bill as Conchiosaurus [a dinosaur] ...
It is nearer bird than reptile but is neither." A dinosaur-like
creature with feathers and wings, evidently transitional between
reptiles and birds, Archaeopteryx was the first major fossil proof of
Darwinian evolution after the publication of The Origin of Species.
Yet Edward also manifested considerable unease during his
grand tour. "If I know myself I need every possible aid to distract
myself from myself," he wrote from London in 1864, "and if I do not
have it my health suffers; what it would result in if my various
outlets for my activities were not to my hand I cannot tell-but I do
not much doubt, in insanity." Much of this disquietude proba-
bly was a residue of his unhappy love affair, which he felt
had "scorched ... the outside" of his sensibilities "into a crust."
Osborn believed that Cope shared the period's intellectual anxieties
about the widening gulf between science and religion, however, and
that he underwent a crisis at the tour's end. "That he had an inner
consciousness of doing something wrong in his pursuit of science
seems to have grown upon him," Osborn wrote, "because, just before
sailing for home in the year 1864, Edward destroyed many of his
scientific drawings made from various museums, and was restrained by
one of his friends with difficulty from burning all his priceless
European notes. Upon his return to Philadelphia he was for a time
deeply religious, and made an open confession of faith at Meeting,
which, according to his sister, was a great comfort to his family."
Whatever the reason, Cope sought stability back in
Pennsylvania. In the fall of 1864, he became a professor of zoology
at Haverford College, a position obtained through family influence,
according to Jane Pierce Davidson, who noted that the college
compensated for his lack of credentials simply by granting him an
honorary A.M. degree in his contract. "My position here is pleasant,"
Edward complacently told father, "especially as I can interest
considerably many of my students. Dr. Flack in Philadelphia has lent
me a large lot of reptile, bird, and mammal skeletons-a
foreshadowing, I hope, of what may be in the possession of the
college one day." He courted and married a distant cousin in a
similar sober, somewhat calculating spirit. "I have often thought it
would be an advantage to me to be married in many ways, and have
concluded to make a definite motion in that direction . . . ," he
wrote to Alfred. "An amiable woman, not over sensitive, with
considerable energy, and especially one inclined to be serious and
not inclined to frivolity-the more truly Christian of course the
better-seems to me to be practically the most suitable to me, though
intellect and accomplishments have more charms." Luckily, his wife,
Annie, proved compatible as well as "not over sensitive," so he
acquired a warm home and, promptly, a beloved daughter.
As the Civil War and its difficult ethical questions ended,
Cope may have felt that his real life was beginning, a life not so
different from that of the Bartrams a century earlier, although more
affluent and secure. With the income from his farm and his teaching,
and the prospect of a comfortable inheritance, he could anticipate a
career of research, travel, collecting, and correspondence,
interspersed with farming and philanthropy-a Jeffersonian idyll. "I
am very glad to do whatever will break the selfish nature more," he
wrote about his college duties, "and fulfill the 'sell all thou hast
and give to the poor.' And withal I have abundance of time to pursue
such original studies as material sufficient comes to my hand."
Yet the Philadelphia and the America to which Cope returned
in 1864 were very different from those in which he'd been born-even
from those he had left in 1862. Slavery long had made a mockery of
the Jeffersonian ideal, and the war had scorched "nature's nation" to
an undeniable "crust." Philadelphia was no longer a genteel center of
trade and governance, but a secondary cog in an explosive machine of
railroads and factories. What was even more significant for Cope's
future, the city was no longer the center of American science. The
last members of the old Bartram circle, the entomologist Thomas Say
(John Bartram's great-grandson) and the botanist Thomas Nuttall, had
left in 1825, Say to join an Indiana utopian community, Nuttall to
teach at Harvard. The very structure of natural history was changing.
Say and Nuttall had been of the Bartram mold, independent explorers
who roamed the Rockies and Oregon in search of new specimens. But, as
the writer Joseph Kastner observed of the 1840s: "The adventurer-
naturalist now was being eclipsed by the academic specialist... A
Bartram or a Nuttall would no longer go where his dream or ambition
took him, but where a professor told him to go. The romantic age of
American natural history was nearly over."
By 1865, Say and Nuttall were dead, and Ivy League professors
like Harvard's Asa Gray presided over rapidly coalescing academic
specialties. Gray was too busy with research, cataloguing, teaching,
and corresponding with colleagues like Darwin to do much
exploring. "The enlightened bureaucrat had replaced the virtuoso as
the benefactor-and the beneficiary-of American natural science,"
wrote Kastner. As the virtuoso Edward Cope wandered through the
Pennsylvania woods collecting flowers, rocks, mammals, toads,
fossils, and whatever else struck his fancy, he was somewhat in the
position of a cultivated Southerner in 1860. Having inherited a
venerable and apparently stable world, he was only dimly aware of
another growing quickly to the north. Soon he would be tempted to
challenge that world, however, and he would learn more about it,

Copyright (c) 1999 by David Rains Wallace. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii Illustrations xiii Prologue: Assassination by Newspaper 1 1. Prodigy and Heir 11 2. Stepchild and Laggard 23 3. Fair Prospects in Dirt 32 4. Professor Marsh’s Traveling Bone and Pony Show 46 5. The Lone Philadelphian 67 6. Babel at Fort Bridger 77 7. Marsh the Reformer 92 8. Cope the Explorer 112 9. Huxley Anoints Marsh 131 10. Dinosaurs and Fate 143 11. An Inside Job 167 12. The Slippery Slope 178 13. Behind the Arras 192 14. Cope Strikes 209 15. The Herald Steams Ahead 226 16. Marsh Strikes Back 238 17. The Herald Steams Away 247 18. Symmetries and Ironies 255 19. Death 269 20. The Skeleton Drummer 287 Epilogue: Squabblers on a Raft 298 Notes 310 Bibliography 340 Index 348

What People are Saying About This

John Vernon

There is science--and then there are stories about scientists, and David Rains Wallace has dug up a great one. The Bonehunter's Revenge charts the great divide running through the collective culture of science; on the one side, scientific thought as indelible image of reason, on the other, the tangled mess of envy, paranoia, ambition, and bile in which some scientists find themselves mired. Few have been as thoroughly mired, and for so long, as Wallace's obsessed pair of professors, Cope and Marsh. A fascinating tale of triumph, folly, and very old bones.

John S. McIntosh

Wallace's fast moving and well written book is sure to become the definitive work on the Marsh-Cope feud.

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