This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Dinosaur Theme Week

The Bone Wars

Many progenitors of scientific fields garner reverent reputations as time passes, perhaps titans of inquiry, research, and genius who placed pure scholarship above all else. We tend to view Newton and Einstein as ascetic paragons, infallibly probing the fabric of the universe for nothing more than the good of humanity. Of course, scientists are only human, and neither Newton nor Einstein was a saint. Yet when we gaze backward across the centuries, we conjure visions of intellectuals in ivory towers at the headwaters of uncorrupted academics.

Not all disciplines boast such sterile reputations. Paleontologists, for example, do not fill the imagination as hygienic number crunchers. Instead, they wear Indiana Jones-style fedoras, drip with desert sweat, and live in canvas tents. When one gives a hearty smack to the paleontologist’s shoulder in salutations, the dust of weeks of excavations flies off unwashed clothing. This imagery owes some debt to the real situations of dinosaur digs and some to popular representations of the scientists, in works such as Jurassic Park.

But, perhaps, this viewpoint incurs a debt to the Newton and Einstein of paleontology and the timeframe in which they lived. Maybe the birth of paleontology as a scientific discipline never had the chance to blossom into an aristocratic endeavor. When a field launches under the auspices of the Bone Wars, paleontologists might just emerge looking more like cowboys and gangsters than bookworms.

This tale of intrigue begins with two men of science, perhaps destined for the hallowed pantheons of Newton or Einstein, who end up closer to destitute extras from Deadwood. The pursuit of personal glory, a slew of underhanded tactics, and a healthy dose of hatred led Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope on a path of mutual self-destruction. Along the way, though, they blazed a trail for dinosaur science.

Othniel Charles Marsh (left) and Edward Drinker Cope (right)

Though humans had interacted with dinosaur bones in the distant past – the Chinese in the third and fourth centuries thought they had uncovered dragon bones; in Europe, people thought they were the remnants of giants of the Bible – not until the early 19th century did scientists understand what these fossils represented. The term “dinosaur” emerged in 1842, as Sir Richard Owen pasted together deinos (Greek for “terrible) and sauros (“lizard”), in honor of the awe-inducing size of the creatures.

In 1858, the first complete dinosaur skeleton discovered in the United States materialized from a marl pit in Haddonfield, New Jersey. Called in to work on the find was one of the preeminent paleontologists of the era, Joseph Leidy. Just 16 years after the coining of the term “dinosaur,” paleontology was nascent and Leidy viewed the pursuit as noble.

A few years later, a young fan of geology named Edward Cope became an anatomical understudy of Leidy. Cope devoured the sciences, eventually heading to Europe to visit the great museums of the continent. In Germany, he met Othniel Marsh, a recent undergraduate and master’s graduate of Yale, whose uncle was the famous philanthropist George Peabody. Marsh had convinced Uncle George to found the Museum of Natural History at his alma mater, which Marsh would later lead. Some suggest both men were in Europe to avoid being drafted for the Civil War. The men became friends, bonding over their love of science.

When they returned to the United States, Marsh became the first full professor of paleontology at Yale, while Cope became a professor at Haverford College. Both gained dinosaur fever. Cope visited the American West and envisioned the ancient history that had transpired in the rocks he saw. Marsh dreamed of filling the museum at Yale with dinosaur bones. The two shared warm letters and even named species they had discovered after each other. All was well with the dino world.

The New Jersey marl pits in which Cope’s mentor, Leidy, had toiled continued to produce dinosaur bones, many of which went to Cope for study. In 1868, Marsh asked Cope if he could have a tour of the quarries. Cope showed him the ropes, thinking the visit to be a scholarly tour with a chum.

Shortly after, the bones coming to Cope’s laboratory stopped arriving. He didn’t know it then, but the Bone Wars had begun.

The New Jersey marl pit in which the first complete skeleton of the United States was located - photo by Smallbones

While at the site, Marsh had approached the landowners and offered them cash if they would send any fossils they discovered to him, instead of Cope. The bones started heading to New Haven.

Cope could not understand what occurred. Had his friend bribed the excavators? Cope officially accused Marsh of the offense. Marsh viewed the payoff as an opportunity for himself and the museum, not a slight to Cope, which seems a social oversight. Regardless, Marsh did not take kindly to public accusations of bribery. His act sent their relations on a trajectory that headed straight to the badlands.

In retaliation, when Marsh realized that Cope had erroneously sketched a dinosaur – he put the head of Elasmosaurus on its tail, instead of its neck – he publicly skewered Cope’s knowledge and pedigree. Embarrassed, Cope attempted to buy all the copies of the publication in which the drawing had appeared. To drive the nail, Marsh approached Leidy to validate the mistake. In a humiliating blow, Cope’s mentor agreed he had been in error. Cope never seemed to recover from this move. To this point, only Marsh had stepped over the gentlemanly boundary, but Cope was soon to join the Bone Wars as a full participant.

Cope's "head-on-the-wrong-end" version of Elasmosaurus

Backed by a major university, Marsh had begun sending expeditions to the West in hopes of hitting dino mother lodes. The transcontinental railroad system had begun to open up the possibility of faster travel from the East Coast to the dry expanses of the Mountain West. Not only could humans go to dig more easily, but boxes full of bones could also be sent eastward toward museums. Marsh had digs set up in Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming. He viewed them as personal hunting grounds.

In 1872, Cope, infuriated by Marsh’s underhanded tactics and seeming rise to the top of the paleontology world, decided to head west, too. Under the auspices of a position with the U.S. Geological Survey, Cope traveled toward the dinosaur fields, only to find help and supplies promised to him to be absent. So, he funded an excursion himself, often foraying into rather bodacious terrain in hopes of outdoing Marsh.

The contemporaries in the West during these excavations are incredible. Jesse James robbed his first bank in 1869. In 1871, Wild Bill Hickok was the Marshal of Abilene, Kansas; he was not murdered until 1876. Wyatt Earp began his career in law enforcement in 1875; the O.K. Corral shootout in Tombstone transpired in 1881. Billy the Kid first appeared in history in 1877. Annie Oakley’s first sharpshooting show happened in 1882. One of Marsh’s initial guides was Buffalo Bill Cody.

These erudite easterners had become bone-seekin’ cowboys.

Marsh, center of back row, with his assistants in 1872 - unknown photographer

Despite vast stretches of land filled to the brim with dinosaur bones, the two camps found the continent not big enough for the both of them.

At first, the pettiness seemed relatively academic. The parties would rush off telegrams to the east every time they made a discovery, in the hopes of beating the other to the headlines. They sent error after error, only caring about speed. If they found a species they had already named, they gave it a new moniker and beamed that to the newspapers.

During the winters, the scientists would head home to study the bones they had discovered and write fuller analyses of their expeditions. They sparred over nomenclature, with Marsh’s larger academic clout winning the day.

Each year, they would head back to the dinosaur fields. Each year, the tactics became nastier. The two spied on each other. One would get word of a promising area, only to show up to see the other’s delegates already there. Payments went to prospectors, hoping to buy allegiances. In their haste to beat the other, the camps employed dynamite to excavate, a practice that sickens modern paleontologists. Always fearing moles and turncoats, the men ordered fossils they could not use or extract to be destroyed, lest they end up in the hands of their rival. They employed sabotage, filling the other’s quarries with dirt. At one point, the teams even fought a battle by throwing rocks.

Between 1877 and 1892, Marsh and Cope poured enormous amounts of money into digs in Morrison, Colorado, and Como Bluff, Wyoming. Though they wasted time and money on their conflict, they also produced prodigious scientific output. By the end of the Bone Wars, the pair had discovered 136 species of dinosaurs, including many of the most famous: TriceratopsAllosaurusStegosaurus, and Diplodocus. They could have been mutual beneficiaries, but Cope and Marsh continued to try to ruin each other.

Nearly complete Allosaurus skeleton found by Cope's team at Como Bluff - photo by ScottRobertAnselmo

By some metrics, Marsh had been “winning” the competition. He discovered 80 of the 136 species between the two and had turned his clout into a spot as the chief paleontologist of the country, under the burgeoning influence of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Instead of basking in his elevated position, he decided to upkeep the battle. He lobbied the USGS to implement a rule that would force all dinosaur fossils obtained with any government funds to be given to the Smithsonian Institution. Marsh knew Cope had received some government money on his excavations. Of course, Marsh forged a secret deal to keep his collection, which had been supplemented by the USGS, safe. Cope managed to keep his bones by producing detailed receipts, illustrating nearly all of his finds had come from his own money.

In revenge, Cope opted to drop his nuclear weapon. Since the first instance of bribery in New Jersey, Cope had kept meticulous records of every nasty thing Marsh had pulled off or attempted. He offered the story to a writer for the New York Herald. The resulting article accused Marsh of plagiarism and fraud. Additionally, it levied an accusation at John Wesley Powell, the head of USGS and a Marsh ally, of corruption and misuse of federal funds.

Though Marsh and Powell were able to parry most of the charges, some anti-science members of Congress decided to use the scandal to rail against sending government money to the USGS. The result was a halving of the budget for the survey, including the elimination of all paleontological activity. Marsh was out of a job. Worse, the government now demanded his fossils be sent to the Smithsonian.

Marsh ended up losing a chunk of his collection, more than 80 tons. More importantly, his reputation took a big hit. He had been the world’s most famous paleontologist. Now, he was an outcast and largely out of money.

Cope might have been laughing last at this point. However, he was also in a dire financial situation. Not as wealthy and connected as Marsh, he had spent most of his fortune funding expeditions. When times got tight, he tried to invest in a silver mine that turned out to be closer to a scam than paydirt. 

As the 20th century approached, both combatants had essentially lost everything.

Como Bluffs - photo by Anky-man

In one last raise of the middle finger, as Cope lay on his deathbed in 1897, he decided to offer his body to be studied for scientific purposes. This proposal had nothing to do with scientific altruism. He wanted his brain and skull to be measured. At the time, the size of both pieces of anatomy was thought to indicate the measure of one’s intelligence. He challenged Marsh to submit his brain and skull for measurement, to show that Cope had been his better.

When Marsh died in 1899, he ignored the challenge.

What could these scientists have achieved as collaborators? How many species did we miss because they decided to use dynamite? Why did Marsh feel the need to bribe the site owners in New Jersey in the first place? Why were the egos of Cope and Marsh so large and fragile that they could not coexist? Their rivalry had become so potent that Leidy exited the realm of dinosaurs because he didn’t want to deal with collateral fallout. What could all three have achieved together?

Even with their pettiness, the two launched the discipline of paleontology to new heights. Together, they discovered more than 10% of the total known species of dinosaurs, doing so in the early years of the branch. Their work, particularly that of Marsh, went a long way toward providing proper evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution. Museums are filled with fossils from their expeditions. The state of paleontology certainly progressed thanks to Marsh and Cope.

Yet, both men found themselves consumed by a hatred for the other and died after squandering personal fortunes. Today, neither name appears next to those of Einstein or Newton in the pantheon of great scientists. The names Cope and Marsh evoke the Bone Wars, not high academic achievement. The tale is worthy of a Western epic, specifically a Western tragedy. At least we got Stegosaurus out of the deal!

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