Written and presented by Amy Widdowson. Amy is a communications professional, history enthusiast, and Founding Fellow of Odd Salon. You can read her pre-coffee musings at The Morning Missive. She lives in San Francisco with her dog, who thinks she’s pretty swell.
“And this feud had everything: it had deception, it had financial mismanagement, it had classification errors, plagiarism, and it had one dude shaming another dude publicly for putting the head of an animal on the butt of an animal.”
In this episode, Odd Salon Fellow Amy Widdowson looks at the lasting legacy of the Smithsonian dinosaur collection, and the rival Victorian paleontologists who spared no efforts in undoing the other.
What happens when you combine the mid-1800s rush to excavate fossils during the Bone Wars, the inherently human desire to discover, name, categorize and display anything and everything, the Edwardian age of optimism, the attempt to assemble skeletons of nightmare lizard creatures that hadn’t walked the earth in millions of years, and the creation of a national Museum of Natural History? Well, you get the Hall of Extinct Monsters at the Smithsonian Institution, of course!
Our feeble human brain can’t understand tens or hundreds of millions of years. It’s impossible. We understand two weeks ago, we understand a week ago, we understand five years ago, hell, we understand generations. We can name our great, great, great grandparents and sometimes on a good day, I can explain the general sense of the difference between Common Era and Before Common Era.
But dinosaur bones understand time on a scale we can’t comprehend. When you walk into a museum and glance up at a 66 million year old triceratops, look it dead in the eye, think, “Huh? That’s cool.” And then shuffle along to look at something else; that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of connection between you and a petrified lizard is essentially non-existent when placed in the span of time for that fossilized creature.
It chilled in the earth for many, many times more than any of us walking mammals have graced this planet. After falling and dying, these impossibly large creatures lay within earthly sediment and their soft remains melded into soil with minerals replacing their hard remains, therein eternally shaped into an impression of a former living creature.
These bones – and I put “bones” in quotes, by the way, because I am not a scientist and I am sure someone is yelling about that – these bones remained far beneath the surface of the earth as exponential millennia passed by. As continents moved and temperatures changed while mountains and rivers were formed and eliminated and brought back into the earth.
They felt the ice age. They’ve felt the warm dry wind of the high desert above them, or perhaps the ocean that came over them. They felt infinite seasons change. It’s a blip of time. Nothing that would even register on their massive time scale.
In fact, if a bucket of sand represented the time dinosaur bones have been in the ground, human discovery of said dinosaur bones isn’t even a handful of sand. It isn’t even a quarter of a handful of sand because to dinosaur bones, humanity is nothing.
Hi there. My name is Amy Widdowson. I’m a founding fellow of Odd Salon, and today I will tell you the story of how a Hall of Extinct Monsters came to be.
It must have been confusing for dinosaur bones to be awakened from their multi million years of slumber to suddenly feel sun on them, to squint up at the sky and feel the brush of a paleontologist stranger, to be uprooted from that resting place and trucked off to be assembled in a museum.
And while I know that dinosaur bones don’t in fact feel, see, hear, taste anything because they’re bones, I love to think about how the 19th century rush to unearth them was nothing, and yet completely changed how we mere mortals with squishy storytelling apparatuses between our ears comprehend deep history.
It’s hard to fathom that knowing what a dinosaur was is a very recent phenomenon. Sure, there were folktales passed down through the ages. Stories of dragons in China and monstrous men in England, and other supernatural and or religious phenomenon tied to these massive bones found in the ground. But we didn’t know that there were such things as multi-story reptiles that lived on this earth before us until around the 19th century. And when we started to catalog it and figure it out, this idea of these ancient monsters was in direct opposition to a prevalent story that we’d all told ourselves (well, Western cultures had told ourselves) creating time, that according to some never even existed. I’m no mathematician, but a million years is a heck of a lot longer than 6,000-ish when the world was created.
So, picture yourself as one of those paleontologists, one of those scientists. You’re in the wind swept South Dakotan badlands. You feel your parched lips and sand coated hair, surrounded by hoodoos and curious desert creatures wondering why the hell you’re digging in their backyard. And then, imagine what it would feel like to hit something solid, to slowly brush and unearth a bone many times larger than anything you’d ever seen, heavy as stone and just next to another bone that might have been big… or bigger… or a lot bigger.
What goes through your mind as you look at this pile of pickup sticks that you’ve never assembled into anything and from the dirt emerges ahead of a dragon, the body of an elephant, the talons of an eagle? What if in your 19th century brain, the bones you find have no order, no meaning? You think maybe it’s one creature, but then you find a second skull and so it’s apparent there’s more than one creature, right? Because there’s no such thing as a two-headed animal. Is there? Or there could be? Might there be? From sandy sediment to salacious spectacle, these bones were cobbled together by these perplexed people, charged with making them real. They were trucked across a country and then reconstructed with wire and epoxy and other jerry-rigged material brought together with creativity to create monsters so that we could put them in front of assembled crowds in newly built structures in a very confident country’s capital.
Marbled hallways, lofty ceilings, and newly dried fresco murals were much different from the Badlands. And within these halls, these new bones looked down on the current pinnacle of scientific celebration, a place to gather all of the collectibles us humans brought together and show them off to the public.
This crowd waiting to be allowed into the newly formed National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC jumbled together as the doors opened all so that they could enter this cavernous hall filled with skeletons, skeletons of creatures larger than they could have imagined. If you think of a little boy holding his governess’ hand and staring at monsters with dagger teeth long and bendy spines and claws, big as manhole covers; this little boy who’d only ever pictured creatures like this while listening to a terrifying church sermon about hell or maybe in his nightmares. And to be honest, that creature, as he saw it, that creature that he stared up at, the only way anyone may have seen that creature would’ve been in the Hall of Extinct Monsters or in a religion induced nightmare, because unfortunately, many of those skeletons were, um, constructed inaccurately.
So how did that go wrong?
Well, we should try and step back and understand the turmoil that went into collecting the fossils required to make these gigantic beasts, because between 1877 and 1892, two paleontologists basically destroyed their own lives trying to outdo the other, leading to the discovery of more than 136 new species of dinosaurs.
Because in this era, science was more like, “get your hands on the thing, claim it as your own. Everything in your wake be damned” because this was a nasty Bone War between former friends Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, one that sparked the public’s interest in dinosaurs and prehistoric life.
I don’t know about you, but when I think about this time period, I think about gentile archaeology digs that I’ve pictured from movies. That wasn’t what this was. This was warring clans of armed scientists pillaging land and spitting out shoddy research papers all in the name of being the first one to name a new species. It was essentially the rowdy comments section of the 1800s. And this feud had everything: it had deception, it had financial mismanagement, it had classification errors, plagiarism, and it had one dude shaming another dude publicly for putting the head of an animal on the butt of an animal.
But let it be known that if we were crowning a winner of the Bone Wars based solely on number of species discovered, Marsh won, discovering 80 to Copes 56. Still incredible if you think about it, because remember that these men were basically on the edge of myth with their discoveries. They found the remains of monsters in the ground and then fought to be the first to tell people about them.
But after both Marsh and Cope were left penniless, fossil-less, and deeply embittered; after losing everything, trying to one up each other, one man was tasked with taking a bunch of these specimens and preparing them for public exhibit.
And what a task that was. Let me introduce you to Charles W. Gilmore. In photos Gilmore has an uncanny similarity to the spooky, but snazzily suited gentleman demon from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but with kinder eyes. He had a large round forehead, sunken piercing eyes, lines around his mouth. A questioning stare.
The few photos we have of him with his fossils are from later in his life, and he looks at the camera as if we should obviously be embarrassed that we interrupted his time with his bones.
Anyhoo. When Marsh died in 1899, the entirety of his paleontological collection was bequeathed to the Smithsonian in Washington to finally build a National History Museum. And this idea had been along for a long time. The Smithsonian itself was founded in 1846, and this National Museum of Natural History didn’t open until March 17th, 1910.
In fact, as we’re talking about how far back this idea went, the August 1946 edition of Science Magazine spoke of the birth of the Smithsonian’s Division of Vertebrate Paleontology, which came from the acquisition of – and I shit you not – the National Cabinet of Curiosities, all the way back in 1846. And I must tell you, I do wonder if there is a current National Cabinet of Curiosities that no one is telling us about, and I want to see it, but that’s neither here nor there.
It may seem with our predetermined mind’s eye view of dinosaurs solidified after decades of Jurassic Park rewatching that it might be easy to assemble the skeletons of one of these beasts. After all, we know what a triceratops looks like. We know what a stegosaurus looks like, and we all make fun of T rex’s tiny arms.
But picture what would happen if you went off to IKEA, you bought three different types of furniture. You brought it home, you opened up all the boxes, you dumped them out on your floor, you mixed them all up, unassembled and without labels, and you burnt the instructions and then someone told you: make a living room out of it.
I imagine you would find that very challenging. And now imagine that you’d never heard of the concept of furniture. Because once we put ourselves in the minds of these scientists assembling these skeletons at that time, it was equal parts art and science to determine whether a rib went here or perhaps a foot bone went there, and if something was missing… well create what you think from plaster and slap that baby on top of the skeleton.
Gilmore himself was born in 1874 just as the Bone Wars were heating up and he was hired to deal with the tons and tons of fossils accumulated through the possession of Marsh’s bone collection. Gilmore was the one that got stuck with the big old stack of bones, and he had a ticking clock deadline of a museum opening to the public to work against.
Gilmore was responsible for assembling many of the mounted dinosaur skeletons personally that awed crowds when the Hall of Extinct Monsters was open. Gilmore would go on to supervise the construction of triceratops(the first mount of this taxon in the world), Camptosaurus, Stegosaurus, Dimetrodon, Ceratosaurus, Diplodocus, and numerous other displays that have been enjoyed by generations of museum visitors.
He was responsible for the scary creatures assembled in the cavernous Hall, designed to be a giant lizard filled cabinet of curiosities. Now this process was happening across museums all over the world, and it seemed to be chaotic.
Lukas Rieppel, in his paper “Bringing Dinosaurs Back To Life: Exhibiting Prehistory at the American Museum of Natural History”, describes what is essentially a lot of guesswork. So choices were made as he points out, quote, “that rested on contested theories about the anatomy, life history, and behavior of long-extinct animals to which curators had no direct observational access.”
And add on top of that another layer of tension: While you were employed by a scientific institution, you needed to attract and entertain people in order to justify your salary and keep the lights on. So if I was in that position and had the choice between a very meek and quiet animal, and something with terrifying teeth, I know which one I would pick.
This was tricky business. As Rieppel points out, “since dinosaurs posed a substantial risk to the museum’s authority as a credible research institution,” if the assembly was messed up, everyone’s butts were on the line. Yes, there were the general ideas of how animals work (after all, a spine tends to look like a spine no matter where you find it, as Cuvier’s correlation of parts purports, and once you have a few parts pf something, you can surmise what may be missing.)
Educated guesses were made, but was it 100% guaranteed that the spine was starting with the start and ending with the end? Nope! Because no one had any external validation to rely on. These bones were being unearthed in what must have been the most unsettling time to be alive, if you were curious and interested in science.
This perfect storm of scientific discovery across all disciplines combined with mass colonial expansion and increased long haul travel led to a flood of innovation, and of art and music and sensuality and anxiety. From the mid 1800s on humans were overwhelmed with new and challenging information that impacted the stories that we told ourselves.
And so, of course we got right about to claiming them, cataloging them, and putting them on display. Gilmore and his team did their best, of course, but in their race to assemble and display, they made a lot of mistakes. The famed triceratops, which was named after the paleontologist, Gilmore actually worked for, was originally created using bones from 10 different creatures, which gave it what the Smithsonian Magazine described as in 2018 as “out of proportion and an ungainly posture” …or what I put on my dating profile.
This is because when Hatcher was first assembled, they didn’t have one complete triceratops skeleton to look at, so they kind of just made their best guess. The process they used to assemble these giant beasts was not exactly up to the preservation standards we have now with the work being done causing irreparable damage to the fossil.
In fact, in 1996, Hatcher unfortunately began to fall apart. So think back: think about butts on necks. Brontosaurus like creatures set on their hind legs. Five skeletons cobbled into one mount, shoved into one specimen. Bones shattered to be reassembled around pipes. Chimeras assembled with more art than science; one T rex kicking another one in the head.
It was bonkers and truly amazing in the biblical sense. It was a time when every assumption we’d had about nature and science and culture and religion was being blown to hell.
And following the mass bone rush in the mid 1800s, it just got worse from there. Electricity, the railroad, the telegraph, upending communication and transport as we knew it, and also revolutionizing warfare across Europe and the United States.
Somehow though, the early 20th century was a time of optimism – for a certain subset of the population, of course. As scientific discovery, sprinted past learned experience, the United States was a nation hungry to catalog, compare, showcasing, then make a ton of money off of it. As I read somewhere, “America was on a bender towards manifest destiny,” pushing us westward so that we could own every piece of land and name and creature. We got our grubby mitts on. So yeah, a pile of bones were assembled. And from here in 2022, we look back after skimming a century of research on our pocket computers and perhaps we, you know, tisk tisk at the screw ups of those from a century prior.
But we wouldn’t have our decades of Jurassic Park watching without the Hall of Monsters assembled with hooks and antenna, even shoe polish, as the Washingtonian reported. But that’s what’s so freaking cool about science. Science isn’t a destination. It’s not a solo achievement to cross off a list and say, “Well, we’re done. Let’s move on to the next thing.” It’s a process. It’s a process of learning and questioning and testing and adapting of taking the time to check our work and admit when the evidence changes, our assumptions, and even Halls of Extinct Monsters are reassessed. You see, the National History Museum reopened after a five year renovation in 2019, but it wasn’t just the building that was restored.
Scientists took apart those skeletons to reassess them and then reassemble them in a more accurate fashion. Based on the knowledge we have now, and I can’t help but sit back and wonder which modern day scientific assertions may one day look silly or incorrect, which daily habit I engage in that will one day look like the worst choice anyone could possibly make every morning, because science is always changing and growing and learning. And in a way you kind of have to pretend to do science. In order to do science, something must be proposed in order to be disproved, and sometimes you have to put the head of a dinosaur on a butt in order to build a Hall of Extinct Monsters.
CREDITS: This episode was written and performed by Amy Widdowson and recorded by Mig Miner in Oakland, California. The Odd Salon Podcast is produced by Annetta Black and Tre Balchowsky.
Members get extras: This podcast was made possible by the Members of Odd Salon. Join our community of curious minds for insider podcast perks, and opportunities to learn something weird in odd company.