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The Bonehunters War


Fri, Mar 2nd, 2001
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By John P. LevellMonday, March 5, 2001

The "Saga of Sue," a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus rex found in the Badlands of South Dakota in 1990 and named for its discoverer Sue Hendrickson, is undoubtedly a familiar story to most Americans. Indeed, intense media coverage of the lengthy legal battle waged over ownership of this 65 million year-old fossil and its eventual purchase by Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History for somewhere in the neighborhood of 7.5 million dollars has arguably made "Sue" the most famous dinosaur in the world.

Many may be surprised to learn, however, that a war fought over the remains of a dinosaur is by no means unheard of in the annuals of science. In fact, the battle for Sue is strangely reminiscent of another far greater dinosaur war waged in the western United States from the early 1870s through the 1880s. A war fought by two rival paleontologists whose hatred for one another was so intense it spawned an unending feud destined to outlast even death.

Both men were among the most powerful and influential scientific figures of their era, a fact guaranteed to garner the attention of the "yellow-journalistic" minded newspaper editors of the age. The New York Times and other prominent eastern periodicals, as always savoring controversy, eagerly publicized the triumphs and accusations of either side. Adding additional fuel to the fire both men were independently wealthy, although their respective roads to fame were to begin quite differently.

The older of the two, Othniel Charles Marsh, was born into a Lockport, New York family on the brink of poverty in October 1831. Going from bad to worse, his mother died when Marsh was three leading to an unsettled childhood spent in a chaotic ever-revolving assortment of homes. In one of lifes quirky twists of fate, however, the older brother of Marshs mother was none other than multi-millionaire George Peabody. Although having little use for Marshs father, Peabody was interested in the welfare of his sisters son and arranged for O.C. (as Marsh came to be called) to receive a small "nest egg" upon reaching the age of twenty. Marsh wisely used this money to enter Phillips Academy, the equivalent of a modern day high school, graduating at the ripe old age of twenty-five.

Impressed with his nephews fortitude and good sense, Uncle George next paid for six years of college at Yale and financed two additional years of study in Europes finest museums and universities. At Marshs suggestion, the aging tycoon followed this with a donation of $150,000 to Yale for the establishment of a University Museum. In return, Yale promptly named Marsh acting Professor of Paleontology. On Peabodys death in 1869, O.C. inherited a substantial portion of his uncles wealth, allowing him to decline any further salary from Yale, further solidifying his position at the University.

Marshs adversary, Edward Drinker Cope was born to a wealthy Quaker family in Fairfield, Pennsylvania (now part of Philadelphia) in 1840. In a somewhat macabre coincidence, Copes mother also died when he was three years old but in all other respects the early years of the two future rivals could not have been more different. Cope grew up in a prosperous, loving and well-ordered household and was encouraged to pursue his interest in the natural world by both his father and stepmother.

Copes brilliance as a scientist was likewise apparent at a very early age and the first of some 1400 scientific contributions he would author in his lifetime was published by the time he reached eighteen. Unlike Marsh, Copes research interests included living fishes, amphibians and reptiles in addition to extinct animals and he would achieve lasting fame not just as a paleontologist but in the fields of Herpetology (the study of amphibians and reptiles) and Ichthyology (the study of fish) as well.

Despite the pacifism of his devout Quaker upbringing, Cope possessed a fiercely hot temper. Knowing of his love for a good old-fashioned brawl and intent on keeping him out of the American Civil War, Copes parents arranged for him to travel in Europe where, like Marsh, he continued his studies at all the leading scientific institutions.

Upon returning to the U.S., Cope briefly taught at Haverford College and began a long but sometimes stormy association with the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. Although having briefly met in Europe, it was during this period that the Cope-Marsh feud first began to brew. Their relationship started out cordial enough, with Marsh spending a seeming friendly week in 1868 visiting Copes dinosaur quarries near Haddonfield, New Jersey. For some inexplicable reason, however, Marsh almost immediately initiated hostilities by covertly bribing members of Copes field crew to send future New Jersey fossils to Yale's new Peabody Museum.

In 1870 their already strained relationship turned uglier still when Cope, in his haste to outdo Marsh, mistakenly placed the skull of his newly discovered Elasmosaurus, an extinct marine reptile resembling the legendary Loch Ness monster, at the end of the animals tail. Marsh was, of course, quick to publicly point out this error. Adding insult to injury, the only printed copies of the publication in which the offending description appeared that the mortified Cope was unable to purchase back were those already in Marshs possession.

From this point onward, their mutual hatred for one another only intensified. In the quest to win their private twenty-year war any tactic, no matter how unscrupulous, was employed. Cope, for example, reputedly once changed all the address labels of a trainload of bones collected by Marshs Wyoming field crew, redirecting the shipment to Philadelphia instead of its intended Yale University destination. Neither side was above sabotage either, with dynamite occasionally used to blow up any remaining fossils at the end of a seasons digging rather than risk losing the site to their rival.

Colleagues and co-workers, most against their will, were also ruthlessly sucked into the fray. Whether deployed as spies, coerced into clandestine raids to steal from the "enemy" compound, or having their work outright plagiarized (as some employed by Marsh would later claim), no one unlucky enough to fall within the path of the Cope-Marsh war managed to escape unscathed. Some including America's first professional paleontologist and Cope's mentor, the great Joseph Leidy, would eventually quit studying fossils all together rather than suffer additional abuse.

Marsh, for his part, was also not immune from making the occasional blunder. Like Cope, the most famous of Marsh's mistakes involved a skull, in this case the wrong one, that he mistakenly assumed belonged to an otherwise spectacular Apatosaurus skeleton. Compounding his error O.C. named the same dinosaur twice, which is why many still call this animal Brontosaurus. In perhaps his biggest blunder of all Marsh steadfastly refused to pay $10,000 for the Berlin Archaeopteryx, the world's oldest known proto-bird, a fossil currently considered to be priceless.

Despite the obvious unpleasantness of their bitter feud, the Cope-Marsh rivalry nevertheless contributed much to the study of dinosaurs in the United States. In fact, their unrelenting race to be the first to discover bigger and better bones led to the recovery of fossils at a rate unequalled to this day. Between them, Cope and Marsh described nearly 140 dinosaur species, not to mention a myriad of additional extinct animals, and their work forms the very foundation of American paleontology.

By 1890, financially ruined by poor investments and plagued by declining health, Cope's time in the field was over. To his lasting credit Cope actually participated in the hardships of each seasons fieldwork, unlike Marsh who rarely ventured i

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