Cover image for The bonehunters' revenge : dinosaurs, greed, and the greatest scientific feud of the Gilded Age
The bonehunters' revenge : dinosaurs, greed, and the greatest scientific feud of the Gilded Age
Wallace, David Rains, 1945-
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Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
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xiv, 366 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
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QE707.C63 W35 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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's been known by many names -- the Bone War, the Fossil Feud -- but the tragic story of the conflict between two leading paleontologists of the Gilded Age remains a prophetic tale of the conquest of the West, as well as a watershed event in science. Edward Drinker Cope was a Philadelphia Quaker from a wealthy family, an old-fashioned naturalist in the Jeffersonian tradition. Othniel Charles Marsh, a farm boy who had risen to a Yale professorship, was the model of a modern scientific entrepreneur. Opposites in personality and background as well as in political orientation and scientific beliefs, they fought over fossils as bitterly as other men fought over gold. With Indian wars swirling around them, they conducted their own personal warfare, staking out territories, employing scouts, troops, and spies. When James Gordon Bennett, the sociopathic publisher of the New York Herald, got wind of their feud, he stirred up an inferno that destroyed the lives of both men and scarred the reputations of many others, including John Wesley Powell, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey. In the aftermath, Powell's environmentally progressive ideas for limiting settlement of the West lost out to his opponents' laissez-faire boosterism, and the repercussions of the Bone War linger in many of the conflicts that rend the country today.

Author Notes

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.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope were two of America's greatest 19th-century paleontologists. Together, they were responsible for unearthing and naming the vast majority of this country's fossil dinosaurs and mammals. Over the course of their careers, they competed mercilessly, and often unethically, each pushing the other to further discoveries. Their feud erupted into public consciousness during two weeks in January 1890, when the New York Herald, a tabloid published by James Gordon Bennett Jr., ran a series of articles leveling charges and countercharges between the two of scientific malfeasance, including plagiarism, ignorance, favoritism, sloth, dishonesty, fossil-stealing and incompetence. Wallace (The Monkey's Bridge, etc.) makes these articles the centerpiece of his disappointing history of 19th-century paleontology. Unfortunately, he all too convincingly demonstrates that the articles were filled with errors, as well as being both boring and impenetrable to the average reader. Wallace loses credibility when, in an apparent attempt to generate interest, he adopts some of the hyperbole so common in the tabloid press of the time. Not atypical is his description of the some-time journalist who penned the first Herald article on the feud: "a photo of Ballou, showing a sloping forehead, receding chin, shifty eyes, and strangely convoluted ears, might have come from the period's abnormal psychology textbooks." Though the feud between the scientists is one of the more tantalizing and contentious events in the history of science, Marsh and Cope, as well as their work, have been covered in numerous other works (apparently diligently consulted by Wallace, who offers a seven-page bibliography). This book, engaging enough but not nearly equal to the author's best work (e.g., The Klamath Knot), doesn't add much of significance to the record. Agent, Sandy Taylor. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

This nontechnical historical account reopens the bitter professional rivalry that developed between two prominent vertebrate paleontologists of the Victorian era. O.C. Marsh, a Yale Professor, and E.D. Cope, a self-trained naturalist from Philadelphia, were the first scientists to search for, collect, and identify on a large scale dinosaur and mammal fossils from extensive bone beds of the American West. Their discoveries became the showpieces of natural history museums across America. Their rivalry, lasting 30 years, began at a professional level over interpretations, blossomed into a territorial feud for collecting sites, and ended in a bitter political struggle eventually implicating the US Geological Survey on charges of corruption and mismanagement of public lands. Writer Wallace focuses on the turbulent social and political lives of these two men, particularly as portrayed by contemporary biographers and sensational (often erroneous) accounts trumped up in big city newspapers like the New York Herald. All told, a fascinating look at Americana when the West was wide open and eastern cities were hungry for news of it. Scientific details are glossed over; general readers seeking such information should instead consult other works, like the popular book by paleontologist Robert T. Bakker The Dinosaur Heresies (CH, Mar'87). Recommended. General readers; undergraduates through faculty. J. H. Beck; Boston College

Booklist Review

After the Civil War, the American push West brought to light beds of fossils exposed in the badlands and buttes. Whoever could collect, classify, and place in an evolutionary framework the new finds would, Wallace notes in this thoroughly fascinating history, find fame in the new science of paleontology. Entering upon the high plains were two figures, Edward Drinker Cope from Philadelphia and Othniel Marsh from New Haven, naturalists who subsequently developed a vitriolic antagonism. The paleo-ossuarial matters the combatants fenced over supports Wallace's theme--vanity and the temptations and costs of indulging in it. Cope and Marsh, the former an easily read open book, the latter a self-contained, systematically ambitious sort, privately catalogued the other's infamies. Lying in wait was the sensationalist and socially ostracized publisher of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett. He struck the match in 1890, after which the careers of Cope and Marsh declined until their deaths later in the decade. This curious century-old feud comes alive with momentum and understanding in Wallace's skillful hands. Gilbert Taylor

Library Journal Review

Award-winning nature writer Wallace (The Monkey's Bridge) recounts one of the most interestingÄyet bizarreÄepisodes in dinosaur paleontology. Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope started out as two men of means bent on pursuing a career studying and locating fossils. Marsh, as a member of the wealthy Peabody family, had ample means to finance expeditions and purchase more fossil bones than he would ever have time to study; Cope, also from a wealthy family, followed suit. Against the dramatic backdrop of Indian wars, Cope and Marsh battled each other to possess the dinosaur bones so plentiful in the West during the 1870s. Wallace does an excellent job of presenting the many factsÄthose known and those unsubstantiatedÄregarding the ruthless feud that drove them both to destruction. The greatest tragedy is that Cope and Marsh really made significant fossil discoveries, finding and naming many new species, but they became so obsessed with trying to destroy and discredit each other that they wasted their opportunities. Wallace adds an important viewpoint to a remarkable story in the history of scientific discovery. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/99.]ÄGloria Maxwell, Penn Valley Community Coll. Lib., Kansas City, MO (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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 both antagonists, 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 hai Excerpted from The Bonehunters' Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age by David Rains Wallace All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. vii
Illustrationsp. xiii
Prologue: Assassination by Newspaperp. 1
1 Prodigy and Heirp. 11
2 Stepchild and Laggardp. 23
3 Fair Prospects in Dirtp. 32
4 Professor Marsh's Traveling Bone and Pony Showp. 46
5 The Lone Philadelphianp. 67
6 Babel at Fort Bridgerp. 77
7 Marsh the Reformerp. 92
8 Cope the Explorerp. 112
9 Huxley Anoints Marshp. 131
10 Dinosaurs and Fatep. 143
11 An Inside Jobp. 167
12 The Slippery Slopep. 178
13 Behind the Arrasp. 192
14 Cope Strikesp. 209
15 The Herald Steams Aheadp. 226
16 Marsh Strikes Backp. 238
17 The Herald Steams Awayp. 247
18 Symmetries and Ironiesp. 255
19 Deathp. 269
20 The Skeleton Drummerp. 287
Epilogue: Squabblers on a Raftp. 298
Notesp. 310
Bibliographyp. 340
Indexp. 348