Cover image for The gilded dinosaur : the fossil war between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the rise of American science
The gilded dinosaur : the fossil war between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the rise of American science
Jaffe, Mark.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Crown, [2000]

Physical Description:
424 pages ; 25 cm
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QE707.C63 J34 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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It was an age of counterfeit giants, avaricious robber barons, corrupt politicians, intrepid pioneers, fierce Indian chiefs, and dinosaurs. The second half of the nineteenth century -- the so-called Gilded Age -- was a time when Americans were exploring the West and building a nation that would stretch from coast to coast.

It was also a time of scientific ferment. Charles Darwin had shaken the very foundations of Victorian society with his theory of evolution by natural selection, and scientists across the civilized world were locked in a great battle over Darwin's idea. While the debate raged in Europe, the hunt for hard evidence increasingly focused on the American West, with its grand mesas, buttes, and badlands. "We must turn to the New World if we wish to see in perfection the oldest monuments of earth's history," advised Sir Charles Lyell, the father of modern geology, after a visit to America. "Certainly in no other country are these ancient strata developed on a grander scale or more plentifully charged with fossils."

Could the answer to the history of life and the proof of evolution be found in those fossils? That was the question that two young American paleontologists--Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh--set out to answer. But what began as a friendly contest quickly turned into bitter rivalry that would spill over into American science and politics and rage relentlessly for nearly three decades.
Cope and Marsh would battle on the prairies, in the halls of Congress, in science journals, and in the popular press. Both wealthy men, they launched lavish, western expeditions and raced across the plains and mountains searching for the remains of the magnificent beasts that once inhabited the continent. Along the way they would encounter George Custer, Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill, and Red Cloud.
Among the most remarkable fossil discoveries of Cope and Marsh are a bevy of dinosaurs, including some of the best known beasts -- the Triceratops, the Stegosaurus, the Camarasaurus, and the Brontosaurus. Even today, Marsh holds the record for dinosaur discoveries.
Just as valuable, however, were some of Marsh's discoveries of ancient mammals and birds that provided the first real proof of Dar- win's theory--"The best support for the theory in twenty years," the great Darwin himself proclaimed.
The tale of Cope and Marsh is also the story of the rise of American science. When their story begins just after the Civil War, America was an intellectual backwater, with eminent scientists snookered by the great, fake stone statue The Cardiff Giant--a hoax unmasked by Marsh.
But even as Cope and Marsh waged war, they both fought to build up American science and its scientific institutions. Yet despite their discoveries and their Gilded Age celebrity, the names of Cope and Marsh have faded into the recesses of the library and archive. In The Gilded Dinosaur Mark Jaffe exhumes from those archives the notes, journals, and letters of Cope and Marsh to reanimate and retell one of the keenest rivalries in the history of science.

Author Notes

MARK JAFFE lives in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, and writes about science and the environment for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is the author of And No Birds Sing .

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

The Cope-Marsh feud, an irresistable topic, recently received an estimable rendition in The Bonehunter's Revenge by David Rains Wallace [BKL O 1 99]. Wallace's explanation of the fight tends toward the analytic, whereas Jaffe, science reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, hews to a chronological, journalistic narrative featuring brief, fact-packed paragraphs. Jaffe details the biographies of each: Philadelphian Edward Cope, the precocious Quaker fossil hound; the older, decidedly pedantic Othniel Marsh, Yale College's pooh-bah of paleontology. Jaffe records how both cooperated on fossil-hunting trips around New Jersey. When fossil beds in the West came to light following the Civil War, they developed into rivals, competing for resources to mount expeditions, credit for discoveries, and preferment in the newly founded U.S. Geological Survey. Marsh usually bested Cope, to the latter's resentment amid his declining financial fortunes. Jaffe colorfully details the 1890s yellow journalism that sensationalized their differences until the PR of a "feud" turned into the reality of one. An able account that dino-philiacs will enjoy.Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Science in general and paleontology in particular came of age in America during the second half of the 19th century. Two of the dominant figures of the time, E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh, were responsible for uncovering and naming most of the dinosaurs found in America while feuding with one another for all of their adult lives. Journalist Jaffe (And No Birds Sing) does an admirable job of bringing these two, as well as the myriad politicians and scientists they interacted with, to life. Rather than focusing narrowly on their feud, as does David Rains Wallace in his recent The Bonehunters' Revenge, Jaffe provides much more context for their disagreement and uses it to demonstrate the nature of the scientific enterprise. Both wanted sole control of the best fossils found in the American West and both coveted the attention that came with being the world's foremost paleontologist. Neither was above using political connections, from fellow scientists to the inhabitants of the White House during numerous administrations, to further their careers. Jaffe's epic history--covering a search for the bones of the largest animals ever to walk the earth; the trials, tribulations and governmental abuses surrounding the Indian Wars; the transition of science from an avocation to a profession; and the political machinations associated with pork-barrel funding of scientific expeditions--is as engaging as an adventure novel while providing insight into America's Gilded Age. Agent, David Black. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

As a new science in the 19th century, paleontology attracted ambitious men--including O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope, who spent the better part of 30 years searching and digging for dinosaur bones against a backdrop of cold winters, blazing hot summers, and warring Indians. These two brilliant paleontologists engaged in a bitter feud that was often reported in the national newspapers. When the dust finally settled, Marsh found and named the most specimens but did not formulate any significant ideas related to his fossils, while Cope wrote a record number of scientific publications and formulated precepts still recognized today. David Wallace's The Bonehunter's Revenge (LJ 9/15/99) focuses more on the newspaper war between Cope and Marsh and does not leave the reader with a true sense of these two men and their feud. Science writer Jaffe (And No Birds Sang) captures the complexity of the feud, both scientifically and personally, as well as the excitement of the Wild West, the treachery among rival camps, and the grueling conditions they endured. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries.--Gloria Maxwell, Penn Valley Community Coll. Lib., Kansas City (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Journalist Jaffe takes us back to the time when US science was young and paleontology was for earnest and ambitious young men craving excitement and recognition. The "war" between vertebrate paleontologists E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh has been described many times before--it is one of the founding legends of US geology--but Jaffe places the epic conflict in the context of post-Civil War politics and the development of science as a profession. Cope and Marsh are well sketched here, so well that readers can easily see the hubris and arrogance that led each to thoroughly despise the other. The growing field of vertebrate paleontology bore the primary burden of competing (and confused) taxonomies, but it also flowered as trainloads of spectacular ancient dinosaurs, birds, and mammals were revealed. The story's background is equally fascinating; the government struggled with its role in science: should Washington help fund basic research or was that the role of universities and "the millionaires?" Who owns fossils and other geological riches found on public lands? An immediate issue was the proliferation of government surveys of the West; Cope and Marsh had deep connections to separate surveys, so their battles drew in other scientists and eventually Congress itself. An excellent addition to any library. General readers through professionals. M. A. Wilson; College of Wooster



By the end of September, Cope had decided that it was time to break camp and move up the river toward Cow Island, where the last steamer of the season would soon depart. Cope and Jim Deer went down to the island to make arrangements, while Isaac, Sternberg, and Merrill were left to move the camp. Now getting out of river valley was a good deal more difficult than getting into it. Here the bluffs were steeper, and in addition, they had collected twelve hundred pounds of fossils. The three men left their supplies at Dog Creek as they first attempted to get the wagon out of the valley. Facing a steep ridge covered with loose shale, Merrill balked at even trying to get the wagon up the slope. An impatient Isaac took the reins and urged the horses on. He had gotten about thirty feet up the incline when gravity got the better of the rig and pulled it over. Isaac, horses, and wagon rolled over and over and over. When they reached the sandstone ledge from which they had started, the wagon landed upright, and the horses ended up on their feet, unharmed. Incredibly, Isaac was still in one piece. The three men then tried a different approach. They constructed a windlass to drag the wagon up the slope to the prairie. Then all the bones, goods, and supplies followed. They were reassembling the gear when they saw one horseman approaching from the south and another from the east. The southern rider turned out to be Jim Deer. The eastern horseman was Cope. Deer announced that Sitting Bull was rumored to be within a hundred miles and heading in their direction. The guide said he had already seen signs of Sioux scouting parties. Deer said he as clearing out. When Merrill heard the news, he also grabbed his bedroll and headed after the departing guide. "The scout and our valiant cook had concluded that their precious scalps were too valuable to risk," Sternberg said disparagingly. Everything now dictated that the Cope party move quickly. Not only was there a possibility of the Sioux appearing, but there was only one more boat heading downriver this season -- the Josephine. They had only a few days to reach Cow Island. If Cope failed to reach the boat, at best his fossils would be stranded in Montana for the entire winter; at worst they would meet Sitting Bull. Under the twin threats of the Sioux and the Josephine's pending departure, Cope, Sternberg, and Isaac put in a fourteen-hour day to haul the bones across prairie and badlands. It was late at night before they stopped for a supper of bacon and hardtack and a few hours of sleep. At daybreak, they set out again. Late on the second night, they reached a ravine leading back to the Missouri River, twelve hundred feet below. They were just three miles above Cow Island. The steamer could come upriver this far, load the bones, and they would be off. The wagon was unloaded and lowered down to the valley floor using an improvised block and tackle. Then the baggage was lowered. Again, it was after midnight when they sat down to supper. Cope and Sternberg now rode back to Cow Island to be sure the steamboat would come upriver to fetch the precious crates. On the way, however, Cope could not resist stopping in the badlands for one last fossil hunt. The two men separated, agreeing to rendezvous at four that afternoon. The hours passed, and the sun was sinking. Sternberg could do no more than watch the sun and wait. Finally, Cope finally came galloping out of a badlands coulee. It would now be impossible to reach Cow Island before sunset. Sternberg pleaded with Cope to spend the night on the prairie and not try to cross the badlands in the dark, where a single misstep could lead to death. Cope paid no attention. He was determined to get to Cow Island. But perhaps having learned a lesson from his blind leap over a chasm earlier in the trip, he dismounted, cut a stout stick, which he used like a blindman's cane, and tried to tap his way to the riverbank. The black rock valleys had the power to soak up whatever starlight and moonlight was in the air and close out all but a sliver of sky. In that blackness, Cope tapped and tapped and tapped. Time and time again, he and Sternberg would follow a trail through the mountains and along ledges only to reach a point where his cane tapped on nothing but thin air. Once, they actually reached the river, only to find a cliff walling them off from reaching Cow Island downstream. All through the night, Cope and Sternberg felt their way through the badlands. Just before daybreak, they stood on the bank opposite Cow Island. "I have never known another man who would have attempted this journey. It was both foolhardy and useless," Sternberg wrote, "but we could say that we accomplished what no one else ever had in reaching Cow Island through the Bad Lands after dark." Cope called out for the army squad billeted on the island to send a boat to ferry them across. But in the early morning fog, the two men could not be seen, and the sergeant feared this might be some Indian trick. Exhausted and chilled, Cope and Sternberg paced back and forth on the shore until the fog lifted. Realizing his error, the sergeant hurriedly dispatched a boat, which promptly capsized. A second boat was sent to rescue the first and then retrieve Cope and Sternberg. At last, they reached the island and were given a warm pot of beans and some hardtack with strawberry jam. Then a warm nest of blankets was made under a tarpaulin covering a shipment of gold. Cope and Sternberg slept with the gold all that day and through the night. The following morning, they sought out the steamer captain. "I am Professor Cope, of Philadelphia," the paleontologist told the captain. "I have a four-horse wagon at a steamboat snubbing-post three miles below. I would like you to stop there on your way down and carry my outfit to this side. My baggage and freight are also there, and I want to take passage for Omaha." "Well, sir, I am the captain of this boat," the skipper replied. "If you want to go downriver, you must have your baggage, freight, and self at this landing before ten o'clock tomorrow morning, when I leave for downriver points." So, it had come to this. Cope had a little more than twenty-four hours to get the fossils to Cow Island. There would be no time to retrace their steps through the badlands. Instead, Cope purchased an old sand scow and set off up the river to Isaac and the bones. (He had tried to borrow it, but the owner, having heard the conversation with the captain, knew there was a buck to be made.) Cope and Sternberg rowed back to camp. Isaac wasn't there. With no time to lose, they started packing and loading the scow. Just before they were ready to shove off, Isaac, who had gone searching for them in the badlands, turned up. The three men swam the horses across the river and then started for Cow Island. A towline was attached to the most dependable of the horses -- Old Major -- and the animal began the slow journey downstream, pulling the scow. Sternberg rode the horse; a couple of mountain men, whom Cope had met at Cow Island, stood on either bank with long poles to keep the boat from turning in to shore. Isaac and Cope had the toughest duty -- sitting in the scow and unraveling the towline when it got snagged on a rock or a branch. Such a hitch would immediately build tension in the line and releasing it was like setting off a spring or more accurately, a catapult. Each time Cope or Isaac freed the line, they were pitched into the cold, shallow river. The sun was setting when the scow came in under the hull of the big steamer. The deck was filled with curious passengers watching the progress of the little boat. Cope was covered with mud from head to foot. His clothes were in tatters. His fossils, however, were intact. In his next letter to Annie, he proudly announced that he had collected twelve hundred pounds of fossils and added, "We had a lively time getting them to the boat."23 The October nights were already getting chilly, so the lady passengers were wearing furs and the men were sporting ulsters. Cope, however, had forgotten to bring any winter clothes, so after removing his muddy rags and washing up, he emerged from the sergeant's tent with hair combed, mustache trimmed, dressed in a summer suit with a linen duster. The next morning, true to the captain's word, the Josephine weighed anchor and headed downriver. The steamboat did not get very far before its voyage was checked. At Fort Buford, on the North Dakota border, General Hazen commandeered the steamer, prepared to unload all the passengers and cargo, and fill it with soldiers to head back up the Missouri. The Sioux had finally made their dash toward Canada and crossed the river not at Fort Benton, but at Cow Island. A brief battle occurred, and five soldiers were killed. After a day's consideration, however, Hazen decided to use another boat, and let the Josephine go. But further down the river, at Fort Lincoln, the boat was stopped again and used this time to ferry soldiers -- fresh recruits for Custer's Seventh Cavalry, with their new saddles and horses -- to join the chase. "The officers' wives watched from our steamer, none knew that they would see their husbands again," Cope wrote in a letter, "but were cheerful, some too much so, but some showed their feelings." So as Cope moved east, a small army was rushing into the valley. The paleontologist's timing had been impeccable. Excerpted from The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E. D. Cope and O. C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science by Mark Jaffe 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.