The bonehunters' revenge Dinosaurs, greed, and the greatest scientific feud of the gilded age

David Rains Wallace, 1945-

Book - 1999

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Boston : Houghton Mifflin 1999.
Main Author
David Rains Wallace, 1945- (-)
Physical Description
xiv, 366 p. : ill. ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references (p. [340]-347) and index.
  • Acknowledgments
  • Illustrations
  • Prologue: Assassination by Newspaper
  • 1. Prodigy and Heir
  • 2. Stepchild and Laggard
  • 3. Fair Prospects in Dirt
  • 4. Professor Marsh's Traveling Bone and Pony Show
  • 5. The Lone Philadelphian
  • 6. Babel at Fort Bridger
  • 7. Marsh the Reformer
  • 8. Cope the Explorer
  • 9. Huxley Anoints Marsh
  • 10. Dinosaurs and Fate
  • 11. An Inside Job
  • 12. The Slippery Slope
  • 13. Behind the Arras
  • 14. Cope Strikes
  • 15. The Herald Steams Ahead
  • 16. Marsh Strikes Back
  • 17. The Herald Steams Away
  • 18. Symmetries and Ironies
  • 19. Death
  • 20. The Skeleton Drummer
  • Epilogue: Squabblers on a Raft
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Review by 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

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by 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

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by 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

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by 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.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A fine and dramatic rendering of the Marsh-Cope paleontological imbroglio, played out in the pages of the New York Herald, from Wallace (The Monkey's Bridge: Mysteries of Evolution in Central America, 1997, etc.). Professors O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope had been squabbling over their old bones for years before the Herald decided to inflate and sensationalize the feud in a bid to win their circulation war with the New York World. Both paleontologists were eminent in their own way: Marsh taught at Yale, advised presidents, was a prot‚g‚ of congressmen, and had a sheaf of discoveries to his credit; Cope was the more imaginative, if more reckless, of the two, and had a equal number of superb fossil finds under his belt. At first, the rivalry was quaint: ``The patrician Edward may have considered Marsh not quite a gentleman. The academic Othniel probably regarded Cope as not quite a professional.'' Wallace tells the story with enthusiasm and relish as the professorial beard-pulling got out of hand. Cope claimed Marsh stole fossils and ideas; Marsh counterclaimed Cope was a crank and a fool who put dinosaur heads on the wrong end of the beast. But when Marsh used his political power to freeze Cope out of the fossil lands, Cope engaged a hack to smear Marsh in the Herald. The paper's publisher, the nefarious James Gordon Bennett Jr., played the scientists like stringed instruments until both crashed in an embarrassment of accusations. More's the pity, as Wallace notes, as their work demonstrating ``evolutionary transitions linking mammalian humanity to the transmutational continuum'' was overshadowed, and the public feud ``smashed John Wesley Powell's farsighted attempt to develop the West in sustainable fashion,'' as Powell's (the first chief of the US Geographical Survey) reputation was severely damaged in the Herald's pages. An ugly little episode that typified ``an age so greedy that men fought over petrified bones.''

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

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.