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The Bone Wars

The Lifelong Feud Between Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope

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The Bone Wars

Othniel C. Marsh (back row, center), with an armed excavation crew (Wikimedia Commons)

When most people think of the Wild West, they picture Buffalo Bill, Jesse James, and caravans of settlers in covered wagons. But for paleontologists, the American west in the late 19th century conjures up one image above all: the enduring rivalry between two of this country's greatest fossil hunters, Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. The "Bone Wars," as their feud became known, stretched from the 1870's well into the 1890's, and resulted in hundreds of new dinosaur finds--not to mention reams of bribery, trickery, and outright theft, as we'll get to later. (Knowing a good subject when it sees one, HBO recently announced plans for a movie version of the Bone Wars starring James Gandolfini and Steve Carell!)

In the beginning, Marsh and Cope were cordial, if somewhat wary, colleagues, having met in Germany in 1864 (at the time, western Europe, not the United States, was at the forefront of paleontology research). Part of the trouble stemmed from their different backgrounds: Cope was born into a wealthy Quaker family in Pennsylvania, while Marsh's family in upstate New York was comparatively poor (albeit with a very rich uncle, who enters the story later). It's probable that, even then, Marsh considered Cope a bit of a dilettante, not really serious about paleontology, while Cope saw Marsh as too rough and uncouth to be a true scientist.

The Fateful Elasmosaurus

Most historians trace the start of the Bone Wars to 1868, when Cope reconstructed a strange fossil sent to him from Kansas by a military doctor. Naming the specimen Elasmosaurus, he placed its skull on the end of its short tail, rather than its long neck (to be fair to Cope, to that date no had ever seen an aquatic reptile with such out-of-whack proportions). When he discovered this error, Marsh (as the legend goes) humiliated Cope by pointing it out in public, at which point Cope tried to buy (and destroy) every copy of the scientific journal in which he had published his incorrect reconstruction.

This makes for a good story--and the fracas over Elasmosaurus certainly contributed to the enmity between the two men--but the Bone Wars likely started on a more serious note. Cope had discovered the fossil site in New Jersey that yielded the fossil of Hadrosaurus, named by the two mens' mentor, the famous paleontologist Joseph Leidy. When he saw how many bones had yet to be recovered from the site, Marsh paid the excavators to send any interesting finds to him, rather than to Cope. Cope soon found out about this gross violation of scientific decorum, and the Bone Wars began in earnest.

Into the West

What kicked the Bone Wars into high gear was the discovery, in the 1870's, of numerous dinosaur fossils in the American west (some of these finds were made accidentally, during excavation work for the Transcontinental Railroad). In 1877, Marsh received a letter from Colorado schoolteacher Arthur Lakes, describing the "saurian" bones he had found during a hiking expedition; Lakes sent sample fossils to both Marsh and (because he didn’t know if Marsh was interested) Cope. Characteristically, Marsh paid Lakes $100 to keep his discovery a secret--and when he discovered that Cope had been notified, dispatched an agent west to secure his claim. Around the same time, Cope was tipped off to another fossil site in Colorado, which Marsh tried (unsuccessfully) to horn in on.

By this time, it was common knowledge that Marsh and Cope were competing for the best dinosaur fossils--which explains the subsequent intrigues centered on Como Bluff, Wyoming. Using pseudonyms, two workers for the Union Pacific Railroad alerted Marsh to their fossil finds, hinting (but not stating explicitly) that they might strike a deal with Cope if Marsh didn't offer generous terms. True to form, Marsh dispatched another agent, who made the necessary financial arrangements--and soon the Yale-based paleontologist was receiving boxcars of fossils, including the first specimens of Diplodocus, Allosaurus and Stegosaurus.

Word about this exclusive arrangement soon spread--not least because the Union Pacific employees leaked the scoop to a local newspaper, exaggerating the prices Marsh had paid for the fossils in order to bait the trap for the wealthier Cope. Soon, Cope sent his own agent westward, and when these negotiations proved unsuccessful (possibly because he wasn't willing to pony up enough money), he instructed his prospector to engage in a bit of fossil-rustling and steal bones from the Como Bluff site, right under Marsh's nose.

Soon afterward, fed up with Marsh's erratic payments, one of the railroad men began working for Cope instead, turning Como Bluff into the epicenter of the Bone Wars. By this time, both Marsh and Cope had relocated westward, and over the next few years engaged in such hijinks as deliberately destroying uncollected fossils and fossil sites (so as to keep them out of each other's hands), spying on each other's excavations, bribing employees, and even stealing bones outright. According to one account, workers on the rival digs once took time out from their labors to pelt each other with stones!

Next Page: The Bone Wars Get Personal

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