The Bone Wars

The Bone Wars brought the two men, who used to be friends, now turned arch rivals, into the limelight of American society. When they first met in Berlin in 1863, they were friendly towards each other. Both Cope and Marsh named fossils in each other’s name. The bitterness and hatred between Marsh and Cope lasted until the very end, when Cope died. Cope donated his skull to science so that it could be measured. Society at this time speculated that brain size corresponded with intelligence, and Cope thought that his brain would be bigger than Marsh’s and wanted the world to know. Marsh never accepted the challenge.

The First of Many

First Mounted Dinosaur Skeleton

The first dinosaur to be displayed in a museum was found in a marlstone quarry in Haddonfield, New Jersey. Marsh wanted to see the quarry where the dinosaur was found. Joseph Leidy was the first American paleontologist and a mentor to Cope. Since Cope was a student of Leidy, he had access to the quarry and invited Marsh to the quarry for a field expedition. They parted amicably. Unknown to Cope, Marsh had bribed the owner to send any future fossils to him at Yale. Cope felt betrayed by Marsh, later stating that it marked the beginning of the end of their friendship.

Cope worked on the reconstruction of a marine dinosaur that he named Elasmosaurus. The dinosaur was found in western Kansas as a discombobulated pile of bones. Cope’s experience with lizards gave him a pre-conceived idea where to place the head. Cope then placed the head on what is now known to be the tail. Marsh humiliated Cope by pointing out the error and making it as public as possible. Cope unsuccessfully tried to buy all the copies of the printed publication that contained his mistake.

The "head-on-the-wrong-end" version of Elasmosaurus platyurus published by Cope

The Wild West

Soon after this, Cope began to collect and prospect in the west in lands that Marsh considered his own. Cope had to cobble together his own team when he arrived in the west. Marsh also employed two men on Cope’s team to spy on him and his work. Soon there was a race to publish their findings. They would send hastily written telegrams back east in hopes of gaining the rights for naming newly found dinosaurs. Both would write papers describing the same dinosaur without acknowledging or even reading the others work. Both Marsh and Cope hired workers to dig up and send back fossils from the respective quarries. Marsh’s paranoia towards Cope went so far to have his collectors destroy any bones that they could not take to keep them away from Cope or his crew.

Marsh had troubles with his own workers. He alienated and angered his assistants by negligence and late payments to his workers. Marsh also hogged the spotlight in any publications of findings made by his assistants in his fossil quarries. His carelessness caused many workers to change sides and work for Cope. The infighting and bidding wars for fossils caused Leidy to leave the field of science which he himself helped create in North America. During this time Cope purchased the The American Naturalist journal. Over the course of Cope’s life, he wrote 1,400 articles with 76 of them being published academic papers.

New York Herald headline

In 1881, Marsh became the chief paleontologist of the newly created United States Geological Survey. The position seemed to be perfect for Marsh. He had up to 50 people under him, and nearly unlimited government funding; all of this on top of a generous annual funding. However Marsh was not done with Cope. Cope soon lost his government sponsorship, and had to invest his money. Unfortunately he made a bad investment in a silver mine and lost all his money. In 1889, with his marriage in shambles and nearly bankrupt, all Cope had was his extensive fossil collection.

However, Marsh was not done with Cope. Marsh didn’t plan on letting Cope keep even that. Earlier, in his position at the U.S.G.S., Marsh had mandated that all fossils collected with government funds to be turned over to the Smithsonian. Thanks to Cope’s intense record keeping, he was able to prove that most of his collection was paid for by himself. Marsh and the Smithsonian were forced to relinquish the collection back to Cope. This last attack infuriated Cope to action.

Marshiana Drawer

Receipts were not the only thing that Cope had studiously kept. Over the years Cope had collected notes and findings about Marsh and his ill-doings and mistakes in a drawer in his office. Cope called it his Marshiana Drawer (Davidson, 1997, p. 88). Cope handed his Marshiana to a freelance journalist. The New York Herald printed the material in the Sunday paper in 1890. Marsh was accused of everything from incompetence to plagiarism and fraud. Powell was also accused of corruption with the geological survey. Both Powell and Marsh offered rebuttals to Cope’s claims.

The Bone War had now spilled into the general public’s eye. The infighting made headlines for three weeks. All the fighting brought a bad light onto the USGS and Marsh. While there was no congressional hearing to investigate the USGS or any of the men, the papers fueled a growing anti-survey sentiment. Lawmakers cut the USGS budget in half, and eliminated the department of paleontology. Powell demanded Marsh’s immediate resignation. Marsh lost his salary, staff, and funding. Marsh was forced to mortgage his house to Yale, and to ask for a salary.

The last blow was that the Smithsonian wanted any fossils from him paid for by government funds. Cope’s personality caused him to be a studious record keeper while Marsh had a lackadaisical attitude towards recording keeping. Marsh could not figure out what fossils belonged to him and what belonged to the Smithsonian, Therefore, almost the entire collection went to the Smithsonian. In an Ironic twist the trap that Marsh set for Cope caught himself instead. Both men ended up dying nearly penniless. Their hatred and bitterness ruined both their lives and alienated them in their own fields.

Who Won?

The true winners of the Bone War were the museums. The Smithsonian acquired over 80 tons of fossils from Marsh’s personal collection. The rest of his collection went to the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale. Cope’s collection is housed at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The science of Paleontology also benefited from the feud. When Cope and Marsh began to work, only 18 dinosaur species were known in North America. Cope would discover 56 new species while Marsh would add 80 new species to the list. Some examples of those species are the Triceratops and the Stegosaurus.

Both Marsh and Cope were so prodigious in collecting bones that some boxes remained unopened at their deaths. Paleontologist continued to work on discovering more species and bones from their collection for years to come. Marsh’s extensive collection became some of the best evidence for Darwinian evolution.

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