The Fossil Hunters Who Went to War Over Dinosaur Bones
The rivalry between paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh produced some of the greatest fossil finds in history, as well as some of the pettiest behavior.
The bones sat in a box in the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology’s office at the University of Pennsylvania. Sometimes they were pulled out and reassembled, displayed to guests, toasted to. In the 1970s, the skull was loaned to an artist and for several decades after, doubt surrounded the authenticity of the remains. The head now seemed different from the body—was it really the original or had the skull of a different specimen made its way into the collection?
It was a fitting end for the paleontologist who had dedicated his life to digging up dinosaur fossils and attempting to puzzle them together to form the original, magnificent beasts that science was just beginning to understand. Now, he was a museum specimen in his own right, courtesy of his final wishes.
There was perhaps only one thing he was more passionate about than his life’s work.
For nearly the entirety of Edward Drinker Cope’s career, he was engaged in a fierce and bitter rivalry with a fellow American paleontologist, Othniel Charles Marsh. They shared a mentor, a passion for discovery, and a dedication to the burgeoning science of dinosaur bones. But from the very first dig they collaborated on, their work was mired in competition and dirty behavior.
The lifelong clash that followed became known as the “Bone Wars,” and it gripped the scientific world well beyond the lifetimes of the two men involved. It produced some of the greatest fossil finds in history, as well as some of the pettiest behavior. While the science they served flourished, the two men at the heart of the scandal were all but destroyed.
The first rift between future colleagues E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh occurred at birth. The two men were from opposite sides of the proverbial tracks in the burgeoning American.
Marsh was born in 1831 to a struggling New England farming family whose one good fortune was having a wealthy and famous relative, George Peabody. Through the patronage of his uncle, Marsh was able to attend Yale where he became a staunch supporter of the ideas of Darwin, who published On the Origin of Species during his school years. (Darwin would later send the established paleontologist a letter stating, “Your work on these old birds & on the many fossil animals of N. America has afforded the best support to the theory of evolution, which has appeared within the last 20 years.”)
Cope, on the other hand, was born in 1840 to a well-to-do Philadelphia Quaker family. While he was just as dedicated in his pursuit of fossils and scientific inquiry, he took a more unstructured approach. He showed an affinity for natural history in his early childhood years, and was largely self-taught.
He learned from the men who came before him, from on-the-job training, and through his own studies. He read Darwin’s writings, but ultimately rejected them in favor of the more religious-tinged view of evolution that championed deliberate progression.
Before they even met, the two were set up in philosophical and constitutional opposition. As David Rains Wallace writes in The Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age, “In a way, the bone war was an intellectual variant on the Civil War that just preceded it, one largely enacted in that other great arena of North American conflict, the West.”
As American expansion chugged ever further west, as “new” places were discovered and untouched soil disturbed for farming and railroad development, people began to report finding strange bones. The field of paleontology was established a century earlier, but the 19th century brought a craze for fossils, particularly in the U.S.
The business of fossil hunting involved a roster of third-party players. At official dig sites, there were the operators and diggers, who worked on location to carry out the manual labor. Then, there were the scouts, the ordinary people like railroad employees who were in a position to discover fossil goldmines in the course of their day jobs.
These men often had lucrative agreements with particular scientists, who paid them for exclusive reports of any finds. This ecosystem meant there were plenty of people who could be hired, poached, or bribed, and both men exploited these arrangements.
Just take one of their earliest clashes that set the stage for the curdled relationship that followed.
New Jersey was one of the first areas of interest for American paleontologists after the bones (minus a still-missing skull) of what would be named the Hadrosaurus foulkii were discovered in 1838. It was one of the first major dinosaur finds in the U.S.
In early 1868, Cope took his “friend, Prof. Marsh of Yale College,” through a tour of the area, showing off the locations where he was working. It was a successful trip, and the pair found “three new species of Saurians.” But later, Cope would reveal the real consequences of the journey to the New York Herald. “Soon after, in endeavoring to obtain fossils from those localities, I found everything closed to me and pledged to Marsh for money considerations.”
The next year, Cope incorrectly assembled the bones of an Elasmosaurus, a mistake which Marsh decided to call out very publicly in an episode that was no doubt humiliating to his younger colleague.
The sting of these two early slights set the tone for their relationship to come. As each man extended their range of exploration, they began to adopt a “whatever it takes” philosophy to sabotage the work of the other and ensure the highest glory for themselves.
Sometimes this occurred through bribery, theft, and espionage, other times it played out on the scholarly field of the day’s leading scientific journals. And on a few tragic occasions, it took the form of outright destruction of the fossils they both cherished.
“I have of late been subjected to a very unscrupulous rivalry and have thus lost more than half of the discoveries for which I risked my life during my western explorations,” Marsh wrote in 1873, as their clash reached the point of no return.
Things came to a head in the late 1870s in Como Bluff, Wyoming, where one of the biggest caches of bones to date was discovered. Even more tantalizing, these bones were from the Jurassic period.
Marsh got wind of the find and sent a representative to check it out. His man on the ground reported there were bones “for seven miles and are by the ton… very thick, well preserved, and easy to get out.” Marsh rushed to secure the site with money, men, and promises.
Unbeknownst to him, Cope had also recently been made aware of the find and he had no intention of letting his adversary’s prior claim get in his way.
Two railroad men had jointly discovered the initial find and had collaborated to profit off of it. Ultimately, one remained loyal to Marsh, while the other was wooed away to work for Cope. Over the next several years, the men employed by Marsh and Cope worked nearly year-round in the fields of Wyoming, alternating digging with acts of aggression towards the other crew.
“Treachery became a way of life, as bone sharps arranged and rearranged themselves like iron filings around the magnetic poles of professorial greed and selfishness,” Wallace writes.
Their bosses left the literal dirt-slinging to their field workers, while adopting influence-slinging tactics of their own. They fought in the pages of academic journals and the halls of Washington, attempting to cut off funding and government support for the other. The “war” ultimately ended up in the pages of the New York Herald.
Over the course of their careers, Marsh and Cope discovered an impressive number of dinosaur fossils—80 for the former, 56 for the latter—and made important contributions to their field. But they were also destroyed. Both lost jobs, reputation, and financial security directly from the fallout of their very public and nasty feud.
While two of the most influential American paleontologists did achieve the renown they fought tooth and nail for, it wasn’t quite the quality of fame they expected. Today, the names of Cope and Marsh are more closely associated with one of the most bitter rivalries science has ever seen than with the impressive contributions they made to the study of dinosaur fossils.