Fossil Feud!: A (Not) Brief Overview of the Bone Wars Part 2/2


(Continuation from Part 1)  After meeting each other in Berlin, Charles Othniel Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope both get along for a very brief period of time, however after Marsh’s betrayal both are now locked in a war (and by war, this actually means publishing mean articles about each other)…

The 1870’s came, and the construction of the transcontinental railroad was in full gear. An unintended consequence of this was that as the tracks chipped away the mountains and cliffs, many accidental dinosaur finds were made. As the railroad expanded further into the wild, wild west so too did the front lines of Cope and Marsh’s rivalry— especially in Como Bluff, which had rich fossil deposits. Two railroad workers even wrote to Marsh about the fossils they had found, implying that if Marsh did not offer them a favourable deal for the fossils, they would contact Cope instead.

Cope too attempted to secure some fossils through the railroad workers in the Como Bluff area, however his negotiations hadn’t yielded results, and in the end resorted to sending men to steal from the fossils Marsh’s men had dug up. Soon after however, some of Marsh’s men defected to work for Cope after receiving irregular pay. 

The men working for the rivaling palaeontologists soon became rivals themselves (under some minor encouragement from said palaeontologists of course), with reported instances of each side destroying fossil deposits with dynamite to keep the other from finding it, performing fossil espionage, fossil thievery, bribery, etc. etc. the list goes on.

AllosaurusAMNH5753By the late 1800s the war had once again returned to the publication world, with Cope churning out his papers and Marsh devotedly reading and criticising them as per usual (I wonder how much of Cope’s profits actually came from Charles Marsh?). This is not to say however, that Marsh is infallible, similarly to Cope’s earlier mistake, Marsh had placed a skull on the wrong dinosaur skeleton, and proclaimed it a new species, however it appears that this mess-up was not as widely publicised as Cope’s.

Cope soon struck back however, when he bribed many of Marsh’s underlings to testify against him in the 1844 investigation of the U.S. Geological survey, of which Marsh was the head of at the time. This in addition to a publication Cope sent to the New York Herald meticulously listing all of Marsh’s failures and misdeeds as both a Paleontologist and as a human being overall in the past two decades their war had been ongoing. In response, Marsh sent in his rebuttal which was also published by the New York Herald, similarly airing out Cope’s mistakes and accusing him of different fossil-related crimes.

In the end, what this newspaper battle resulted in was a widespread scandal that did worsened both of their reputations, and Marsh was forced to resign from his position as head of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The rivalry would drag on unceasingly until 1897 when Cope died at the young age of 56. By which time, both men had practically gone bankrupt from squandering their funds on bribing the opponent’s men, publishing journals to attack each other, purchasing their own journal in which they had made silly mistakes, and funding countless fossil expeditions. Cope had it rougher however, seeing as during this time period his wife left him, and due to Marsh’s urging officials forced cope to audit most of his fossils if they were obtained in any way shape or form using government money. Financially wrecked, Cope sold his house and had to live alongside his collection, sleeping in a cot surrounded by the remaining fossils he’d sacrificed blood, sweat and tears to obtain. However, in the end it seemed that Cope had no regrets, as near his deathbed, he set up his final showdown with Marsh: donating his body so that his brain could be measured, and challenging Marsh to do the same to determine whose brain was bigger (Cope’s brain is still preserved and on display in the US at the Wistar institute if you’d like to take a look!)

In the end, many unintended consequences also arose as a result of the rivalry, as not only did the scandal between the two soil their own reputations, but also cast a negative light on the entire field of palaeontology and academia overall. In addition to this, the use of dynamite may have caused the destruction of potentially field-defining fossils. Further, the rush to assemble, describe, and name species from both sides resulted in information that was vague and confusing, which muddied key knowledge about dinosaurs for years afterwards.

Yet there is a reason the Cope-Marsh Rivalry, now known as the Bone Wars or The Great Fossil Rush is considered such a key point in the history of natural science: it irrevocably and drastically changed the world of palaeontology. At the time of Marsh’s birth, the word Palaeontology had only been nine years old, by the end, it was 75. At the time when their rivalry began, only 9 species of North American dinosaurs had been discovered and named, however In the 66 year-long feud 136 new dinosaur species being discovered and named (56 from Cope, 80 from Marsh— which is why many credit Marsh as being the official winner of this feud), including the household dinosaur names such as the Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, and Diplodocus among many others. Additionally, the very first complete dinosaur fossils were found as a direct consequence of the bone wars, allowing the public to see the dinosaur as a whole for the very first time. 

If Cope and marsh could have foreseen the extent of harm they were inflicting on the field of science they both loved in their intense hatred for each other, I like to think that perhaps in some alternate universe they could have remained friends (if not, at least very distant acquaintances). Even so, it’s no use crying over spilled milk, especially when said incident has become the foundation of all we know about the fearsome and magnificent creatures that so capture the public imagination, from Jurassic Park to the Dinosaur water bottle I begged my parents for when I was 12 (that does feature Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, and Diplodocus!!), without the Cope-Marsh Rivalry the world would be a much less bony, and interesting place indeed.

Note: The author of Jurassic Park, Micheal Crichton also wrote a novel somewhat loosely based on the Cope-Marsh rivalry, called Dragon Teeth. A very fun read, it goes into a LOT more detail about the context the Bone Wars was occurring within (i.e. the American Civil War, colonisation and expansion into the badlands, etc.), and additionally, it also makes Marsh and Cope come alive to a certain extent and I would highly recommend it if you want to “witness” some of their feud “firsthand”.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s