Bone Wars! Othniel Marsh vs. Edward Drinker Cope

Othniel Marsh, 80 dinosaur species discovered

Edward Drinker Cope, 56 dinosaur species discovered



Bone Wars!

Some stories just write themselves. This is one of those – a 100% true story with two bizarre protagonists and a Jurassic-sized number of entertaining plot twists. Enjoy.

In the late 19th century, during American history’s “Gilded Age,” thousands of pioneering Americans struck west in search of buried treasure.

Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope were no different – except for the fact that their buried treasure wasn’t gold, it was dinosaur bones.

These two men were at the forefront of the most intense fossil-hunting era in history, and the only things larger than the fossils they discovered were their enormous egos and their intense – and often silly – hatred for each other.

Cope was born into privilege and possessed a quick, pugnacious temper and a flair for dramatic writing and behavior.  The more-subdued Marsh was the son of a poor family, but his wealthy uncle George Peabody provided him the money he needed to attend Yale, where he later became a professor.

Othniel Marsh reportedly didn’t consider Edward Drinker Cope a serious scientist, and this was solidified when, in 1868,

Oops! That’s not an Elasmosaurus!

after Cope’s discovery of an Elasmosaurus skeleton, Marsh publicly pointed out that Cope incorrectly put the head at the end of the dinosaur’s tail, rather than its neck. Cope, humiliated, tried to buy out every copy of the journal containing his original article. (In an ironic twist of fate, Marsh would later be criticized for placing the wrong skull on an apatosaurus, which led to him “discovering” the now-discredited species brontosaurus).

Marsh continued to instigate a rivalry with Cope. A few years later, when both men were investigating a fossil-rich site in New Jersey, Marsh paid some of the workers to send their bones to him instead of Cope.

When Cope became aware of this, the Bone Wars truly began.

A Colorado schoolteacher found some bones on a hike, and sent sample fossils to Marsh and Cope to see if either was interested. Marsh offered $100 to the man if he didn’t tell Cope, but Cope had already received the message. People now knew that Cope and Marsh were competing for fossils, so when some railroad workers discovered dinosaur bones in Como Bluff, Wyoming, they informed Marsh, threatening to give the bones to Cope if he didn’t pay them. Marsh paid the men a significant sum.

Word got around about the arrangement, and prospectors exaggerated how much Marsh had paid, to trick the wealthy Cope into paying them more. Cope sent a prospector to Como Bluff to negotiate, but when the asking price was too high, the prospector followed Cope’s secondary orders – steal bones from Marsh’s site. A while later, a railroad worker got fed up with Marsh’s inconsistent payments and started to work for Cope instead.

Now, with Othniel Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope employing men in the same region, the bone wars became far more ridiculous.

Othniel Marsh (center, back row) and his assistants preparing for a dig. Advancements in paleontology would later lead to the widespread use of shovels, instead of rifles, for archaeological excavations.

The men’s workers would steal fossils, bribe each other’s employees, spy on their rival’s sites, have their employees throw rocks at the other’s workers, and even destroy uncollected fossils and sites so the other man couldn’t get them.

They nearly drove each other into bankruptcy, but Marsh started to pull ahead, thanks to his uncle’s money and his ongoing nitpicky  criticism of Cope’s publications.

Marsh, a Yale professor, gained a further advantage when he landed a role with the United States Geological Survey, which he sometimes used to advance his own personal aims.

Edward Drinker Cope would soon get his revenge.

When Othniel Marsh’s role in the U.S. Geological survey came under investigation in 1884, Cope recruited some of Marsh’s employees to testify against him. However, the conniving Marsh pulled some strings to keep the men’s testimony out of the press.

So Cope escalated the conflict. He had a journal he had kept for over 20 years detailing Marsh’s numerous felonies, misdemeanors and scientific errors. Cope sent the journal to the New York Herald, who ran a sensational piece condemning Marsh. Then Marsh wrote a retort against Cope, which was also published in the Herald.

The fracas damaged both men’s reputations, but especially that of Marsh, who was forced to resign from his powerful USGS position. Edward Drinker Cope used his superior political connections to land a spot as head of the National Association for the Advancement of Science. However, Cope soon became ill and was forced to sell off most of his fossil collection.

“Alright, now let’s do a silly picture! Oh, and T-Rex, why don’t you stand on that tiny iceberg…and smile… Perfect!”

At the time of their deaths, both men’s once-vast fortunes were bone dry due to this paleontological brouhaha. While Othniel Charles Marsh officially “won” the Bone Wars by discovering 80 species to Cope’s 56, the legacy of Edward Drinker Cope (who seems like the much nicer guy) is just as large. The rapid, sometimes-hasty publication style that exposed Cope to Marsh’s constant criticism also helped Cope in many ways. In over 1400 published papers – a world record to this day- Cope discovered, described and named over 1000 species of animals, and developed Cope’s rule. Marsh’s grand total was a “mere” 500 species.

In the end, their intense and often ridiculous rivalry made Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope the two main figures of a golden era of American scientific discovery.  Their houses are both now designated as National Historic Landmarks, and numerous species have been named after them in tribute.*

But amid all the historic hullabaloo, there is one Bone Wars battle that remains unresolved.

Before his death, Cope requested that scientists dissect his skull to determine whether his brain was larger than Othniel’s. Othniel declined the request. Reportedly, Edward Drinker Cope’s unexamined skull is still in storage at the University of Pennsylvania, while Othniel Charles Marsh’s rests somewhere else, waiting to be discovered by future paleontologists… Let’s hope they don’t get the skulls mixed up.

(Dave’s Note: This was our longest post on the Funny Names Blog thus far, but I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing this post. In any case, let us know your feedback in the comments, and we’ll return to our more regularly-sized programming – and a special poll – tomorrow.)

* The dinosaur species Othnelia and Marshosaurus bicentesmus were named after Marsh. Cope is the namesake for two fish genera (copella and copeia), 21 fish species, a salamander, a lizard, a scientific journal (Copeia) and the dinosaur species Drinker nisti. Since dinosaurs are known ancestors of birds, perhaps these names can join the Somber tit and Yellow-bellied sapsucker if we ever write a blog about funny bird names 🙂

About Dave

Based out of San Diego, California. Co-founder of the Blog of Funny Names.
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37 Responses to Bone Wars! Othniel Marsh vs. Edward Drinker Cope

  1. The lengths some people will go to win is insane, but these 2…well, they’re a whole other breed. This was very interesting!

    • Dave says:

      Haha, ain’t it the truth! They were both hyper-competitive, but it seems to me like Othniel was the real deal and the guy who made the Bone Wars happen. They could have actually been another breed – if they’d stopped being so petulant, maybe they would have had the time to discover a new subspecies of human with a knack for great facial hair, extreme territorialism, scientific greatness, and funny names.

      Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part 🙂 Thanks for the ongoing readership and support! I’ve enjoyed writing this blog since the beginning, but it’s even more fun now that we have some great regular readers and commenters like yourself.

  2. beatrix mana says:

    Wow just imagine the tension between the two all their lives. I enjoyed your story.Hope to read more. Have a nice day.

    • Rob says:

      “Advancements in paleontology would later lead to the widespread use of shovels, instead of rifles, for archaeological excavations.”

      That’s so funny! Did they really use shovels to dig with back in the day?

      • Dave says:

        Haha, I presume you meant to ask if they really used rifles back in the day…

        I don’t think they did. I think the guys with the rifles was a response to how effing crazy the bone wars were. I decided on that caption because I stumbled upon it on Wikimedia Commons, and it had the caption “Othniel Marsh and his assistants preparing for a dig.” And yet there were no shovels, only rifles. I thought it would be fun to play off of that idea in our post, and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    • Dave says:

      Thanks Beatrix! Is Beatrix Mana your real name? I definitely like that name a lot. I’m a sucker for blogs with good illustrations, so that’s how I came across yours.

      • beatrix mana says:

        Wow thank you for the compliment.When I started drawing long before my blog my daughter called me Mother B or Mother Beatrix. Grandkids call me Mana so I put the two together.Thanks for asking you are the first

  3. gravitasbaby says:

    The Funny Names blog now has a very funny blog posting. It also happened to make great reading. What a terrific story!

    • Dave says:

      I like to think that we’ve had several funny blog postings 🙂

      Thanks for the comment though, and for being one of our good, reliable blogging pals!

  4. Liz says:

    where do you get this stuff? who says history is boring:-)

    • Rob says:

      History isn’t boring if you have the right sources, and a keen sense of humor. Dave, Arto, and I have both!

    • Dave says:

      Hi Liz,

      Honestly, I don’t remember exactly what led me to the Othniel Marsh Wikipedia entry, but honestly, once you develop a taste for funny names, they are absolutely everywhere.

      What I do remember is that I saw the name Othniel Marsh, and of course I had to click on that because Othniel Marsh is a gem of a name, and by the time I finished reading through the opening paragraph, where I found out that he was involved in “Bone Wars” with Edward Drinker Cope, I knew we’d struck gold. Seeing that name and that premise, I knew we had stumbled onto some unique content for the Funny Names Blog (back then, it was just a funny names list – one we kept for 4-5 years before starting this blog, in case you don’t know our history).

      The more I kept reading, the more I fell in love with this story. It’s definitely one of the better ones I’ve ever stumbled upon. That’s why I decided to violate our “aim for 500 words” rule for the first time – I tried to make this post more concise on three separate occasions, and it got to a point where I felt I couldn’t remove a single word without reducing the quality of the post.

      I feel like I must have broken some sort of comment length rule with this one as well, but you asked, and I felt I had to share. Perhaps the prolific writing style of Edward Drinker Cope is somehow influencing me from beyond the grave (aka a storage room in Pennsylvania).

      And if we had the ability to write the history books, I like to think that nobody would say history is boring! One can only dream…

      Thanks again for the comment and for appreciating our post!

  5. Matt says:

    There need to be more blogs like this!! Thanks for your interest in !

  6. Joe Pineda says:

    I thought this was about someone named Bone Wars for a minute. But I’m glad to see the article’s premise was just as ridiculous.

    • Dave says:

      It really was. One of my all-time favorites. It’s nice enough when I stumble upon a funny-named person who also has an amusing life story. I knew I’d struck paydirt (so to speak 🙂 ) when I came across two funny-named guys embroiled in a hilarious rivalry that was even more amusing than you’d expect with the idea of “Bone Wars.”

      P.S. As Wallace Wattles (the guy who inspired The Secret) and also an old post from our blog) would say, you hold infinite power to control the future, my friend. Have you ever thought about naming a child Bone Wars Pineda? That actually has a nice ring to it. A kid with a name like that is destined to be awesome. You’ll see further evidence for that claim when we launch our “Funny Names Theory” blog page next Monday. In fact, we’ll be having a poll tomorrow – and had one yesterday – for which theories we’ll preview this weekend, so you could find out why by the time Saturday or Sunday rolls around.

  7. Great stuff! Love it!

  8. No doubt about it. Copious drinking must have led to this debacle! kudos!

    • Dave says:

      I think you’re right 🙂 Maybe that’s how Edward Drinker Cope got his name.

      I didn’t realize you were a jewelry designer… that’s pretty cool! I’m not in the right demographic, (and with 25 med school applications this summer at $100-200 a pop, not the right financial spot either), but I really like the Pagoda design. I’ll keep it in mind when the right lady comes along… hopefully sooner rather than later.

      • ;-D That’s the spirit, Dave! I can tell you from personal experience that marriage is truly wonderful. There is nothing better than having a friend and lover in one person. Someone you will never be without. Let me know when the right one comes along…

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  14. marksackler says:

    WOW. With a turn of phrase like “paleontological brouhaha” you clearly have been influenced by me. I can’t wait for an opportunity to use that in a conversation Great story!! 😀

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