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,
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.
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.
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 🙂