Bakker Blogs: Rapscallion dino rustlers and the paleontological gold rush of the American West

Part One: Allosaur-Rustlers of the Old West.

It’s 1879, and we’re in the Old West. Como Bluff, Wyo., to be exact. It’s hot, it’s dusty, and it’s full of rustlers.

There’s a Jurassic Gold Rush going on — a paleontological stampede to get the best dinosaur skeletons out of the rock and back into museums. Two “Bone Barons” are out in force, trying to be the first to score Mesozoic giants.

Professor Othniel Charles Marsh from Yale University got here first. In 1877, two railroad hands working in Laramie County, Mr. Harlow and Mr. Reed, had telegraphed the Yalie scientist with the galvanic announcement: “We’ve found huge bones. Plenty of them.  Easy to dig and haul to the station for shipping back East. Send money.”

Marsh sent money — his own money.  He was using up his inheritance to fill the Yale museum. In the first 18 months at Como, Yale got tons of rock full of gorgeous ebony-hued bones. New species galore! No one had seen such glorious relics from the Late Jurassic Period before. Marsh zipped out preliminary scientific papers on Morosaurus, Laosaurus, Dryosaurus, Camptosaurus and Brontosaurus. The specimens were so complete that Marsh’s anatomical illustrators could generate beautiful diagrams of the entire skeleton, nose to tail. Marsh and his dinos scored front-page headlines in newspapers and magazines in a dozen languages.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the other Bone Baron, Edward Drinker Cope, seethed with jealousy. Though he was from an old Quaker family, Cope was overcome by emphatically un-Christian thoughts. “I’ve gotta get some Jurassic bones from Wyoming…no time to find my own quarries….gotta hire some independent diggers, men with more moxie than scruples.”

Marsh’s crew at Como Bluff heard the rumors about Cope’s devious plan. Some surly no-goodnicks were trolling through the local bars asking questions about what had been excavated and where. So the Yale crew armed themselves with pickaxes, shovels and Winchester rifles. Unwelcome visitors, they figured, would be bombarded with chunks of black Jurassic rock and, if need be, a barrage of .44 caliber bullets fired in a great cloud of black-powder smoke.

But Como Ridge is too wide — 12 miles east to west — and the three or four Marsh men couldn’t patrol the entire outcrop. Word came from the freight manager at Como Station that some chaps had, indeed, sent big crates of rock to the address: “E. D. Cope, Philadelphia.”

What had the pirates dug up? The Yale crew scoured the landscape for tell-tale marks of recent digging. “There it is, next to our old Brontosaurus quarry — a huge hole!” The excavation was big enough to mark the spot where a mid-sized dino had been lifted out, a beast maybe 30 to 35 feet long. What species? There was no clue. The rustlers had been thorough; they didn’t leave a scrap of identifiable bone.

The Yale folks muttered curses and Old West imprecations and treated themselves to dinner at Laramie, a three-hour ride from the diggings.

No one at Yale ever learned who had stolen what. But in an odd twist of fate, the nefarious Quaker Cope was no wiser. Yes, he paid “F. F. Hubbell” and his brother for three loads of bones stolen from Como. Yes, he opened the first two sets of crates and poked around inside. “Jurassic junk,” Cope muttered. “Bits and pieces, nothing important. Those Hubbell brothers wouldn’t know a significant fossil if it came alive and bit them on the boot.”

Cope was discouraged. His lapse into scientific larceny hadn’t paid off. Maybe his Mother’s Christian admonitions had come to haunt him. Anyway, Cope retired from the rustling business. He paid the Hubbell Brothers for their last shipment but didn’t bother opening the final set of crates.

Fast forward to 1901. Setting: the brand new American Museum of Natural History at Central Park West in New York City. Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn was in charge, and he had more money than Cope and Marsh put together.  Thanks to a generous millionaire on the Board, Osborn had arranged to buy all of Cope’s fossils in the late 1890s. Cope and his estate needed the funds, because the family fortune had been spent down to the last penny in the quest for prehistoric trophies. Osborn hired the brightest and best young men in paleontology — many of whom had worked with Cope or Marsh or both.

Dr. Jacob Wortman oversaw the unpacking. He had risked life and limb for Cope in the wildest parts of Wyoming in the early 1880s. Then he had led Osborn’s first field parties to Como Bluff in 1897. Now he was in charge of the biggest purchase of fossils ever made. Exclamations of joy came from the American Museum crew as box after box was opened. Many of the specimens were world-famous, their images spread across scientific monographs and textbooks.

And that last shipment from the Hubbell Brothers? Since it had never been opened, the crate was dusty and the shipping label was faded. “Leave it till last…those brigands never dug up anything worthwhile,” the crew must have thought.

So it was not until 1904-1905 that the crates had their lids pried off. Cheap wood splintered. Rusted nails fell to the floor. Osborn’s men looked in…

Inside was not what they expected. Filling the crates was not a mass of useless paleontological bric-a-brac. That last shipment contained just one, single specimen — a nearly complete skeleton of the apex predator who had ruled the Late Jurassic ecosystem: Allosaurus.

L-Allo on apato greyHubbell

Marsh had named Allosaurus fragilis from a pretty good skeleton dug in Canon City back in the 1870s. The Hubbell Brothers’ beast was twice the bulk, clearly from a later, more advanced species. Apex predators are always the rarest finds, because these top carnivores needed such large populations of prey species as a food base. Dozens of Jurassic herbivores had been announced but only a handful of Apex meat-eaters. The Hubbell Brothers’ animal was the biggest and finest dino-carnivore known from the entire Jurassic Period.

Osborn jumped on the new opportunity: the Allosaurus would be the new exhibit’s top priority. Bits of rock flew off the bones as micro-chisels were employed by skilled fingers. Broken sections were expertly glued together with gum arabic. Artists who worked bending iron prepared a graceful armature of braces that held every vertebra, every toe bone in proper anatomical position.

Osborn was an unusual paleontologist. His educated imagination saw every skeleton as a living, breathing being. He loathed mounts that were stiff and clumsy. His would capture the sinuous grace of the beasts in the full bloom of health.

What is the most vivid way of showing the Hubbell allosaur?  In the act of feeding on its prey.  Jake Wortman had brought back from Como a brontosaur specimen that was a genuine CSI exhibit. The tops of the vertebrae had been bitten by some huge, unknown predator. In the rock next to the bronto were tooth crowns from the perpetrator. Now that he had the Hubbell Brothers specimen for comparison, Osborn could identify the perp — it was a giant allosaur the same size as the Hubbell skeleton.

The CSI evidence fell into place. Wortman and his fellow diggers had found the old Hubbell Brothers’ excavation site and mapped the location. It was only a quarter mile from where they dug up that chewed brontosaur and in the same layer of rock. The esteemed allosaur might have been the very same individual that snacked on the Brontosaurus!

To Osborn, the design of the exhibit was crystal clear.  The Hubbell allosaur would be mounted as if it was still chewing flesh and bone from the brontosaur carcass. When the display opened to the public in 1907, both the public and the scientific community were astounded. For the first time, Jurassic bones came alive.  The mount became the most famous dinosaur display ever seen. To this day, there is no Jurassic exhibit that is superior, and few exhibits have equaled it.

As for the Hubbell Brothers, did they live to hear about their specimen or see its image on the cover of Scientific American? We do not know. After 1879 and their last shipment to Cope, they disappeared. There is doubt that their real name was even Hubbell. Allegedly they were from Minnesota, but no record can be found.

Stay tuned for Part II.

3 thoughts on “Bakker Blogs: Rapscallion dino rustlers and the paleontological gold rush of the American West

  1. Great article on the history of American paleontology! The drama between scientific competitors is as interesting as the best scripted films and has the given the world some amazing technology and discoveries.

    Can’t wait to read Part 2!

  2. Great story. I really enjoy the history of paleontology, especially what took place at Como Bluff. However, I thought the Hubbell’s allosaurus skeleton (AMNH 5753) was found near Cope’s Quarry near the west end of Como Bluff, and the brontosaurus remains (AMNH 222) it’s seen munching on in the display were found 3 or 4 miles to the east near the old Yale Quarries 9 & 10. Nonetheless, I’m intrigued to learn that the Hubbell brothers may have been from Minnesota. Can you elaborate at all on where that information originated?

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