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Edward Drinker Cope and the Story of the Paleontologist’s Wandering Skull

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Edward Drinker Cope’s skull started out on his body, naturally enough. 

Born into a well-off Quaker family in 1840, the Philadelphia native was already journaling and drawing his observations about the natural world at the age of six. By 19 he’d published his first scientific paper, a treatise on salamanders. Like many scholars of his day, Cope was a generalist, studying amphibians and fish and whatever else caught his eye, but he’s most famous for his work in paleontology and his contentious battle with rival Othniel Charles Marsh.

If you think science is a pure pursuit of truth without respect to ego, you know nothing of the Bone Wars. Cope and Marsh sent collectors digging and blasting their way across the American West in search of dinosaur remains, often naming the same species more than once in an attempt to get the most credit. When their collectors were done excavating a site, they weren’t above destroying the evidence to make sure the next group wouldn’t have any fossils to recover for themselves.

The rivalry began when Marsh embarrassed Cope by showing he’d placed the head of an Elasmosaurus on its short tail instead of its long neck. The two paleontologists fought for years in academic circles and newspapers, and both wound up smeared by the end. Along the way they discovered many dinosaurs you’ll see in museums today, including Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Apatosaurus.

Elasmosaurus, the dinosaur that started Cope's feud with Marsh.

The Bone Wars have been chronicled in books, documentaries, and even a graphic novel, but the story of Cope’s skull rivals any tale of academic intrigue. Like the head of the Elasmosaurus that started the fossil feud, Cope’s own noggin wandered for a while before winding up back where it belonged. Author David Rains Wallace relates a good part of the tale in The Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age.

Cope died in 1897, most likely alone on a cot surrounded by fossils. Prior to death he’d arranged for his body to be donated to science, specifying that his skeleton should be prepared and preserved but not placed on exhibition. Originally kept by the American Anthropometric Society, a group with a fondness for measuring the brains of famous men, Cope’s skull was passed in 1966 to the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Anthropology, and that’s when things got a little weird.

A distinguished anthropology professor by the name of Loren Eiseley saw Cope’s name on a box and left a note that said, “Gone to lunch—Edward Drinker Cope.” Eiseley took the bones back to his office and laid them out on a conference table to make sure everything was intact before placing them back into the box. Over the years, the paleontologist's remains became a fixture in Eiseley’s office, and the anthropologist toasted “Eddie” with sherry and even bought him a birthday present of a skeleton-bedecked printing block. The office staff also decorated Cope for Christmas.

Eiseley had a nephew named Jim Hahn, a sailor who studied physical anthropology under his uncle at Penn. The two men looked and sounded a lot alike, and they had little adventures together, one time finding some .356 Magnum shells in a parking lot and ransacking a nearby Salvation Army drop box in search of the gun, according to Fox at the Wood’s Edge, Gale E. Christianson’s biography of Eiseley. So it was not surprising when the professor, after deciding he wanted to be buried with Cope’s bones, picked his nephew to help him with the task.

Eiseley died in July 1977, and Jim Hahn found himself in the professor’s office at the Penn Museum trying to tape Cope’s bones to his own arms and legs. Hahn was sweating in the summer heat and worried he’d fall apart right before the museum guard’s eyes, so he opted instead to carry Cope out in a box with a bunch of his uncle’s books. That went off without a hitch, but at the funeral home Hahn realized there was no way he could get Eddie in the coffin without the mortician noticing, so back to the museum the bones went.

Cope rested in peace until the Jurassic Park mania of the early 1990s, when a photographer named Louie Psihoyos was traveling around the country shooting paleontology artifacts. Psihoyos would later direct The Cove, the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary about dolphin hunting in Japan, but he was already a successful photographer by the time he found himself talking to paleontologist Ted Daeschler at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The discussion turned to Cope, and Daeschler mentioned that Eddie’s bones were sitting in a box across town. Daeschler made a call and the museum left Cope at the front desk for Psihoyos, who picked up the two boxes and took Cope on the road.

“The box with the skull was last used for electrical parts,” says Psihoyos, who, along with collaborator John Knoebber, started treating Cope like one of the crew. Knoebber made a velvet-lined mahogany box for the skull, which they didn’t like leaving in the van, so “Do you have Ed?” became a common refrain every time they left a diner.

Cope’s skull was a conversation starter, granting them entrée with paleontologists they interviewed for their book Hunting Dinosaurs. “That was like bringing Elvis to a rock ‘n’ roll convention,” says Psihoyos. “You felt like you knew him, because you’d read a lot of his history.”

But there was a problem: The museum had no idea Psihoyos and Knoebber were taking the skull on the road. “They didn’t return it, and they took it on a trip,” says Daeschler. “Which is just not cool. Granted, they’re not scientists, and they don’t know the ways of loans that come from scientific institutions.”

Psihoyos estimates he had the skull for three years. Near the end, a paleontologist named Bob Bakker (who is famous for helping popularize the theory that some dinosaurs were warm-blooded) declared Cope’s remains as the ideal example of humankind. Every time a new species is classified, one example is declared to be the type specimen. When Carl Linneaus, the father of modern taxonomy, originally named Homo sapiens in 1758, he skipped that part and said, “Know thyself.” Bakker went ahead and basically tried to change that to “Know Edward Drinker Cope.”

“The legend I heard was that Cope wanted to be the type specimen,” says Psihoyos. “This is the dark part of the history. Cope was part of a group of scientists back then who were trying to set forth the idea that the Caucasian race is superior, and they were using brain case size and all these notions to legitimize it. Well, that never came to fruition.”

Today’s historians and paleontologists don’t deny that Cope, like many of his contemporaries, held some very racist ideas about human anatomy, but what’s much less clear is whether Cope wanted to become the type specimen when he donated his body to science. As Wallace explains in The Bonehunters’ Revenge, Cope had few teeth at the end of his life, and some of Cope and Marsh’s biggest contributions to science dealt with dentition, so the Philadelphia Quaker would’ve known he wasn’t suitable. But the legend persists, probably because it would’ve been one final way for Cope to best his rival.

Drawing by artist Charles R. Knight of two Lealaps fighting. It's considered to be symbolic of Cope and Marsh's feud.

“Cope didn’t want people to do what Psihoyos did,” says Daeschler. “He did not want to be paraded around because he was the great Professor Cope. He had a high opinion of himself, so he thought that might happen. And it did. It absolutely did happen.”

The Penn Museum demanded Cope back, and they added another wrinkle to the story: Professor Eiseley had loaned the skull to an artist from the Museum of Natural History in the 1970s, and they weren’t even sure if the right one ever came back. So maybe Psihoyos, Knoebber, and Bakker had been hanging out with the wrong skull all along.

“They were embarrassed to have rented him out like a library book,” says Psihoyos, who shipped the remains back via FedEx. “I’m convinced it was Ed.”

That’s one part of the story where the Penn Museum now agrees with the photographer. The skull, whose jaw went missing long before Psihoyos’ journey, has been compared to older drawings of Cope’s remains and determined to be the real deal. Cope is not the type specimen, however. The academic community gives that honor to Linneaus.

Cope’s skull is back under the care of the Penn Museum, in that fancy velvet-lined box. Janet Monge, associate director at the museum, says she sometimes brings Cope out for classes on the type-specimen controversy, but as for his current whereabouts:

“He’s on the shelf right now.”

All photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
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Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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Did Queen Victoria Really Save Prince Albert From Drowning in an Icy Lake?
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many British queens have also served as daring emergency rescuers. But when the moment arose, Queen Victoria was ready to save the day. In 1841, she saved her husband, Prince Albert, from an icy lake he had fallen into while skating.

The incident didn't need much dramatization when it was included in an episode of the PBS drama Victoria. It really was a life-or-death situation, and 21-year-old Victoria was the hero.

On a cold February day in 1841, Victoria and Albert, who had married almost exactly a year earlier, went for a walk around the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Albert, an avid sportsman who loved to skate and play hockey, strapped on his ice skates and headed out onto the lake. In a diary entry, Victoria wrote that the ice was smooth and hard that day—mostly. As he skated toward her, she noticed that the ice around a bridge looked a little thin.

"I, standing alone on the bank," she wrote in her journal that evening, "said, ‘it is unsafe here,' and no sooner had I said this, than the ice cracked, and Albert was in the water up to his head, even for a moment below." By her own telling, Victoria screamed and reached out her arm to him, holding onto her lady-in-waiting, the only attendant present.

Albert grabbed Victoria's arm and she was able to pull him to safety. He had cut his chin and was dripping wet, but returned home, took a hot bath and a nap, and was up a few hours later to socialize when their uncle Leopold (Victoria and Albert were first cousins) came to visit.

"Her Majesty manifested the greatest courage upon the occasion, and acted with the most intrepid coolness," an account of the event that appeared in The Times a few days later proclaimed. "As soon as the Prince was safe on dry land, the queen gave way to the natural emotions of joy and thankfulness at his providential escape."

Albert recounted his side of the experience in a letter to his step-grandmother, Duchess Caroline of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. "I was making my way to Victoria, who was standing on the bank with one of her ladies," he described, when "I fell plump into the water, and had to swim for two or three minutes in order to get out. Victoria was the only person with the presence of mind to lend me assistance, her lady being more occupied in screaming for help." (Both the queen's diary entry and the newspaper account give the lady-in-waiting a little more credit, suggesting that she at least served as an anchor for the queen as she reached out to the prince.)

According to The Times, the problem was bird-related. That morning, the groundskeepers in charge of the various waterfowl that called the lake home had broken the ice around the edges of the water so that the birds could drink. By the time the queen and the prince arrived, those spots had frozen over with a deceptively thin layer of ice.

Thanks to Victoria, though, Albert emerged from the incident with little more than a bad cold and went on to live for another 20 years.

Had Albert died that day on the ice, it could have completely changed European history. Victoria and Albert had already had a daughter, and the future King Edward VII was conceived around this time. If Albert had died, seven of Victoria’s children wouldn’t have been born—children who were married to nobles and rulers across Europe (during World War I, seven of their direct descendants were on thrones as king or queen). And if the future Edward VII hadn’t been conceived, Albert died, and everything else remained the same, it’s possible Kaiser Wilhelm II may have become the ruler of both Germany and the United Kingdom.

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