The Bone Wars are infamous. Between the 1870s to the 1890s, two paleontologists, Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, had a rivalry that eventually ruined them but also made dinosaurs mainstream. (The story is so good, a movie was almost made about it in 2013, and it would have starred Steve Carell as Cope and James Gandolfini as Marsh.)
Before the Bone Wars, dinosaurs were not that popular. Only nine species of dinosaurs had been named, and mostly isolated teeth and skeletal fragments had been found. But after Marsh and Cope, and their rush to name new species, even going so far as to bribe, steal, and destroy bones to prevent each other from “winning,” (there are rumors they spied on each other and one rumor that Marsh stole a railway car of bones, though there’s no evidence for that one), they named 144 species. Only 32 are still considered valid.
Want to hear more details about the Bone Wars, in audio form? Listen to our episode, “Sabrina Ricci’s Hardcore Bone Wars”
Marsh and Cope are often depicted in different ways. Marsh was a loner, very suspicious of people, and worked slowly and methodically. He was bald with a large beard. Cope was passionate and eccentric, quick to describe fossils, and liked women but was also devoted to his family. Cope had a full head of hair and a mustache. But both of them had money and were very driven. Marsh got money from his Uncle George Peabody, who owned a large mercantile company, and was a philanthropist and bachelor, with an interest in education. Cope got money from his father, though he had an allowance for most of his life, so is sometimes depicted as the “poor one” in the Bone Wars.
There was one more paleontologist who was part of the Bone Wars, and he’s often not mentioned: Joseph Leidy. Leidy was the first vertebrate paleontologist in the U.S., and older than both Marsh and Cope. He’d found evidence of horses, lions, rhinos, and other large mammals in the West, and in 1856 he discovered dinosaurs in America. He formally described Hadrosaurus foulkii in 1858.
However, unlike Marsh and Cope, Leidy didn’t have money to pursue fossil hunting, and he didn’t like getting entangled in the rivalry. Eventually he quit paleontology and people kind of forgot about him. (Cope learned a lot from Leidy, but still called him “Poor Old Leidy.”)
Childhood and Young Adult Life
Othniel Charles Marsh was born October 29, 1831, on a farm in Lockport, New York. His mother Mary died when he was 3 years old, and his older sister Mary was 5. His father, Caleb, remarried quickly and Marsh had a lot of half brothers and half sisters. Caleb started a shoe factory that failed in 1837 and he had a lot of debts. Marsh was the oldest son, and his father expected him to work on the farm, which caused tension between Marsh and his father.
Marsh wasn’t always the best student, but in his early 20s his outlook changed. He started collecting minerals, and became very focused at school.
His uncle, on his mother’s side, George Peabody gave him money for his education. Uncle George paid for Marsh’s expense to attend Yale and gave him pocket money.
Marsh did well in school but he got in the habit of spending a lot of money and paying his bills late. He lived on the third floor of a private home, and filled his rooms and the attic with minerals and fossils. Already Marsh had trust issues, and let almost no one see his fossils. His collection was so heavy, the owner of the house had to prop up the floors.
Edward Drinker Cope was born on July 28, 1840 (9 years younger than Marsh), in Fairfield, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was a child prodigy, and wrote his first paper in 1859, when he was 19 years old. He came from a family of Quakers, and was the oldest of four children.
His family was wealthy, and his father Alfred was a retired farmer with a large house on an 8-acre estate. However, Alfred thought his son Cope was a wicked boy, and they had a conflicted relationship. Growing up Cope worked on relative’s farms every summer, to learn agriculture. He learned to love nature from farming. And his father put him to work on the family farm when Cope was 14 to 20 years old.
In 1860, when Cope was 20, he wrote to his father, asking for permission to see a lecture about anatomy by zoologist and paleontologist Joseph Leidy. He said “the knowledge of human and comparative anatomy would be of immense service to one desiring a knowledge of the proper manner of treating stock”. His father let him go to the lecture, and after that, Cope stopped being a farmer and became a gentleman scholar.
Cope was passionate about science, and sometimes got into fights. Though afterward, he often was cordial.
How They Met
Marsh and Cope met in Berlin, Germany, around 1863. When they met, Marsh had two degrees and had published two papers. Cope had no degrees but had published 37 scientific papers already.
They spent a few days together, then exchanged manuscripts, fossils, photographs, and correspondence. At first, they were friendly to each other. For example in 1867, Cope named one of his amphibian fossils after Marsh, Ptyonius marshii. And in 1868, Marsh named a new serpent from New Jersey, Mosasaurus copeanus.
The Start Of Their Rivalry
In the summer of 1869, Cope invited Marsh to see his Elasmosaurus playturus at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The reconstruction was difficult, and the end result was a 35 ft long specimen with large fins, an angular head with sharp teeth, and a flexible neck.
When Cope showed the Elasmosaurus to Marsh, Marsh pointed out a mistake Cope had made: the head was where the tail should be. Marsh felt he had broken the news to Cope gently, and Cope felt Marsh had been caustic. The two of them argued, and even got Joseph Leidy involved.
It turned out Marsh was correct, which greatly embarassed Cope. They both started feuding via mail, writing angry letters to each other and calling each other out in the American Journal of Science.
The Bone Wars
The Bone Wars started in the 1970s. At that time, more and more railways were being built in the western U.S., which made it easier to travel. Though there were tensions between the Sioux and other tribes with the U.S. government.
Marsh started taking Yale students with him to dig for fossils, and paid for military escorts. He was very jealous and territorial over his bones, even of sites that other people had already started excavating. He also expected everyone who worked for him to only collect fossils for him, though he often forgot to pay them. (A few people worked for both Marsh and Cope.)
After Cope heard about Marsh’s expeditions, he started traveling himself. He went to Kansas in 1871 and also worked with Ferdinand Hayden for a while to publish his findings with the American Philosophical Society.
Both men spent a lot of money on these expeditions, and often looked for fossils where other scientists had already been excavating. They also got competitive with one another, by bad mouthing each other and even going so far as to plant fake fossils at sites.
One of the issues of the Bone Wars is the fact that new specimens were being named too quickly. Many of them, though they had different genus and species names, turned out to be the same species.
Marsh and Cope loved to battle over each other’s mistakes. They argued in comments in scientific journals, especially in The Naturalist. Eventually the editors of the Naturalist had enough and banned them from criticizing each other, unless they paid for space in the appendix.
We regret that Professors Marsh and Cope have considered it necessary to carry their controversy to the extent that they have. Wishing to maintain the perfect independence of the Naturalist in all matters involving scientific criticism, we have allowed both parties to have their full say, but feeling that now the controversy between the authors in question has come to be a personal one and that the Naturalist is not called upon to devote further space to its consideration, the continuance of the subject will be allowed only in the form of an appendix at the expense of the author.
They spent the next few years trying to outspend each other to find more fossils and name more species. By 1889 Cope was broke. Marsh was doing fine but his employees didn’t like working for him. He rarely paid them on time, and he didn’t allow them to publish their own papers.
In 1890, Cope got The Herald newspaper to publish his and some of Marsh’s employees grievances against Marsh. The scientific community was not happy with article. A few people who were quoted had told The Herald not to include them in the article.
More articles were subsequently published, and each one made Cope look worse. One of the last ones included a rhyme called “Paleozoic Poetry,” and made fun of both Cope and Marsh.
By the 1890s, Marsh wasn’t doing as well financially. Cope was doing better, but he had to sell some of his collections, possibly to help pay for his daughter’s marriage.
Then in 1897, Cope got sick. By then, he had sold his home and slept on a cot surrounded by his fossil collection. But, he managed to spend some time with paleoartist Charles Knight and worked on drawings together. Cope died in April of that year.
Marsh lived another two years, but in poor health. He also owed a lot of money, and one month after he died, 80 tons of fossils were shipped to Washington D.C. to cover his debt to the government.
The Bone Wars: The Good and Bad
Marsh and Cope’s rivalry ruined them both, but it was also great for paleontology. The two of them found more than 25,000 new fossils.
Cope published fast and described 1,115 of the 3,200 species of vertebrate fossils known in North America in 1900. Marsh tended to publish long monographs, and he described 496 new species. His total output was 270 publications.
The dinosaurs they named are still some of the most popular ones. They include:
Their rivalry, and the public humiliations between Cope and Marsh gave American paleontology a bad reputation in Europe for decades. And their rush to describe bones led to confusion and misconceptions for many years after their deaths.
They also damaged fossils and kept each other from finding more fossils. Though, an excavation in 2007 and 2008 of a few of Cope and Marsh’s sites found there wasn’t as much damage as previously thought.
And, Marsh and Cope discovered the first complete skeletons and made dinosaurs popular. Paleontologist Bob Bakker said, “The dinosaurs that came from [Como Bluff] not only filled museums, they filled magazine articles, textbooks, they filled people’s minds.”