Dusting Off America’s First Dinosaur

PrintPrintEmailEmail
 
 

Hawkins labored on in his studio, hoping the Smithsonian could be induced to buy his reconstructions. By now he had been at it for almost two years, longer than it had taken to complete the entire Crystal Palace project. Several of the animals, including the smaller Hadrosaurus, at least one Laelaps, and a pair of giant elk, had already been finished.

Then, on May 3, 1871, a group of Tweed’s laborers, apparently acting on orders from the Ring commissioner Henry Hilton, invaded Hawkins’s studio and attacked the dinosaurs with sledgehammers. Everything was smashed to rubble, hauled away, and buried. Hawkins was devastated. When his pleas for financial recompense fell on deaf ears, he retired to Princeton in disgust.

Past accounts have often attributed this act of blatant vandalism to a sort of anti-Darwinian bias on the part of Boss Tweed and his cronies. But contemporary sources do not bear this out. The Ring had previously demonstrated no ill will toward Hawkins personally, continuing to employ him on another project even after work on the Paleozoic Museum was suspended. Furthermore, the artist had followed his old mentor Owen in adopting a somewhat critical view of Darwinism.

However, Hawkins had delivered a lecture before the New York Lyceum of Natural History in March in which he had outlined the entire history of the museum and its current troubles with the Ring. Although Hawkins was reasonably circumspect, the meeting produced some heated denunciations of the city administration from the floor. The New York Times’s fairly sensational account of the proceedings also noted that among those present had been Andrew Green, the Ring’s archfoe on the park board.

Did Tweed and Hilton view Hawkins’s appeal to the lyceum as an attempt to pressure the Tweed Ring? Did they see Hawkins as a pawn manipulated by Green? Perhaps. Certainly Tweed and his associates were more likely to respond forcefully to a direct political confrontation than to some remote antievolutionist crusade.

For a quarter-century it was billed as the “Great Kangaroo Lizard.”

Within a few weeks of the destruction of Hawkins’s studio, Tweed’s empire crumbled. Following The New York Times’s dramatic disclosure of massive fraud, Tweed fled into exile, was extradited, and died in prison. Sweeny abruptly moved to Canada. Because of embarrassing political ties, few of the others were even brought to trial. Andrew Green was soon back in control of Central Park, but it was too late. The Paleozoic Museum was a dead issue.

Fortunately not quite all of Hawkins’s work in America had been destroyed. In 1868 Hawkins had provided the Academy of Natural Sciences with a complete reconstruction of the skeleton of Hadrosaurus, pseudoskull and all. When in 1876 the academy moved to more spacious quarters on Nineteenth Street, just off Logan Square, this skeleton, twenty-six feet long and more than thirteen feet tall, became the centerpiece of the main exhibit hall. Evidently the molds for this skeleton had somehow survived the Central Park fiasco, for Hawkins was able to produce a number of duplicate plaster casts over the next few years. In March 1874 he created one for Princeton University (then called the College of New Jersey), which was displayed in Nassau Hall, and he completed another for the Smithsonian shortly thereafter.

 

Hawkins also attempted to interest the Smithsonian in a full-size model of Hadrosaurus for the upcoming Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. While nothing ever came of this, at the last minute Hawkins received a request from a British exhibitor at the fair, and a third skeleton was produced in May 1876. After the close of the fair, this cast was shipped to Edinburgh and remounted in the Royal Scottish Museum in 1879, becoming the first dinosaur skeleton ever exhibited in Europe.

Hawkins meanwhile worked on a series of paintings for Princeton University depicting the various stages of life on earth. Just as he had been the first person to render the prehistoric world in sculptured form, so he was also the first to attempt its comprehensive portrayal on canvas. One of these paintings shows Hadrosaurus and Laelaps locked in mortal combat. Hawkins eventually returned to England, settled in London, and died in 1889.