Professor Cope Vs. Professor Marsh


Cope settled down to marriage with his cousin Annie Pirn and a professorship at Haverford College, in Pennsylvania. He even seems to have tried farming, apparently to satisfy his father’s wishes that his capital be sunk into something solid. But by 1869 he had left both teaching and husbandry to devote full time to science.The seventies were his creative years as a scientist. Every year but one he risked the dangers of hostile Indians, alkali water, and fiendish insects. (“There are three kinds of gnats,” he reported from Wyoming, a scientist even while being eaten, “and all are of the most blood-thirsty description.”) The West over which he travelled, armed only with his geologist’s hammer, is like a scene glimpsed from the window of a train, clear and sharp, but only for an instant. The buffalo were dying at the rate of a million a year. A Leaven—worth firm took in more than thirty thousand hides a month. At every station along the line of the Kansas Pacific, immense stacks of hides waited to be carted away, and with them went the last support of the nomadic tribes. Indians wandered about half-starved, the cavalry in hot pursuit. Through it all roamed Cope. He refused even to carry re—volvers, which offended his Quaker sensibilities. He rarely travelled with a military escort.

He thrived in the field. Whatever came up he handled : if a mule balked, he took a rope end to it; if the mule-skinners sneered when he read the Bible aloud every night, he stared them down to nervous shuffling silence; a cook whose profanity offended him was promptly hauled back to the path of virtue. During the day he was indefatigable in pursuit of fossils, and at night they wandered through the corridors of his restless sleep. “Every animal of which we had found traces during the day played with him at night,” recalled a travelling companion, “tossing him into the air, kicking him, trampling upon him.”

The eighties were as frustrating for Cope as the seventies had been triumphant. Early battles began to catch up with him. His money ran out, and field trips became infrequent. Nor was Marsh his only foe. His volatile temperament and quick tongue had assured that. Enemies lurked in ambush in every shadowed cranny of the Academy of Natural Sciences and the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. A friend recalled that he seemed to enjoy their yapping at his heels, but it was costly amusement. With his capital squandered in worn-out silver mines in a misguided itch for speculation, he found himself in need, with as many enemies as he had friends.

Only the incredible productivity continued. The papers rolled out on every subject from femurs to feminism. The subjects were few that did not at one time or another engage his attention. Meanwhile he grew more eccentric. In an early flush of ardor for something besides fossils he begat a daughter, and during her childhood he conscientiously maintained an establishment. He took two row houses on Pine Street, one for his bones and one for his family. But in later life, when the daughter was grown and the need for space was pressing, his wife went to the country and the second house also filled up with bones.

He lived like a monk in those years, sleeping on a camp cot among the bones, books, and bottles of frogs preserved in alcohol, a huge tortoise shuffling about the premises. Neighborhood boys gazed in awe at the shades of ancient monsters glimpsed through the windows, and sometimes played pranks on the shade who lived among them. Visitors found him behind a desk smoking cigars, tapping the ashes on the edge of the desk from whence they fell to add to the small mountain of volcanic ash sprouting from the carpet. Eventually the fossils were sold to the American Museum of Natural History in New York to raise money, but by that time they had become ghosts not so much of animals that had once walked the earth as of dreams of greatness shrivelled by malice and disappointment.

Othniel Marsh, the object of that malice if not the cause of the disappointment, might have spent his days as an obscure farmer in western New York, as did his father, but for a whim of fortune that made him the nephew of George Peabody. This enigmatic figure possessed one of the largest personal fortunes in the world [see “The First Great Cheerful Giver,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , June, 1966]. As a London-based exporter of capital to America he competed successfully with Rothschilds and Barings; when he took Junius Spencer Morgan into the business, his firm became an even greater financial empire. He had apparently loved his sister: the glow of this emotion still warmed him seventeen years after her death; at the age of twenty her son Othniel was plucked from anonymity as if by divine decree.