- Historic Sites
Unearthing The Mastodon
Peale’s Greatest Triumph
August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
The Mammoth was everything, holding all attention when the expedition returned to Philadelphia on September 19. The preliminary work of reconstruction alone would take three months, for the rough zest with which the bones at Masten’s had been first dragged from the pit had created many puzzles.
“Fixing the ox chains, perhaps, to one of the tusks broke the upper part of the head to pieces, and the under part of the upper Jaw is the only part that could be connected, which extends from the middle of the socket of the tusk through the orbits of the Eyes holes to the hind head. The tusk was also broke into three pieces, but the fractures being put together gave the true curve and twist of this enormous tusk, 11 feet in length. The fractures also of the several pieces of the head, fitting nicely together, produced the true form, but they could not be found out but [by] numberless tryals of puting first one piece, then another, together, and turning them in every direction. The most expert antatomist could not have found the fitting of a fracture better [than] those of the least knowledge, as was exemplified by the fact that Moses Williams [a black servant] fitted pieces together by trying, [not] the most probable, but by the most improbable possition, as the lookers-on believed. Yet he did more good in that way than any one among those employed in the work.…”
The identity of the two skeletons was kept intact, lacks in one replaced by carved replicas from the other, the Masten skeleton being given a wooden lower jaw copied from Rembrandt’s, found on the Millspaw land. Peale made the top of the head in papier-mâche, working from an elephant’s skull, and painted a horizontal red line around it to indicate that all above was conjectural. The work was done in the family parlor at the Hall which, fifteen feet high and twenty-six feet long, had very little space to spare. As finally mounted, the skeleton stood eleven feet high at the shoulder, nine at the hips, the chest five feet eight inches wide, the body seventeen feet six inches from tusk to tail. Though the height of the animal was somewhat exaggerated, the effort of all concerned to achieve an authentic reconstruction had been sincere. Two years later, over Dr. Wistar’s protest, Peale would add “cartilege” between the bones, an increase in size for which he felt he had scientific justification.
But debts and personal expenses close to two thousand dollars had to be met—the Society’s loan was overdue—and these the mammoth must be made to pay. A “Mammoth Room” was created in the southeast chamber of the Hall, at a separate admission charge of fifty cents. Members of the Society were invited to its opening on the evening of December 24,1801. The next day it was thrown open to the public with a blare of publicity. Handbills made all that could be made of a Shawnee legend of the thundering monster of “ten thousand moons ago,” and the versatile Moses Williams dramatized that idea, wearing a feathered headdress, riding through the town on a white horse with a trumpeter going before. The populace flowed in and none was disappointed. There it stood, ghostly and tremendous, “the LARGEST of terrestrial beings”—“the ninth wonder of the world!!!”
Publicity was scarcely needed. The great skeleton was one of those sudden revelations of a remote past, like “King Tut’s” tomb, which capture both popular fancy and scholarly attention. The word “mammoth” had burst into the language as “atomic” was to do at a later day. A Philadelphia baker advertised “Mammoth Bread.” In Washington a “Mammoth Eater” devoured forty-two eggs in ten minutes, while the ladies of Cheshire, Massachusetts, sent a “Mammoth Cheese,” weight 1,230 pounds, as a gift to Jefferson, the new President of the United States—he welcoming it as “an ebullition of the passion of republicanism in a state where it has been under a heavy persecution.” Peale had won a permanent niche in the history of paleontology, while for the populace around him this new marvel of American bigness paced every heart into a quicker, prouder beat.
Peale retired in 1810, leaving his son Rubens in charge of the museum. To Rubens it was a business—science as entertainment. Special exhibits made money. The aim of “a world in miniature” would never show a profit. He kept his science authentic but seasoned it with such attractions as his sonorously named “Santorian Chair,” which was nothing more than a penny weighing machine, and in time he suffered the appearance of Signor Hellene, a one-man band who played viola, cymbals, and tenor drum, accompanied by pipes strapped to his head.
In 1838 the museum moved for one last time, to handsome new quarters at Ninth and George streets, but the cost of the buildings was ruinous, and, worse, it turned out that nobody had actually secured title to the ground they stood on. Rubens’ half-brother Titian—who had been on the other side of the world collecting specimens while this blundering went on—returned to take over in 1842.