- Historic Sites
Unearthing The Mastodon
Peale’s Greatest Triumph
August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
During the spring of 1801 Charles Willson Peale learned of a remarkable discovery—the huge bones of an “animal of uncommon magnitude” had been found in Orange and Ulster counties north of New York City. The great relics were scattered abundantly through the swamps where the local farmers dug white marl for fertilizer but they were rapidly being dispersed among clumsy, amateurish collectors. No one had yet assembled a complete skeleton.
Peale resolved to try. If he succeeded, he would at once provide the final answer to the most teasing mystery of the age and win the world’s attention for his struggling museum.
He set off by coach, at dawn on June 5,1801, a gray-haired, pink-cheeked man of sixty, adventure-bound, small trunk in one hand and double-barreled shotgun in the other. The trunk contained not only clothing but also material for preserving birds and other small animals, gunpowder and shot, paper, ink, and charcoal. Every interval in the search for the Incognitum must be used to enrich the museum, and if he could not, finally, bring back a skeleton, at least he must have an authentic record on paper. Here, to all appearances, was a gentleman on vacation, and he would keep it so, though he was inwardly alert to the excitement and importance of the quest. The chance of a lifetime lay before him: the hidden monster, the “Behemoth” for those who thought in terms of scriptural majesty. He himself, partial to descriptive names, preferred “Carniverous Elephant of the North.”
He had a plan of campaign. He would move step by step rather than in haste. In New York he would get letters of introduction to Dr. Graham of Newburgh, who had reported the largest find. His wife Betsy’s family, the DePeysters, would be ready to lend financial aid. He would go on to Newburgh by way of West Point, where an old friend, Major George Fleming of the Artillery, was in command. The major had been at the museum in the spring of ninety-seven with a gift, one of the torpedoes floated down the Delaware in the famous “Battle of the Kegs,” January 5, 1778. Army help might be offered, perhaps in response to an order from the President of the United States, for all through the touch-and-go of Aaron Burr’s claim to the Presidency, Jefferson had been dividing his attention between the constitutional crisis and the huge fossil bones newly found between the Shawangunk Mountains and the Hudson River.
Peale’s own enthusiasm for his friend Jefferson and for republican principles in general was put to the test during the jolting, two-day stagecoach journey to New York, a story neatly told in Peale’s own words:
“… Among our Company was a french Gentleman who could not speak English, who afforded me the opportunity of exercising my french. Another passenger was an Englishman who was fond of talking, and I soon found he wished to know my political sentiments by his various questions about our Governor and the President of the United States. Not willing to indulge him, my answers puzzled him, for I told him that I voted my sentiments when called upon to exercise such rights, and whether I gave a successful ticket or not I submited to the power choosen to govern, content to wait and if so pleased to make my objections at the proper time.
“However, making some general reflections on the folly [of] Nations making war, hoping I might live long enough to see mankind more wise and not disgrace themselves below the brute Creation, even the more voracious of which did not kill their own species—In such train I leveled at many of our follies & vices—and thus passed the forenoon—but after dinner John Bull having wetted his whistle, his pipes were louder & more grating to my Ears, and as he throws out some ill natured sarcasms on our public men with much low slander, I then thought his venemous tongue ought not to be allowed to slobber his venum to pison the minds of some of our company, to prevent which I told him, that he should not believe such Idle tales, that as party did not stop to say many things without the least foundation for much slanders both against our President & Govr. McKean. On this he was vociferous & Insolent and he seemed to exult at finding my oppinion. I replied that he had exposed himself sufficiently to my mind, that such sentiments did not accord with my Ideas of what ought to be the state of things, to render a people happy. He called Bonaparte a boy, and wondered france would submit to be governed by a Corsican when they certainly possessed many great men of their own Country—Boy or not, he shewed more good sence than any of the Monarks of Europe, for in his moments of Victory he demanded peace, and many of his actions proved him to be a wonderful man, and it was of little consequence of what country a Governor was, provided he governed with prudence & no man could act with more liberality than actuated Bonapartte, John Bull replied, ah we shall see by & by—Robertspere, once was thought highly of and we shall see whether the President will have resolution to keep to the Sentiments of his Speech. I replied that he had before shewed himself to be a man of firm nerves.… We spar[r]ed thus for some time, and I was heartily tired with his gabble. But taking in other passengers in the place of some ladies who gave up their seats at Princeton, these were more rational beings & therefore more agreable.
“6th. We sleep at Brunswick, & had an agreable journey to New York where we arrived at noon. Not to leave John Bull without further remarks, would be omitting what I thought remarkable, i.e. he has been almost dumb, perfectly chop-fallen, sullen as any hog to this end of our Journey.”
At New York Peale found the DePeysters, some in town, some at their country place in Harlem, everything ,bright and green. He dined well, suffered a spate of violent indigestion, cured it by his newly invented steam bath, and then, having astounded them all by this demonstration, built baths for both households. Brother-in-law Philip was there to tell of his visits to the museums of Paris and Madrid—in Paris a dismal building surrounded by a menagerie, pictures separate from natural history, stuffed birds packed together on shelves, and in Spain a rare sight of gems, gold, and silver. They all went shooting at Coney Island, and Peale preserved birds and fish. When he embarked for the upriver voyage on June 19 he had letters of introduction to Dr. Graham from Betsy’s cousin, Colonel Henry Rutgers (trustee and namesake of the university), and from Dr. Mitchill. The DePeysters stood ready as bankers.
There were two days of waiting for a favorable wind. It was midafternoon when the little sloop at last moved out, and on to where the towering Palisades threw the whole river into shadow—on then as darkness fell into wilder country, the storied highlands of Hudson. Lowland-bred, a romantic at heart, Peale sketched constantly and compulsively as each new view appeared, the Priscilla sometimes speeding around into a new vista, sometimes fluttering her sail below the mountain crags. This was the giant’s lair of mountain and marsh. Here was a wildness matching the beast as he had heard it described at Philosophical Hall—enormous in size but with “the ferocity and agility of the tiger,” armed with great tusks and claws, seizing its prey in “one gigantic leap,” and then crushing body and bones in huge teeth.
That had been the paper read to the American Philosophical Society by George Turner, Revolutionary veteran, judge of the Northwest Territory, an astute amateur naturalist, though he endowed the lumbering creature with so much ferocity—“once the terror of the forest and of man!”—Turner’s paper still holds a certain respect. He correctly j udged it to be extinct, though at the same time conjuring up a fanciful vision of how it became so: “And may not the human race have made the extirpation of the terrific disturber a common cause?” Drawing his deductions largely from the form of the teeth, he had defined two types of mammoth, one, the American, carnivorous or with a mixed diet, the other herbivorous. His conclusions were close to those which Georges Cuvier, friend and colleague of Geoffroy and Lamarck, published in 1799. Cuvier, however, rightly pronounced both types herbivorous.
Landing at West Point, Peale was entertained overnight in Major Fleming’s family, toured and made drawings of the post, and then was driven north to Newburgh where he found Dr. Graham equally hospitable. On June 25 Peale and the doctor drove out to the nearby farm of John Masten, who, three years before, had retrieved the greater part of a skeleton from his marl pit and had been exhibiting it for a small sum. “Bones of a Mammoth found by some rude boor,/While, heedless of his luck, dug manure,” as the incident would be cited in a satirical poem the following year. Here, spread out over the old farmer’s granary floor, lay the bones of the Incognitum —incomplete, damaged, yet far more than Peale had ever seen and, a point whose importance he fully appreciated, all indisputably from the same animal.
Word of Masten’s discovery of the huge, dark bones embedded in the white shell marl had spread quickly among his neighbors. A hundred or more had gath ered to see and then, encouraged by local savants, mostly medical men, had set about heaving them out. A gay country frolic had followed, a flow of liquor warming the workers while they dug and dragged, racing against the flow of water into the deepening pit. Peale could see ample evidence of their zest and speed in the wreckage around him. There lay some fragments of the head and five feet of one tusk, broken midway. All of the neck, most of the back vertebrae, and some of the tail seemed to be present. Breastbone and ribs were there, but much broken. The pelvis too was damaged. He saw both scapulae, or shoulder blades, both forelegs complete, and of the hind legs one femur, a tibia, and a fibula. Some bones of the feet were missing, but there were enough to reconstruct the form. Missing parts still might be found in the morass, but, lacking that, there was enough to reproduce on one side what had been on the other. The most serious lacks were the upper part of the head and parts of the jaw.
It was known that the old farmer initially had refused to sell the skeleton, but by now it had ceased to attract much local interest and his income from showing it had dwindled to very little. Peale, all eagerness, was careful not to seem too eager. He asked merely if he might make drawings. Permission was granted, and he set to work. What followed is best told in his letter home to Betsy:
”… I did not at first give the least hint of my Intention to purchase, & liberty was readily granted me to make my drawings. After examining them I soon determined what part I would take drawings of. Viewing the magnitude of them, a thought instantly struck me, that it would have a better effect to make drawings of the exact size, although they should be ever so slight, and having near a quire of paper in my Trunk, I began to paste a number of sheets together proport[ion]ed to the size wanted, and to sketch with coal an out line, measuring the distances for correctness, and afterwards to line them in with India Ink with a long brush & shade them in a rough manner. Having prepaired and just begun the work, I was asked to dinner. While at Table the eldest son demanded of me whether I should not like to buy them. I candidly replyed that I should provided the price was not too high, and in my turn demanded what they would take for them. I could get no answer to my question, but still they insisted to know what I would offer. My mind had been made up on that score purty nearly. Therefore I answered that I would be candid with them, and would at once, bid, give as much as I could afford & in a few words, and if the offer that I made was not accepted, I should content myself with only having slight drawings of them. Thus promising it as my ultimatum, I offered 200 Drs. for those now collected and 100 Drs. at some other period when I should be able to bear the expence of getting up the remainder, which should be wholly free of expence to them, and what aid I should want of the family I would pay for, besides the 300 Drs. They answered that it was too little, would I not give more. I firmly answered in a negative. I reasoned a little on the cost of obtaining the residue—and that if any body thought of making money traveling about the country to show them, the costs of Taverns would often exceed the profits—although money might be made at one place at others only expence would be incur[r]ed, that in short it was a kind of life very prejudicial to the morals of those who attempted to get a maintenance by such means &c. &c. I could get no answer by which I could then know the issue—and I went again to my drawing. In the evening when I was about to return to the Doctrs. they invited me to stay the night. I excused myself by saying that I had promised to return—that I wished them to consider & consult together, that I would be obliged to them for an answer in the morning, as if they choose to accept my offer, it would superceed my wishes to finish the drawings. The next morning I came to my work & brought with [me] 2 quires of paper in order to have a sufficiency—but I found that the old gentleman had gone into the field to his work, which made me suppose he had determined not to accept my offer, & I set to work again, but I had not been long at it when Mr. Masten came in. When I asked him if I was to continue my drawings, he replyed he believed not—my heart jumped with joy.”
Observing this reaction, boot was demanded, and it was agreed that the bargain should include a double-barreled gun like Peale’s for the eldest son, and gowns from New York for the daughters. The bones were then packed in hogsheads and crates for shipment to town, where the transaction would be completed.
Back in New York, Peale had his first taste of an excitement that soon would become a national furor. He had wanted to do some business with his patent bath and fireplace, but found that the huge thighbone he had with him, too large for any container, his drawings, and the news of what would soon be revealed in the mounting of the skeleton had created an excitement that left no room for other topics. He wrote Jefferson an account of it on June 29, but his diary tells more:
“The Vice President of the United States [Aaron Burr], and a considerable number of Ladies and Gentlemen came to see the Bones. The news of them must have blew like wild fire, for upwards [of] 80 persons came to see them that evening. It was a pleasing circumstance to me, that every body seemed rejoiced that the bones had fallen into my hands. It seemed to be a general sentiment that with me they would be preserved, and saved to this Country.
“One Person only uttered a contrary sentiment. Doctr. Hosack invited me to dinner with him the next day. I excepted his invitation, and his first salutation was, he was sory that I had got the bones. I asked him wherefore, and he said they ought not to have let them go out of the State. Then I replied, give me sufficient encouragement and I would bring them & the Museum also to New York. I was a citizen of the world and would go to that place which would give most incouragement to my favorite Science.
“But Doctr. do you know any man that would put these bones together if they had them, but myself? He replied he did not. Then surely you ought to be glad that I possess them.”
The bones were put on shipboard for Philadelphia, on the schooner David under Captain L’Hommedieu, and their owner was homebound again by the diligence—an exciting dash through field, forest, and town, down the long highway and into Betsy’s arms, with all the eager questions from chidren, friends, philosophers at the Hall. The Society, which had fostered the study of this subject over so many years, could bring the most expert knowledge available for a correct assembling and completion of the skeleton. The news was spreading out over the country as all awaited the arrival of the David in harbor. As Kline’s Carlisle Weekly Gazette reported it, July 22, “Mr. Peale” has now “the bones of the great American animal commonly called the Mammoth ,” and “within the space of two or three months he expects to have it in his power to put together a complete skeleton for the Museum.” On July 24, 1801, a special meeting of the Society, with larger attendance than any other of the year, met to inspect the bones and consider Peale’s plea for cooperation in completing the skeleton. The vice-presidents, Robert Patterson, an early and enthusiastic backer of the museum, and Dr. Caspar Wistar, an authority on vertebrate paleontology and the Peale family physician, had called the meeting. Peale had asked for a loan of five hundred dollars for four months. It was granted, unanimously, without interest.
Preparations were already under way. The site to be explored lay under twelve feet of water, but an unusually dry summer, so far, gave promise that it could be drained. Peale had written Jefferson for the loan of navy pumps and army tents. He now wrote to Dr. Graham, asking him to order lumber delivered to the site. That letter never reached Graham. The President was at Monticello, and his ready agreement, written July 29, with orders to General Irvine at Philadelphia and to the New York Navy Yard, came too late. The expedition had set forth in the diligence on that day, a party of four. Rembrandt Peale, aged twenty-three, was joining his father in what would be the only scientific study of his career. Jotham Fenton, a naturalist friend, was there. Young Dr. James Woodhouse, short, florid, balding, professor of chemistry at the university and soon to be recognized as America’s leading authority in that science, came as the Society’s representative. He was a Francophile and a friend of all the Peales, like them loved experiment and loved a joke, but unlike them gave God the Creator only conditional praise for what He had done.
Peale had succeeded in borrowing an army tent. In New York he procured pumps and other gear. How to set up and power the pumping operation on which all else depended remained a problem, but in looking over the ground at Masten’s a novel idea occurred to him—a huge mill wheel, powered not by water flowing over the outside but by men walking within. Such a power source attached to a chain of buckets would lift the water high enough to be channeled away to a distance—a great improvement over separately operated hand pumps.
“[August] 3d., … I rode to Doctr. Grayham’s where I made some drawings of a wheel & buckets to drain the hole where the bones lay—for last evening viewing the Ground near the Pond I found a considerable hollow over a small hill. This struck me at first sight as a favorable place to carry the water, which I could do with a trough of no great length.… By the advice of the Doctr. I went to seek a Mr. Campbell, a very ingenious workman, a wheelwright. Mr. Brown in whose employ he was very obligingly consented to let him leave his work to do mine.
“4th. Mr. Campbell began his work. He readily conceived my plan—and after viewing the Grounds round the Pond we determined how to place our wheel and water buckets. Then [we] went into the woods and fell[ed] some Trees and a number of sapplings, some to make the arms of the great wheel, others to make triangles for fixing the Tackles, &c., and we got the poles hauled to the Pond. A horseman Tent which General Ervin lent me, we set up on a Hill south of the Pond at a good distance to be out of the… mud. An appearance of Rain toward sun set induced us to make a shed of Boards to work beneath, and also to keep part of the boards dry.
“[August] 5. Having slept in the Tent & being so near to the shed altho’ it rained, Mr. Campbel & myself set about to compleat the covering of the shed—we had just compleated our work when behold, the whole fell down—having neglected to put braces to support the crotches, & some of the boards being put up in haste had a leaning position. The shaking it got by letting the boards fall against it set it going. We had each of us to scamper as fast as we could to escape being crushed beneath the pile. Each of us rejoiced to see the other safe, and after our surprise was over we set again to work, determined to be more careful in putting the boards perpendicular to brace it. With diligence we rebuilt [all] of [the] building before breakfast. Mr. Campbel went to get a cross cut Saw, buy nails & engage a Carpenter to assist us. I set about to make a work bench, which I compleated with sundry conveniences for working carpenters work.…
“When we had raised the wheel & had compleated the Buckets, and made a Tryal of it, I found that when the wheel was not drove fast, that the Buckets delivered most water into the Trough—That thus moving slow & steadily in its best effect emty 20 Buckets in one minute, and altho’ these Buckets held 1½ Galln. of water yet on an average day they did not deliver little more than one Galln. I frequently tryed the effect by my Watch, and to proove that my calculation was just, I counted them for 5 minutes together, which make very exactly 120 in that time—12 times which makes 1440 Gallns. pr. hour with the labour of 3 men. Had I known that the Bason into which I carried the water would have absorbed the water so fast as afterwards on experience was the case, I would have used fewer Buckets and not have raised the water so high. The fear of our scaffolding sinking down induced me to raise the water 25 feet. At first I made the Buckets in number to reach the Bottom & supposed they would float on the Surface, but by tryal I found that they intangled together. I then was induced to make a long Barrel about 2 feet in diameter [as base of the bucket chain]. This Bl. floated on the water & answered to my expectation—but too many Buckets I found troublesome, entangled together and encreased the labour of the wheel. At last I took some away. We soon emtyed the hole of water, and began the work of exploring—but the Buckets reaching to the bottom the gravel soon began to wear the ropes and afterwards was the cause of much labour to repair the damage.
We soon found some of the bone[s] of the feet. At first discovery of them, I forbid the taking them up [for fear their correct configuration would be disturbed], but to my mortification in the next moment the morass began to moove forward with the weight of the mud thrown on it pressing down. The white marie at bottom being soft came upon the bones & we were glad to seize all we could before they should entirely be again Covered. The next advice was to through all the mud further back on the Morass, with the hopes that when thus lightened that the bank would stand—but behold we found it began to form cracks of considerable extent back & thus large bodies pressed forward—and… on Saturday evening we found the whole of the work like to overset, as the whole bank then began to give way. A Thought suggested as our only resource by Mr. Cambel was to fix a takle from the Top to a small Tree standing near—altho’ I thought the assending not a little dangerous, but not a minute was to be lost. I quickly mounted the Scaffolding & brought down the Tackle and thus we saved the works from falling. Numbers of people had collected. All seemed to urge me to work on the day following. The fear of offending made me hesitate, but when even those of various stations, even the clergy, one in particular, said it was a work of necessity—and finding the men willing to labour on Sunday provided I would screen them from harm, I agreed to pay any fine that should be exacted.
“[August] 16 (Sunday) We cut down a strong pole of 36 feet length, and raised it by a second takle—placed the foot into the bottom, yet it would not sink sufficiently untill the additional weight of the other Poles & machinery was added, which by a happy thought of Mr. Cambel was effected thus: fixing a takle to its Top, and the other block to the works, they thus threw all the weight on it, & from time to time pressed it down until it had reached the gravelly bottom. We then threw the weight of the mud still farther back, cutting bushes and small Trees to keep it from sinking. However, the next day we were under the necessity of getting some stought poles, one to extend along the bank and others to brace this back. Then they got a great number of poles and drove them pretty close together, by means of… a very large Maul . After we thought we had now made sufficient defense against the bank & began to explore, Mr. Cambel found one of the braces bending. He then got a shorter piece to help it.
“We then went to work to emty the space within our bank, and in the course of the week we got part of the Tusk, many bones of the feet—and each day wished to come at the under Jaw, which we hoped to get intire—but among other bones I found other Grinders & some pieces which I knew belonged to the under Jaw. Thus my hopes were dashed on that score. We got a piece of the Sternum, osnominatum and one piece of the head & now and then some bones of the feet—but… after labouring with our utmost exertions until mid day on friday I was induced to give over further search. Altho’ I had 25 men at work for some days, and I paid them for pumping 2 nights, yet the difficulty of obtaining any more bones, would be a waste of money. Thus on friday I paid off my men—and on Saturday I went to Doctr. Grayhams who was so obliging as to accompany me to Doctr. Gallatia, who had advised me to try a morass belonging to Captain Barber from which some few ribs had been found some years back.”
There had been one moment of crisis that he long remembered, but told best in his well-known painting of 1806, The Exhumation of the Mastodon . With all in order and hopes high, the skies had darkened, lightning flashed, and thunder rolled with all the flamboyant fury of a Catskill mountain storm. The downpour it threatened would have washed down banks and wheel together, wrecking and flooding all. Boldly, however, his men stayed at their work as the black clouds and downpour passed them by, lightning flash and thunder roll receding into the mountains beyond.
He had paid his workmen good wages. He had also, for their own good as much as for thrift, watered the liquor ,doled out to those who labored in the pit. It always had been accepted that the body should be fortified with alcohol against cold and wet, but, two years before, Peale had defied that dictum, and with success. It had been on an expedition to Cape May with Jotham Fenton, and a weakness of Fenton’s for the bottle had become apparent. No ardent spirits for either, therefore, in spite of storm and stress, and everyone came through in fine shape. The major task of pumping water cost Peale nothing, for he had found plenty of youths in the ever-present crowd eager for a chance to walk inside the great wheel—laughter and shouts, back and forth, inside and out, 1,440 gallons an hour.
When the expedition moved on to Captain Joseph Barber’s and other sites in its search for an under jaw and perfect skull, Rembrandt’s ingenuity came into play. He had a blacksmith make a number of slender, pointed steel rods. These could be thrust easily through the swamp mold, and one could as easily judge the nature of what the point might strike, whether rock, soft root, or a hard substance between rock and root—a bone.
As Peale reported to Jefferson soon after, the work at Masten’s had added part of the sternum or breastbone, all the remaining vertebrae and part of the sacrum, a tibia and fibula, as well as those fragments of under j aw and the second tusk. “Some inconsiderable additions of carved pieces,” he wrote, “will render this a tolerable compleat skeleton.”
Unsatisfied, however, they moved a few miles westward into Montgomery township on lands of Captain Barber and Peter Millspaw, with much labor but highly satisfactory results.
”… I determined to try at some other morasses where some few bones had before been found. I went to a morass 16 miles distant from this where only 3 ribs had been taken up. Here I obtained 43 bones of the feet, 10 tail bones, 2 Tusks, many ribs, some Vertebrae, and a blade bone. I found these bones scattered in every direction, and some of them buried between large stones & even under them, tho’ the stones that covered them were not large. After digging about 40 feet square, and spending about 8 or 9 days of several mens labour, I went to another morass 5 miles further, where several bones had been taken up, but as no part of the head had been found my hopes were particularly to obtain that part. Here I found the bones more scattered than at the last place. This part of the morass was not so deep as those I had explored before. After finding a number of ribs & some few bones of the feet, and having dug up the manure to a very considerable distance round, in the moment of despairing of getting any more bones and thinking to discharge the labourers—by means of a spear which we used we luckily discovered other bones—which uncovered prooved to be a fore leg beneath which was an intire under Jaw—not a part deficient except one of the lesser grinders, which appears to have been lost while the animal lived. Here we also found part of a foot. From this spot to where we found the heel of the hind foot measured 82 feet. After exploring in every direction [we] at last found the upper head, but in such total decay that no part would hold together except the enamel of the grinders & that part which joins the neck. The place the skull once occupied appeared to be a little blacker than other parts of the mud. The form, in part was discoverable, although all was converted into manure, yet it would separate and shew the rounded parts.
“The great quantity [of bones] we collected at the two last explored morasses with those that had been before taken … will enable my son Rembrandt by the aid of his chizel to carve in wood all the deficiencies in order to compleat a second skeleton—with which he hopes to pay his expences of traveling in Europe. He has now long wished to improve his talents in Painting and I am happy to have it in my power to aid him, more especially as by the exhibition of it, there is a chance of his making something handsome and at the same time to make an exchange of the duplicate subjects I possess for those of Europe yet wanting in my Museum, besides settling a good and sure correspondence for a reciprocal exchange of Natural Subjects. It is supposed that a great deal of money may be made in London & Paris with such a Skeleton, but I am taught not to be so sanguine in my expectations. If he can meet all his expences and take the portraits of distinguished characters in the large Cities of Europe, and gain more knowledge with a small addition to his purse it will be well. The first Skeleton might soon be erected in the Museum but the necessity of keeping it apart until my Son has made up the deficiencies of the 2d Skeleton will be a cause of some delay.…”
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.
He, too, believed in Charles Willson’s lofty idea of what a museum should contain, but the era was against him. Barnum was on the rise, and the museum business was becoming show business. It is a measure of the museum’s fortunes that the mastodon—the salient attraction for so many years—was sold to a museum in Darmstadt, West Germany. There it stands today, despite damage suffered in the Second World War.
Edmund Peale, grandson of the founder, presided over the last years and dispersal of the collection. Most of it went to Barnum in 1850. Edmund then set out to sell the museum’s portrait gallery and was with it in Cincinnati two years later when he collapsed and died. He was found to be destitute, his only assets a book of autographs and a gold brooch containing a lock of Napoleon’s hairthe last of the old museum’s exhibits to remain in the family. The portraits were returned to Philadelphia, where most of them are now at Independence National Historical Park.