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Dusting Off America’s First Dinosaur

May 2024
10min read

It was discovered in New Jersey in 1858, was made into full-size copies sent as far away as Edinburgh, and had a violent run-in with Boss Tweed in 1871. Now, after fifty years out of view, the ugly brute can be seen in Philadelphia.

During the summer of 1858 almost no one in the United States had even heard of dinosaurs. The term itself was only seventeen years old, having been coined by Sir Richard Owen in 1841 to describe a few scattered bones and teeth found in England some two decades before. Several colossal models had been built on the grounds of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, England, but even with Owen’s expertise they bore little resemblance to the iguanodons and megalosaurs they were supposed to portray. The problem was that remains of dinosaurs had been found in only the most fragmentary condition. And nothing approaching a dinosaur skeleton had been unearthed anywhere in the world.

One of the few Americans who had heard of dinosaurs was Dr. Joseph Leidy, a professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania, a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and the country’s foremost vertebrate paleontologist. By 1858 various scientific expeditions traversing the Western wilderness had gleaned enough information about great fossil beds to suggest to him that dinosaurs would be found there soon. Nevertheless, when the great discovery came, it would be from a most unexpected direction.

It so happened that William Parker Foulke, a member of the academy, was summering in Haddonfield, a small, pleasant town some five miles from Philadelphia, across the river in New Jersey. There Foulke learned of an incident that had taken place some twenty years before. One of Foulke’s neighbors, a well-to-do farmer named John Hopkins, had been digging marl (a kind of clay rich in phosphates and widely used as a fertilizer) from a deep stream bed near his house when the workmen uncovered a quantity of huge bones. Hopkins no longer had any of the fossils, but Foulke talked him into renewed digging.

Finding the site proved unexpectedly difficult. The marl pit had become choked with eroded debris from the banks and so overgrown as to be virtually indistinguishable. Hopkins himself was no longer sure of the precise location. One of the original workmen who had discovered the bones was summoned, pondered a bit, and pinpointed a spot—which turned out to be wrong. Nevertheless, on the second day of searching, the old pit was discovered and excavation began in earnest.

At a depth of ten feet, the searchers found what they were looking for, a jumble of large black bones heavily impregnated with iron. There was most of the left side of a skeleton, including part of the hip and nearly all of the fore and hind limb, in addition to twenty-eight vertebrae and nine teeth—but no skull. Since the bones in many cases showed signs of fracture, great care was taken in removing them. After sketching and measuring, each was placed on a board, wrapped in cloth, and gingerly transported by straw-filled cart three-quarters of a mile to Foulke’s residence.

Leidy was notified of the find and soon arrived on the scene. At his instigation, digging continued intermittently through the end of October, but little else of value was uncovered. Nevertheless, America had its first dinosaur and the world its first dinosaur skeleton. Leidy promptly christened it Hadrosaurus foulkii in honor of his colleague. (Hadrosaurus means “bulky lizard.”)

The bones were officially presented to the academy in December, and Leidy used the occasion to unveil the results of his study of the specimen. He noted that the bones were those of a “huge herbivorous saurian...closely allied to the great extinct Iguanodon of the Wealden and Lower Greensand deposits of Europe.” No surprise here; this much was clearly indicated by the lozenge-shaped teeth. But Leidy had also been particularly struck by the disproportion between the front and hind limbs. This suggested that the animal had assumed an upright posture, at least while browsing, “sustaining itself, kangaroo-like, in an erect position on its back extremities and tail.” Leidy was the first person to get dinosaurs off all fours.

The kangaroo simile evidently left a lasting impression. For a quarter-century or more, Hadrosaurus was repeatedly billed as the “Great Kangaroo Lizard,” even by such prestigious institutions as the Smithsonian. Unfortunately this recurring image also helped foster a popular misconception that dinosaurs actually hopped about with gigantic bounds; as late as 1912 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so portrayed them in his science fiction classic The Lost World.

All this was far in the future, however. Leidy ended his talk with some observations on the creature’s habits. He envisioned Hadrosaurus following a semiaquatic existence in tidal waters, subsisting mostly on conifers. Flowering plants were just beginning to put in an appearance in the Cretaceous world of a hundred million years ago.

The bones were stored in the academy’s establishment on the corner of Broad and George (later Sansom) streets in Philadelphia, where they remained throughout the Civil War. At first there was no attempt to reconstruct the skeleton, although such an undertaking was certainly possible, except perhaps for the head. Then, in the summer of 1868, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins arrived in Philadelphia. It was Hawkins who, under Owen’s supervision, had built the Crystal Palace dinosaurs.

The London-born Hawkins was an accomplished painter and sculptor with a good working knowledge of anatomy. When the Crystal Palace had been moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham in 1852, Albert, the prince consort, had suggested that the rebuilt structure contain a display of life-size “antediluvian monsters.” This was the genesis of Hawkins’s great work. Perhaps his most unusual triumph had followed on December 31, 1853, when he threw a New Year’s Eve dinner for Owen and twenty other scientists inside one of his nearly completed iguanodons.

Now, in 1868, at sixty-one Hawkins had come to America and, at the behest of Andrew Green, administrator of the Board of Commissioners of New York’s Central Park, was about to undertake a similar project for a “Paleozoic Museum.” Since the new museum was to have a distinctly American flavor, Hawkins spent the next several months traveling about, studying appropriate fossils. Most of his time was spent in Philadelphia.

In addition to Hadrosaurus, the Academy of Natural Sciences had recently acquired another dinosaur from New Jersey. This was the great predator Laelaps (subsequently renamed Dryptosaurus), first described in 1866 by Edward Drinker Cope, one of Leidy’s students. There was no question that this dinosaur was completely bipedal. Cope had been astonished by the ridiculously small forelimbs of Laelaps, a characteristic of the later carnivorous dinosaurs that still puzzles scientists today. Since these would apparently be quite useless in combat, Cope imagined Laelaps leaping upon its victims in great bounds and ripping them apart with the awesome talons of its hind feet.

Hawkins spent the autumn months making casts of the skeletons of both Hadrosaurus and Laelaps and sculpting the missing bones in plaster. The lack of a skull for Hadrosaurus was awkward, but Hawkins found an ingenious solution. Since the teeth of both Hadrosaurus and Iguanodon most closely resembled those of a living iguana, Hawkins simply enlarged the skull of one of these lizards. Although this later proved completely inaccurate, Hawkins’s approach at least was based—however remotely—on the available scientific data. The same unfortunately cannot be said of the oversize human collarbone Hawkins used. Nevertheless, for all its faults, Hawkins’s creation was the first of its kind in the world.

Hawkins returned to New York in December. While he worked on the restorations, foundations were laid in the southwest corner of Central Park for the new Paleozoic Museum, an iron-framed glass building to be reminiscent of the Crystal Palace. Two giant fleshed-out hadrosaurs slowly began to take shape in Hawkins’s studio. In the finished museum they would be joined by several Laelaps, plus Elasmosaurus and Mosasaurus, two marine contemporaries of the dinosaurs, as well as mastodons and other spectacular extinct mammals. But the Paleozoic Museum was about to encounter machine politics.

For years William Marcy Tweed and his political henchmen had controlled New York City’s Democratic-party organization, the courts, and the city comptroller’s office. Other cronies were installed in both City Hall and Albany. Since 1866 they had assaulted the city treasury with a systematic precision that defies description. Now the Tweed Ring cast its covetous eyes on Central Park, a promising source for patronage. In 1870 the state legislature approved a new city charter, subordinating the Central Park Board of Commissioners to the more politically tractable Department of Public Parks. Andrew Green was neatly sidelined, as the Tweed henchman Peter (“Brains”) Sweeny took control. Sweeny soon halted work on the museum and ordered the foundations filled in. The museum’s estimated total cost of three hundred thousand dollars was deemed “too great a sum to expend upon a building devoted wholly to paleontology—a science which, however interesting, is yet so imperfectly known as not to justify so great a public expense for illustrating it.” Coming from other lips, this would have been a sober and fair enough assessment; next to the vast sums being swallowed up annually in patronage and graft, it was merely ludicrous.

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.

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.

None of Hawkins’s hadrosaur clones still exists, although the Smithsonian’s did manage quite a bit of traveling before its demise. Until 1881 it remained on display in the lower main hall of the Castle. Then, as more and better fossil specimens began to accumulate, it was relegated to the Arts and Industries Building. The skeleton was apparently exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and was subsequently donated to that city’s newly organized Field Museum of Natural History, where it remained until the museum moved to new quarters a decade later. By then something of an anachronism, the Hadrosaurus does not seem to have survived this final transfer.

At Princeton, too, Hawkins’s dinosaur felt the pinch of competition from more recent finds. When limitations of space finally decreed its removal, a series of contrived “accidents” made short work of the specimen. The Edinburgh hadrosaur met a more gallant end. During the First World War, it was dismounted and its ironwork was contributed to the scrap drive; the plaster cast itself was finally discarded in 1928.

By this time the original skeleton alone remained on display, at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Its defects were by now readily apparent, and it, too, was soon dismantled and packed away in a back room, where it remained for half a century. Although time had claimed Hawkins’s hadrosaurs, they had helped mold the public image of dinosaurs for more than a generation.

Over the last two decades our perceptions of dinosaurs have undergone dramatic changes. Today’s dinosaur is seen as vigorous, alert, and adaptable—and possibly warm-blooded as well. No longer a synonym for failure, the dinosaur is now being touted as an evolutionary success story. Nowhere is this new attitude more evident than in our view of the hadrosaurs. Freed of the exclusively semiaquatic existence Leidy once imagined, they are now seen as a widespread group, roaming plains and lowland forests as well, possibly in large herds with intricate social structures. The recent discovery of hadrosaur nests and young has fueled much speculation on the nature of dinosaurian behavior, especially in respect to the rearing of young.

Hadrosaurs, we now know, came in a variety of shapes and sizes, many of which sported bizarre-looking crests. Until recently it had not been possible to determine Hadrosaurus foulkii’s place within this large and diverse family, but recent studies of the original skeleton by the paleontologist Jack Horner have equated Hadrosaurus with the Western genus Kritosaurus and provide the first really credible guide to this historic dinosaur’s lifetime appearance.

And now America’s first dinosaur is once again on public display. In January 1986 the Academy of Natural Sciences unveiled a completely new Dinosaur Hall, one of the finest in the country. Dominating the entrance to the hall is a cast of the original partial Hadrosaurus skeleton, stripped of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’s imaginative additions and displayed within a silhouette of the whole animal. Hawkins’s old plaster skull has been resurrected as well. Literally rescued from the trash bin not long ago, the old skull adorns a collateral exhibit on how Victorians perceived dinosaurs.

In Haddonfield, at the end of Maple Avenue, just off Grove Street, a bronze-and-stone monument now stands in a tiny park, marking the site of the original discovery. After decades of obscurity America’s first dinosaur has resumed its rightful place as one of the treasures of paleontology.

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