5 December: Edward Drinker Cope

Edward Drinker Cope

Name: Edward Drinker Cope

Tagline: A dedicated paleontologist who published more than 1,400 articles and discovered and named more than 1,000 species, Cope is probably most (in)famous for being one of the parties involved in the so-called “bone wars”.

Claim to Fame: On top of his massive work, he was part of something called the bone wars – and if that isn’t enough, he left his brain behind, so it could be measured against his rival!

Very few people realise it, but in the latter half of the 1800’eds, the American Midwest was the battleground for a fiercely fought war: the so-called Bone Wars, between Edward Drinker Cope and his rival, Othniel Charles Marsh. The war, also called the Great Dinosaur Rush, was a struggle to see who could discover the most fossils, and name the most dinosaurs.

The two men apparently started out liking each other. They both had a passion for paleontology, and spoke well with each other when they first met. But their friendship would not last long.

There are apparently two stories about how their enmity started. The popular story is that Cope had assembled a big aquatic dinosaur. He had put its head on

the short end, leaving it with a very long tail. Then he wrote an article about it, including a picture of the dinosaur. But Marsh very publicly pointed out that Cope had assembled the dinosaur the wrong way – it had a long neck and a short tail, rather than the other way around. Cope was mortified, and ran out to buy all copies of the magazine that he could find, so people wouldn’t read about his mistake.

In the foreground is the improperly reconstructed Elasmosaurus, with the short neck and the long tail.

The other story goes that Cope had discovered a very good digging site for dinosaur fossils. But when Marsh heard about it, he paid the excavators to deliver the fossils to him, instead of to Cope.

However it happened, the two men were soon engaged in a bitter struggle. When two railway workers indicated to Marsh that they might go to Cope with their finds if he didn’t pay enough, he started paying handsome amounts of money. This story leaked, and soon it was public knowledge that tips about dinosaur bones were worth a good chunk of change.

Cope went out to the Midwest to get in on the action, but wasn’t willing to pay the kinds of money Marsh did. So instead, he instructed his men to steal some of the fossils that Marsh had dug up.

The two kept at it, and soon escalated the war. They would destroy fossils they couldn’t take with them, spy on each other, and even steal fossils from each other. At one point, when the two were working close to each other, their men would throw stones at each other!

But unfortunately for Cope, Marsh had more money to throw into the race. And not least, he had a wealthy uncle, George Peabody, to sponsor his digs. Soon, Marsh was digging up way more fossils than Cope. And to add insult to injury, Marsh was appointed head U.S. Geological Survey.

To get back at his rival, Cope sent the New York Herald a list of offences that Marsh had committed, trying to get him removed from his post. Marsh responded with a similar list of accusations against Cope. But both were hit by backlash from their falling out, Marsh being forced to resign from the Geological Survey.

Not too long after this scandal, Cope fell ill. He died on April 12, 1897. In his will, he donated his body to science – and he asked that his head be preserved, so that it could be measured against Marsh’ head when he died. Marsh did not take up the challenge, however.

How to use him: Cope and Marsh make for a great example of intellectual rivalry. Do you need a conflict for your steampunk/science fiction/ whatever story, campaign or murder mystery? Here you go, go to these two for inspiration. Or if you need a character for a Cthulhu story, these guys are obvious candidates – one of them has dug too deep too soon, unearthing something that should have been left in the ground. Or maybe they contracted something while in the field. Or sought powers they should have left alone to gain a head up. Or…

Or use them for a pulp game. Both Marsh and Cope provide perfect templates for characters for something like Spirit of the Century.

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