The Bonehunters' Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age 1st Edition

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ISBN-13: 004-6442850896
ISBN-10: 0395850894
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Editorial Reviews Review

It's sad but true--Jerry Springer's roots go deep in American culture. Even scientists of the Victorian era could jump on stage and start slugging, as we learn in The Bonehunters' Revenge. This smart, adventurous book by nature writer David Rains Wallace examines the long-standing feud between paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, and especially their month-long 1890 death match in the pages of the New York Herald. The bizarre--by modern newspaper standards--series of interviews, letters, and editorials, promoted and escalated by publisher James Gordon Bennett (a kind of proto-Hearst), threw accusations of theft, forgery, vandalism, plagiarism, and worse back and forth until both men fell back, exhausted and nearly broken.

Wallace gives his readers far more than a simple freak show, though; he shows us that behind the controversy lay a crucial political struggle for control not just of fossils but the fate of the western territories. The methods Cope and Marsh used to control and divert fossils inevitably guided the expansion and settling of these lands, and Wallace argues forcefully that this competition started the boom of unsustainable growth that we are only now beginning to recognize. So by all means enjoy watching the fists fly in The Bonehunters' Revenge, but remember what happens to those who don't learn from the past. --Rob Lightner

From Publishers Weekly

Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope were two of America's greatest 19th-century paleontologists. Together, they were responsible for unearthing and naming the vast majority of this country's fossil dinosaurs and mammals. Over the course of their careers, they competed mercilessly, and often unethically, each pushing the other to further discoveries. Their feud erupted into public consciousness during two weeks in January 1890, when the New York Herald, a tabloid published by James Gordon Bennett Jr., ran a series of articles leveling charges and countercharges between the two of scientific malfeasance, including plagiarism, ignorance, favoritism, sloth, dishonesty, fossil-stealing and incompetence. Wallace (The Monkey's Bridge, etc.) makes these articles the centerpiece of his disappointing history of 19th-century paleontology. Unfortunately, he all too convincingly demonstrates that the articles were filled with errors, as well as being both boring and impenetrable to the average reader. Wallace loses credibility when, in an apparent attempt to generate interest, he adopts some of the hyperbole so common in the tabloid press of the time. Not atypical is his description of the some-time journalist who penned the first Herald article on the feud: "a photo of Ballou, showing a sloping forehead, receding chin, shifty eyes, and strangely convoluted ears, might have come from the period's abnormal psychology textbooks." Though the feud between the scientists is one of the more tantalizing and contentious events in the history of science, Marsh and Cope, as well as their work, have been covered in numerous other works (apparently diligently consulted by Wallace, who offers a seven-page bibliography). This book, engaging enough but not nearly equal to the author's best work (e.g., The Klamath Knot), doesn't add much of significance to the record. Agent, Sandy Taylor. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (October 12, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395850894
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395850893
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,325,661 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Robert Moore HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 10, 2002
Format: Paperback
This marvelous volume by David Rains Wallace is a balanced, thorough, and insightful recounting of the greatest, most needless, and most tragic scientific conflict in American history: the Cope-Marsh feud. I say "balanced" because most writers, especially those with an environmentalist/naturalist bent like Wallace, have tended to side with Othniel C. Marsh over Edward D. Cope. The reason isn't hard to find. Cope's feud with Marsh eventually [pulled] into the controversy John Wesley Powell, a major benefactor to Marsh and impediment to Cope, and occasioned Powell's fall from power. Environmentalists rightly consider this a tragedy, because perhaps no one in American history possessed the depth of understanding about the geological and geographical logic of the entire area west of the hundredth meridian than Powell. Had Powell remained in power longer, perhaps many of the great tragedies associated with the development of the American West could have been avoided. Most other evaluators of the feud tend to be biographers of either Cope or Marsh, and those side with their subject. But Wallace is able to look beyond the effect the Cope-Marsh feud's effect on Powell and beyond partisan loyalty to any single participant to achieve a fair evaluation of each.
Wallace begins with a biographical narrative of both Cope and Marsh, from their family origins and early interest in science, to their maturation as paleontologists and their initial encounters with one another, and on to their growing competition with one another and eventual implacable conflicts and feud. Wallace shows how this really was not primarily a scientific controversy, but a conflict between two very different personalities. Both men were exceedingly gifted, both immensely competitive, and both were extremely neurotic.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Caitlin R. Kiernan on May 30, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Rather than presenting just another account of the infamous Cope-Marsh "fossil war," Wallace has placed the conflict in a journalistic context, exploring the role New York Herald editor/huckster James Gordon Bennett played in the animosity between the two great paleontologists. A wonderfully detailed and readable book, with only a very small number of minor scientific errors to detract from its value. This probably won't be remembered as the definitive work on the subject, but it's a good place to start.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Gordon Adams on April 17, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Perhaps I read this book for the wrong reason. I've been reading my way through Steven Jay Gould's essay collections, and recently started on Fortey as well. Both are keenly interested in science not only for its own sake, but also as a human activity, both influenced by and influencing the society and culture of the moment. I don't always agree with their conclusions (particularly Gould's), but I always learn something, both about science and about its practitioners.

After many references to Cope and Marsh, it became obvious to me that there was a story here worthy of checking out for its own sake: arguably the two greatest palentologists of their age, locked in a decades-long feud. This book got good reviews, so I gave it a shot.

I did learn a lot more than I had known about Cope and Marsh, but frankly didn't learn a thing that I was interested in. Wallace's emphasis here is simply the feud itself, and even more particularly, a brief public battle that was waged between them for a couple of weeks in the pages of one of the day's scandal-prone newspapers. Wallace devotes 4 of the book's 20 chapters to this episode, as well devoting the book's prologue to the editor of the paper in question.

On the other hand, he devotes virtually no space to their actual professional lives, their publications, their theories, and the significance of their work. He's quite interested in Cope's futile struggles with Congress at one point, and in how the newspaper battle ultimately led to the decline in fortunes of John Wesley Powell. In another section he includes a line drawing of Marsh's reconstruction of a Brontosaurus, which more recently turned out to be an Apatasaurus with the wrong head, but doesn't show what the corrected skeleton should have looked like.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on April 22, 2005
Format: Paperback
Dinosaurs might have remained an obscure academic issue but for the antics of two competing men. Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh stooped to nearly every form of chicanery, bombast, and personal vituperation in their quest to become the United States' foremost palaeontologist. Instead of burying their dispute in academic journals, it was widely broadcast in the media of the day - newspapers. In this excellent study, Wallace traces the histories of the two, their colleagues and defenders. Although the stack of books on "the bone wars" has reached staggering proportions, Wallace has found an overlooked pivotal figure around which to march the protagonists of this stirring account.

James Gordon Bennett becomes a distant member of this triage while he rebuilds the New York Herald into a major newspaper. Bennett, at least as unorthodox as the scientists, kept the dispute between the two rivals well fanned throughout the latter part of the 19th Century. It proved a fine technique for boosting circulation, at least for a time. Any student of the period will recognise that "selling" dominated nearly all aspects of life, from newspapers to new species. Bennett had a pair of newsworthy characters to portray during their dispute, in Wallace's account. Marsh's and Cope's lives made good stories in themselves. Marsh, a New England patrician had "come into money" through an uncle. Cope, a Philadelphia Quaker, poured increasing amounts of the family fortune into fossil collecting expeditions.

Wallace is unable to find any specific event leading to the great rivalry. Once started, however, it burgeoned quickly and with great intensity. There were accusations of pilfering of fossils and plagiarising of journal papers.
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