Missourium: Hiding in Plain Sight

A while back I wrote about Albert Koch, the 19th century showman who made a tidy profit assembling and touring chimeric composites of fossil bones. Koch’s monsters – an exaggerated mastodon called “Missourium” and two alleged sea serpents made from whale fossils – were a hit with the public but an embarrassment to scientists. At the time, ideas like extinction and the great age of the Earth were very new, and Koch’s fraudulent commodification of fossil evidence made it harder for legitimate researchers to be taken seriously.

The mastodon once called Missourium in the Mammal hall. Source

Is this mastodon at NHM actually the legendary Missourium? Source

One thing I breezed over in the previous post was the eventual fate of Koch’s creations. It is widely reported that the whales (which Koch alternatively called “Hydrargos” and “Hydrarchos”) met rather dramatic ends: one perished in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, while the other was purchased by the Royal Anatomical Museum in Munich Berlin and was subsequently blown up during World War II. But what about Missourium? Following Simpson, I wrote that the mount was sold to the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum), and left it at that.

However, Mike Taylor recently asked whether Missourium might still be on display in South Kensington today:

I didn’t know that the “Missourium” was sold to the British Museum! Do you know what they did with it? I don’t suppose anyone has the specimen number? Is it possible that they got rid of all the fakery and mounted it in the mammal hall, and that it stands there today under the shadow of the whale?(Link to comment)

After some very modest digging, I found that Mike’s hunch was exactly right. General googling revealed that several authors, including McMillian, Debus, and Fuller, had concluded that the NHM mastodon and Missourium were one and the same, but none of them offered a proper citation. While I have no reason to doubt these authors, I still wanted a primary source. I eventually found that in a 1991 article by NHM preparator William Lindsay, which details the process of moving the mastodon to its current home in the Mammals Gallery, and confirms its identity as a remounted Missourium.

An insane illsutration that accompanied Koch's traveling exhibit.

This insane illustration of Missourium in its natural habitat accompanied Koch’s traveling exhibit.

As far as we know, Koch retrieved all the fossils that made up Missourium from a single Benton County, Missouri spring in 1840 (Hoy confirmed the locality and found several additional bones in 1871). Koch used the bones of at least two individuals to assemble a chimeric super-mastodon, which he displayed in St. Louis. Most notably, Koch spliced a number of extra vertebrae into the spinal column, extending the mount’s length to 32 feet. To appeal to local audiences – and to differentiate his creation from Peale’s mastodon – Koch named the beast Missourium, and proclaimed it to be the skeleton of the biblical Leviathan. In 1841, Koch sold his St. Louis showroom and took Missourium on tour, eventually winding up in the Egyptian Hall of Piccadilly, London.

Local specialists, including Gideon Mantell, were initially impressed by the display. However, attitudes soured in February 1842 when Richard Owen presented a scathing critique of Koch’s work to the Geological Society of London. In his lecture, Owen made some cursory remarks about the inaccurately articulated skeleton, but he was primarily concerned with confirming that Missourium was nothing more than a run-of-the-mill American mastodon. Owen was a trendsetter, then as well as now, and for decades afterward his fellow naturalists took every opportunity to take Koch to task. For example, James Dana allowed that “the credit is due him of having performed a great service to science by his collections”, but tore into Koch’s publications to prove that he “was quite ignorant of geology and without scientific training.”

It is therefore ironic that Owen himself gave Koch one of the biggest paydays of his life when he bought Missourium on behalf of the British Museum. In exchange for the skeleton, Koch made off with a $2000 downpayment (about $65,000 today), plus $1000 a year for the rest of his life. It seems museums have been paying extortion prices for display-caliber fossils for a long time.

Armature

Diagram of the mastodon’s internal armature. Figure 10 of Lindsay 1991.

Museum technicians, including an individual named J. Flower, disassembled Missourium and rebuilt it into a proper mastodon. Reduced to a length of 20 feet, the remounted skeleton (now OR15913) was placed in the historic fossil mammals exhibit and remained there for almost 150 years. In 1991, the mastodon was selected for inclusion in the new Mammals Gallery at NHM, which combines both fossil and modern specimens. Although William Lindsay and colleagues had only limited time to restore and move the skeleton, they gained fascinating insight into 19th century mounting practices. As shown above, the internal metal armature was virtually identical to 20th century counterparts. A hand-wrought iron beam threaded through each vertebra provided the mount’s central anchor point. Four additional iron bars skewered the appendicular elements and connected to the vertebral beam inside the pelvis and under the shoulder girdle. An enlarged foramen magnum allowed the vertebral beam to enter the back of the skull, which turned out to be composed almost entirely of papier-mâché. A real palate and set of upper teeth were buried in the paper cranium, supported by a cradle of wood and copper wire. Amazingly, an 1881 issue of The Weekly Dispatch used in a cursory repair to the skull was still legible.

historic photo of mastodon

Missourium remounted as a standard mastodon in the historic fossil mammals hall. Source

As to be expected from anything on display for a century and a half, the mastodon was in rough shape. As usual, vibration damage was the primary culprit, and Lindsay discovered that the spongy bone in the femur and cervical vertebrae had been crushed beneath the weight of the iron armature. Although NHM staff weren’t able to completely disarticulate the skeleton, they separated it into seven pieces for transport. A coating of polyvinyl acetate was applied to consolidate the fragile fossils, and larger cracks were filled in with putty. Meanwhile, the deteriorating replica skull was retired and replaced with a glass-reinforced plastic cast. The original tusks are still included in the display, however, which is unusual among proboscidian mounts.

Missourium was the third mounted fossil skeleton ever assembled, after Bru’s Megatherium and Peale’s mastodon. Although they’ve each been reconfigured and restored at various points in time, all three specimens are still on exhibit today. While any object that has been on public display for 150 years (or more) is fascinating, I find it especially compelling that so few fossil mounts have ever been taken off exhibit. Public demand, institutional inertia, and the challenges of safely disarticulating a historic mount all contribute to the incredible longevity of these displays, but time inevitably takes its toll on fragile fossils. I can’t help but wonder how many more generations of visitors will be able to view the mastodon that was once Missourium before a mounted display becomes untenable.

References

British Museum (1904). The History of the Collections Contained in the Natural History Departments of the British Museum. London, UK: British Museum (Natural History) and Longmans and Co.

Dana, J.D. (1875). On Dr. Koch’s Evidence with regard to the Contemporaneity of Man and the Mastodon in Missouri. The American Journal of Science and Arts 9:335-346.

Hoy, P.R. (1871). Dr. Koch’s Missourium. The American Naturalist 5:3:147-148.

Lindsay, W. (1991). “Mammoth” Task. Curator 34:4:261-272.

Owen, R. (1842). Report on the Missourium now exhibiting at the Egyptian Hall, with an inquiry into the claims of the Tetracaudodon to generic distinction. Proceedings of the Geologic Society of London 3:3:82.

Simpson, G.G. (1942). The Beginnings of Vertebrate Paleontology in North America. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 86:1:130-188.

4 Comments

Filed under anatomy, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NHM

4 responses to “Missourium: Hiding in Plain Sight

  1. Fascinating! Thanks for following this up.

    One more way that the Missourium has affected modern palaeontology: among the many names Koch used for this specimen was Leviathan, evidently intended as a formal scientific name. It’s because of this that the name was unavailable for the awesome Miocene sperm whale named by Lambert et al. (2010), who subsequently had to renamed it Livyatan. For details, see http://svpow.com/2010/06/30/is-the-new-miocen-sperm-whale-leviathan-validly-named/

  2. Regarding Hydrarchos No. 1, I understood that he was bought by the Prussian King for the Berlin (not Munich) Anatomical Cabinet (nowadays the Anatomical Museum of Berlin’s Chartié Hospital). No idea if the remains are still there, though; I’ll e-mail them.

  3. Pingback: PaleoNews #6 | Thetetanuraeguy

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