Tag Archives: mastodon

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.


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.


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.


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

The Chimeric Missourium and Hydrarchos

In 1802, naturalist and painter John Peale unveiled the first mounted fossil skeleton ever put on display in the United States. The mount, a mastodon (Mammut americanum) collected on a farm near Newburgh, New York, immediately captured public attention and inspired a wave of interest in anything old and big. Although Peale charged admission to view the mastodon and somewhat dramatized its importance as “the first of American animals” and “the largest of terrestrial beings”, his primary intent was to educate the public about the natural world. Nevertheless, many American capitalists saw the crowds of people lining up to see Peale’s mastodon and concluded that there was a profit to be made in exhibiting fossils. The best known of these 19th century fossil showmen was surely Albert Koch. Having immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1835, Koch was a contemporary of P.T. Barnum, and like Barnum, he made a career out of exhibiting “curiosities”, some real and some fraudulent or exaggerated. At “Dr. Koch’s” (he never actually earned a doctorate) exhibition hall in St. Louis, Missouri, visitors paying the 50 cent admission fee could view wax sculptures, exotic animals, artifacts from distant countries, extensive miniature dioramas, and alleged freaks of nature. Koch also had a live grizzly bear and several alligators – sources differ on whether or not they were forced to fight for entertainment.


In 1840, Koch received word of something much bigger. A Missouri farmer had discovered large fossil bones, and Koch quickly arranged to purchase the find along with the rights to search the farmer’s land for more. Within four months, Koch had assembled a complete mastodon skeleton. More than complete, actually: Koch’s mount included numerous extra vertebrae and ribs from one or more additional mastodon individuals. Like Peale before him, Koch placed blocks of wood between the vertebrae to further exaggerate the animal’s length. The result was a 32-foot mount, nearly twice as long as a typical mastodon. As a final flourish, Koch positioned the mastodon’s tusks pointing upwards, to make the beast look more fearsome. In order to differentiate his creation from Peale’s earlier exhibit, Koch called the creature “Missourium”, although there was no scientific reason to distinguish it from other mastodon finds. Missourium went on display at Koch’s St. Louis establishment later that same year, and proved to be an instant success. In fact, Koch decided that the composite mastodon mount was worth more than then every other display combined. In 1841, he sold the exhibit hall and took Missourium on tour, traveling to New Orleans, Philadelphia, and several other American cities.

Illustration of Missourium. Out-of-copyright image via Laelaps.

Contemporary academics, including the British naturalist Richard Owen, pointed out that Koch’s mount was clearly an incorrectly assembled composite, and expressed disapproval for Koch’s sensationalized treatment of important fossil specimens. Just like famous P.T. Barnum frauds like Joice Heth and the Feejee mermaid, however, the controversy surrounding Missourium’s legitimacy only increased the enthusiasm of the paying public.  As an interesting side note, Koch claimed to have found stone tools and other human artifacts alongside the Missourium fossils. He included a pamphlet with his traveling exhibit which explained that these tools demonstrated that human populations in North America extended much further back in time than had been previously assumed. Koch may well have been telling the truth about where he found the artifacts and would eventually turn out to be correct about the antiquity of American humans. Nevertheless, because of the obviously fraudulent nature of Missourium, scientists of the day saw fit to ignore Koke’s suggestions entirely.


Koch sold Missourium to the British Museum in 1843, but he was soon at it again in 1845, when he began scouring Alabama for new display-worthy fossils. This time, Koch was after the bones of the prehistoric whale Basilosaurus cetoides. The Philadelphia-based naturalist and physician Richard Harlan had first described and named Basilosaurus in 1835 (he erroneously thought it was a reptile, hence the name meaning “king lizard”), but its fossils had been well known in the American south for decades before that. Enslaved men and women often ran into the bones while plowing fields, and these fossils were sometimes used as furniture or foundation posts for houses. Between January and April of 1845, Koch traveled across Clarke, Choctaw, and Washington counties, retrieving Basilosaurus remains. His best find was an articulated partial skeleton, including much of the skull, which he unearthed near the Tombigbee River.

After accumulating parts of at least six Basilosaurus individuals, Koch combined the fossils into a 114-foot mount (he would claim that it was 140 feet). Just as he had with Missourium, Koch strung together the vertebrae of multiple animals, extending his creation’s length to an absurd degree. This time, Koch did not even limit himself to whale fossils: as naturalist Jeffries Wyman would point out, many of the elements in Koch’s chimeric creation were actually ammonite shells. Billed as a sea serpent called “Hydrargos sillimani” (named after Yale professor Benjamin Silliman, who was not involved in the project and immediately requested that the reference be removed), the mount was first exhibited at the Apollo Saloon in New York City. Hydrargos, eventually renamed Hyrarchos, proved to be even more popular and profitable than Missourium. Cleverly, Koch had constructed the skeleton not as a single structure but as several modular components secured to wooden boards. This made it easy for the showman to disassemble, transport, and reassemble the display, which he toured throughout the United States and Europe.

Illustration of Hydrarchos in New York.

Illustration of Hydrarchos in New York’s Apollo Saloon.

As they had with Missourium, scientists confronted Koch over his inaccurate and sensationalized displays. Undaunted, Koch eventually sold the Hydrarchos mount to the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who exhibited it in Berlin’s Royal Anatomical Museum despite the insistence by the museum’s experts that the mount was a fraudulent reconstruction. Koch was still not finished, however. In 1848 he completed a second Basilosaurus composite, this one 96 feet long, and again took it on tour. The Mark II Hydrarchos would eventually be sold to Colonel Wood’s Museum in Chicago. E.L. Wood’s “museum” was yet another exhibition of mostly-bogus oddities, like Koch’s original operation in St. Louis. Still, the Basilosaurus mount’s final home can be credited for correctly identifying it as a prehistoric whale. The composite mount was labeled as “Zeuglodon”, a junior synonym coined by Richard Owen when he determined that the Alabama fossils belonged to marine mammals, not reptiles. Properly identified or not, the mount was destroyed along with the rest of Wood’s Museum during the great Chicago fire in 1871. Most of the original Hydrarchos was lost during World War II, although some parts remain at the Humboldt Museum in Berlin.

Modern Influences

Koch’s fossil mounts were frustrating to 19th century paleontologists because they cast unnecessary doubt on their young discipline. The actual bones that made up Missourium and Hydrarchos were genuine, Koch had merely assembled them incorrectly to enhance the appeal and profitability of his displays. To the scientists’ chagrin, when they criticized Koch’s displays, the popular press and the public often misinterpreted their statements and became skeptical of fossil finds in general. During the 19th century, ideas like extinction and the great age of the Earth were very new, and Koch’s spurious commodification of hard evidence made it harder for legitimate researchers to be taken seriously in the public sphere.

In fact, modern paleontologists still have to do damage control when the occasional forgery turns up. In 1999, the discovery of “Archaeoraptor” was widely publicized in National Geographic magazine and elsewhere as a feathered dinosaur that provided important evidence for the dinosaurian origin of birds. Archaeoraptor was not the first feathered dinosaur ever found, but it was one of the early ones, back when the concept of dinosaurs with feathers was still news. Unfortunately, it was only after the National Geographic article had gone to press that paleontologists Xu Xing and Phil Curie determined that the Archaeoraptor specimen, which had been smuggled into the United States from China by an unknown dealer, was actually a composite. Someone in China knew that a complete skeleton was worth more than an incomplete one, and cemented together partial skeletons of several dinosaurs, including Microraptor and Yanornis. When National Geographic retracted the story, however, many readers misunderstood the extent of the forgery. They thought that the feathers, the most exciting part of the find, had been faked, when in reality all the parts of Archaeoraptor were quite real, they just belonged to different animals.

This out-of-copyright image of Hydrarchos provides a good look at the mount's wooden armature. Out-of-copyright image via Laelaps.

This image of Hydrarchos provides a good look at the mount’s wooden armature. Incidentally, the above caption is accurate. Out-of-copyright image via Laelaps.

More than ten years later, writers with creationist agendas and a few scientists who ought to know better are still pushing the myth that Archaeoraptor was a deliberate hoax. Literally hundreds of genuine feathered dinosaur specimens found since then contribute to the scientific consensus that birds area incontrovertibly dinosaurs. And yet, paleontologists are still fighting skepticism inspired by the Archaeoraptor mistake.

19th century paleontologists paid for Koch’s displays in much the same way. Editorials denouncing evolution and the fossil record repeatedly referenced Koch’s ridiculous chimeras, as though these showpieces were representative of paleontologists’ work. I suspect that the general animosity paleontologists of the era felt toward fossil mounts came from dealing with Koch’s legacy. O.C. Marsh, for instance, hated the idea of mounting fossils and refused to let any of his finds be displayed in such a way during his lifetime. It would not be until 1868 and the discovery of the first somewhat complete dinosaur remains that paleontologists would again see mounting as a legitimate means for displaying their finds.


Carpenter, K., Madsen, J.H. and Lewis, L. (1994). Mounting of Fossi Vertebrate Skeletons. In Vertebrate Paleontological Techniques, Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Jones, D.E. 1998. Doctor Koch and his “Immense Antidiluvian Monsters.” http://www.alabamaheritage.com/vault/monsters.htm

Rogers, M. 2010. Delia’s Tears: Race, Science and Photography in Nineteenth Century America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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

Switek, B. 2008. “Koch’s “Mammoth” and Human Antiquity.” http://scienceblogs.com/laelaps/2008/06/18/too-little-too-soon/


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

The Artist in His Museum: Peale’s Mastodon

In 1801, naturalist and painter Charles Wilson Peale assembled in Philadelphia the skeleton of a mastodon (Mammut americanum).While Peale’s mastodon was not the first fully assembled fossil animal put on display, it was assuredly the first display of this type to capture widespread public attention, particularly in the United States. What’s more, the mastodon became an important symbol for the untold natural wonders of the American continent, which was still largely unexplored (by European colonists) at the beginning of the 19th century. Finally, Peale’s mastodon made clear to the public one of the most important principles of modern biology: the idea that organisms can become extinct.

The Peale Museum mastodon, as illustrated by Charles Peale's son, Rembrandt. The Peale Museum mastodon, as illustrated by Charles Peale’s son, Rembrandt.

An extinct giant

The story of the mastodon mount actually began a full century before the 1806 debut. In 1705, a farmer in Claverack, New York found an enormous tooth that had eroded out of a hillside. The farmer traded the tooth to a local politician, and it eventually made it its way into the hands of New York’s colonial governor, Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon. Hyde in turn sent the tooth to London, describing it as a remnant of an antediluvian giant. As word of the remains of a giant spread, other Americans soon began reporting similar finds. Throughout the colonies, giant bones, teeth, and tusks began to be uncovered. While early reports called these fossils the remains of “incognitum,” or “the unknown,” naturalists caught on reasonably quickly that these were not the bones of giant men but of elephant-like creatures.

At this point a brief digression on etymology and taxonomy is required. For most of the 19th century, the American fossil elephants were invariably called “mahmot” or “mammoth.” This was an Anglicization of the Old Vogul term maimanto (meaning earth-horn), which referred to giant tusks occasionally found in Siberia. It is unclear, however, who first made the correct connection between the frozen mammoths of Siberia and the American fossil skeletons. Credit for adopting “mammoth” as a synonym for “big” goes to Thomas Jefferson, who was fascinated by paleontology and the mammoth fossils in particular.

It was not until 1817 that French anatomist Georges Cuvier recognized that there were at least two types of extinct American proboscideans: the taller mammoths and stockier mastodons. Unequivocally demonstrating the staggering repression of the Victorian era, Cuvier coined the name “mastodon,” meaning nipple tooth, because apparently he thought the animal’s most distinguishing feature was that its teeth looked like breasts.

Boobs? Couvier, you poor bastard. Cuvier, you poor bastard.

The American elephantine fossils raised difficult questions for naturalists. The fossils clearly belonged to animals that had never been seen alive, which meant that the entire species must have died out. This concept of extinction was new to science, and it challenged the biblically-inspired presumption that all species had originated in a single creation event. Cuvier was a leader in the 19th century scientific movement known as catastrophism–the idea that extinctions were the result of periodic disasters, such as floods. While Cuvier himself rejected the idea that populations of organisms could avoid extinction by adapting and changing, his work on extinction would prove important when Charles Darwin worked out the process of evolution several decades later.

Unearthing the mastodon

In 1789, Nicholas Collin of the American Philosophical Society proposed a search for a complete mammoth skeleton, in order to resolve the animal’s identity and the question of its extinction once and for all. Collin’s call was answered by Charles Wilson Peale, founder of America’s first modern museum. Peale is best known today as a portrait artist during the American Revolution, but he was also the founder of the Peale Museum in Philadelphia. Although semi-formal collections of interesting natural specimens had existed before, Peale uniquely fashioned his institution as a space for public education, rather than a private vanity project. On the second floor of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Peale arranged displays of mammals, birds, and plants in a scala naturae, which was the contemporary understanding of natural order. Peale intended the museum to be a public resource that would improve visitors’ moral character through lessons in science, as was made clear by the slogan printed on every ticket, “the birds and beasts will teach thee.”

In 1799, a farmer named John Masten reported that he had found bones of “an animal of uncommon magnitude” on his land outside Newburgh, New York. Masten gathered a large party of friends and neighbors to help excavate the find. This proved to be a little too much fun: the crowd eventually descended into alcohol-fueled chaos, and many of the fossils were destroyed. Nevertheless, Peale decided to pay Masten a visit, with the hope of securing mammoth fossils for his museum. Peale ended up paying Masten $200 for the surviving fossils, plus another $100 for the right to search his land for more remains. Peale returned to Masten’s farm with a better-organized crew and $500 in additional funding from the American Philosophical Society. The ensuing excavation is the subject of Peale’s 1806 painting, The Exhumation of the Mastodon, shown below.

“The Exhumation of the Mastodon” by Charles Peale, 1806.

Although highly dramatized, The Exhumation of the Mastodon provides the best available record of the event. Since the pit where Masten first found the bones had filled with water, Peale oversaw the construction of a huge wooden wheel, which drove a conveyor belt hauling buckets of water out of the work site. Peale himself can be seen on the right, presiding over his small army of excavators. The well-publicized project eventually uncovered most of a mastodon. Exploring a few nearby farms, Peale’s workers eventually accumulated enough material to build a complete skeleton, most notably a mandible found on another farm down the road. In what was either showmanship or genuine confusion regarding the diets of elephants, Peale said of the find, “Gracious God, what a jaw! How many animals must have been crushed beneath it!” (quoted in Simpson 1942, 159).

The mastodon on exhibit

Once the mastodon skeleton had been transported to Philadelphia, the process of building the mount fell upon Peale’s son Rembrandt and Moses Williams, a free man of color who worked for the Peales. It took three months to articulate the skeleton, although sadly the details of how it was mounted on its armature are lost to history. Initiating a practice that would become necessity for most fossil mounts in years to come, Rembrant filled in missing parts of the mastodon skeleton (the top of the cranium and the tail) with sculpted elements. In addition, wooden discs were placed between vertebrae, slightly exaggerating the mount’s total length.

The completed mastodon mount was unveiled in 1802, in the main hall of the American Philosophical Society. Shortly thereafter, it was moved to the Peale Museum at Independence Hall. For 50 cents (plus regular admission), the visiting public could marvel at the creature Peale touted as “the first of American animals” and “the largest of terrestrial beings.” The mastodon (still being called a mammoth at that time) was a sensation, stirring up fascination with natural science, the prehistoric past, and no small amount of ours-is-bigger-than-yours patriotism in the young United States. In 1822, Peale would commemorate the unveiling of the mastodon with his self portrait, The Artist in His Museum. Ever the showman, Peale ensured that the skeleton in his painting is only barely visible below the rising curtain.

“The Artist in His Museum” by Charles Peale, 1822.

After Peale’s death in 1827 his museum floundered, and was eventually reduced from a meritorious educational institution into a circus of cheap spectacle. It shut down for good in 1848, and the mastodon (by then one of many similar mounts) was put up for auction. There are several conflicting accounts of what became of the mount, including the suggestion that it was destroyed in a fire, but in fact Peale’s mastodon has survived to the present day. Johann Jakob Kaup purchased the skeleton for the Landesmuseum in Durmstadt, Germany, and it has remained on display there ever since.

Germany Peale’s mastodon survives in Durmstadt, Germany. Source

Peale’s mastodon left an unmistakable legacy for both paleontology and public education. Today, the public conception of prehistory is inseparably connected to the image of towering mounted skeletons in museum halls. But fossils do not come out of the ground bolted to steel armatures, so it is largely thanks to Peale that mounts have become the most enduring means of sharing paleontology with the public.


Carpenter, K., Madsen, J.H. and Lewis, L. (1994). Mounting of Fossil Vertebrate Skeletons. Vertebrate Paleontological Techniques, Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Connriff, R. (2010). Mammoths and Mastodons: All American Monsters. Smithsonian Magazine. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Mammoths-and-Mastodons-All-American-Monsters.html

Semonin, P. (2000). American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity. New York, NY: New York University Press.

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


Filed under field work, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums