Saturday, December 26, 2015

New York Tribune, Monday, May 17, 1875: "A Chase for a Mastodon"

New York Tribune, Monday, May 17, 1875 --- Triple Sheet, Page 3

Illustration --- Mastodon at the British Museum



Circumstances of Discovery of the Bones --- Views of the Neighbors On the Subject --- Rise and fall of fossil Stock --- Competition and Sale --- Mastodons in General and this One in Particular --- How the Interior Department Fosters Science.

[From a Staff correspondent of the Tribune] Otisville, N.Y., May 3.

--- This little hamlet, almost inclosed [sic] by a curve of the Erie Railway, 900 feet above sea level in the Swawangunk Mountains and 75 miles from New-York has just passed through its most exciting experience. For three years it has contained a first-class object of curiosity. The prospect of the sale of the Otisville mastodon prompted the visit of your correspondent , who was fortunate in arriving on the ground before the affair was concluded, and the lid closed over the fossil remains. Less than a mile north-east of the railroad station of Otisville (which is between Port Jervis and Middletown) there is a now noted swamp in a valley that runs east-north-east. In all this region hills and valleys constitute the principal features of the landscapes, and a morass at the bottom of a valley is rather the rule than the exception. The hills are of Laurentian or pre-Silurian rocks---among the oldest of earth’s formations. The valleys between them at some much later geographical period contained fresh water lakes, and these were gradually filled by vegetable growths and the soil washed from the surrounding hills. The result is a large number of peaty swamps or morasses, but there is only one of them, the one which is on the property of Mr. Andrew Mitchell that claims our attention. Some student of the laws of vegetable life can perhaps explain why swamps of this kind are covered so regularly with round clumps of grass rising above the surface , each clump reaching about the same dimensions---say 18 inches diameter and two feet height ---and each with its last year’s growth of grass-stems parting from a point near its center and drooping over its sides. If we suppose that a regiment of giants shoulder to shoulder, were sunk over their necks in this swamp, these clumps would represent their full plumed helmets. Beneath these plumes there was something stranger, though less mythical than giants; but Mr. Mitchell in digging there was in search of far more prosaic and practical matter. He wanted swamp muck to put on his land.

But in digging for the swamp muck Mr. Mitchell, according to the phrase most in favor in the vicinity, “found a 20-acre lot.” Penetrating the morass from what is represented as the lower side in the diagram, and cutting a pathway wide enough for the passage of two teams, he made his first discovery in January, 1872 at the point marked “a.” This consisted of two rib bones. Not recognized as of any value, they were thrown upon the top of the musk heap, and left there. Shortly afterward a vertebra was unearthed. Mr.Mitchell supposed these were wood; parts of trees, probably the roots, imbedded in the swamp. It is not unusual to find remains of trees in these morasses, but this swamp has yielded very few of them, the curious shape of the supposed roots interested Mr. Mitchell. He wished to bring them into the house, but Mrs. Mitchell objected to lumbering it with such rubbish, not did mend matters when Mr. Mitchell suggested that one of the curiosities might do duty as a spittoon, the circular shape and concave hollow of the vertebra giving it a striking likeness to that national utensil. So the discoverer put his curiosities in his barn, and went on with his digging. When other ribs were found and compared with the first, the notion dawned upon Mr. Mitchell that perhaps these things were bones. The vertebra, on his supposition, he took to be a foot. Led by a praiseworthy curiosity, he bought a book on anatomy, and soon became convinced that the bones belonged to an animal larger than a horse. In digging toward the left of his first discovery many smaller vertebra and ribs were found, but it was not until he unearthed a leg bone at “c” that the enormous bulk of the animal fairly dawned upon his comprehension.

Some interest had been excited among his neighbors, and the wiseacres of the village had already propounded their theories concerning these remains, when Mr. Mitchell’s spade dislodged the mighty arch of the pelvis (at “d” in the diagram). Here was a bone indeed. Through its capacious hollow a flour barrel could be thrust without rubbing the hoops. A tall man with arms extended across it could scarcely touch both edges with his finger-tips. The weight was near half a ton. Thenceforth Mr. Mitchell was famous. He was not long in ascertaining that he had found either a mammoth or a mastodon.

It is a trite remark of the moralist, that fame does not bring happiness. Mr. Mitchell’s experience accorded with the adage which declares that ease and honor are seldom bedfellows. He had not made his excavations like the grave-diggers of the Cardiff giant by night and in secret. The neighbors who helped in extracting the big bone spread the story of its dimensions, which grew as it traveled. Newspapers got hold of some of the facts, and touched up the details with a very free brush. An unusual of passengers on the railway stopped every day at Otisville, and the keeper of the station got the habit of stating the way to Mr. Mitchell’s house as a part of his regular business on the arrival of trains. Country wagons blocked the road around the house and from 50 to 75 visitors at a time became the daily experience of the Mitchell household. The proprietor of the bones was “interviewed” about them day and night. I couldn’t eat or sleep in peace. I feared that burglars would rob my barn. I didn’t know what to do with the people; they overran my house from roof to cellar. I dared not leave them with the bones, and I could not get them to leave the bones. Men and boys would loiter around and stare at them for hours together. And what I was most afraid of, was their wanting to handle the bones. I felt sure they’d do some damage.”

Letters of advice respecting the proper treatment of the fossils were addressed to Mr. Mitchell by scientific man who had read in the newspapers about the discovery. Prof. Marsh, by letter, urged upon him not to let the bones dry too rapidly, to keep them in the swamp muck as long as possible, especially not to let them be handled while wet, and that all handling was dangerous. Prof. Waterhouse Hawkins sent a precise letter of instructions as to the preservation of the bones by the immediate use of glue; he supposing it likely that these, like the most of mastodon bones, would crumble or break in fragments during removal and drying. The object of these letters was to save the fossils for science, without reference to their possession; but Prof.’s Marsh and Hawkins both sent their representatives at a later date to view the remains and report more particularly upon them, and these intelligent assistants communicated many cautions and some knowledge concerning bones to Prof. Mitchell; and it is fairly due to him here to say that he profited by the instructions, and that the world of science thence profits in turn by the jealous care which these fossils have been preserved.


Mr. Mitchell is a mason by trade, working when there is work to be had on buildings in New-York, and still dependent on his daily labor for support; but with Scotch frugality and industry he has acquired a little property. Since his discovery of fossils he has fairly mastered a general knowledge of anatomy and could now pass an examination on that science better than many college professors. Something of the fervor that burns in the scientific breast must have urged him to overcome the various obstacles he encountered. The water in the swamp gave him a great deal of trouble. There was a brook ( represented in the diagram by dotted lines passing partly through the excavation) which was right in his path. To drain it, he cut a deep ditch to the right of it (also represented by dotted lines) but this soon filled up and he was obliged to construct another at a greater distance. After the brook was permanently diverted, it became evident that a spring in swamp (at A in the diagram) was the chief source was the chief source of its water supply. At the time of the writer’s visit, the whole area of excavation, a space of perhaps 70 feet in longest diameter, was full of water. Only by incessant pumping by horse-power can the water be brought down enough to make digging practicable. Once when the water was gaining on Mr. Mitchell and his animals were worn out, the people in the vicinity organized what is known as a “bee” to help him. The day’s work of the neighbors was very effective in draining and digging, but it had the disadvantage of making every man in the village think he held some share in the bones, since he had helped at the bee, It was an ungracious task to keep such helpful visitors ar arm’s length, but events soon proved it necessary. One day Mr. Mitchell observed one of his neighbors---one of the old-fashioned kind that carries a heavy cane with a substantial ferrule, poking it among the fossils with the emphasis of Sir Anthony Absolute. Mr. Mitchell rushed to the rescue, but all too late; the ferrule had punched a hole through the pelvis bone. After that, a charge of 25 cents was imposed for permission to see the fossils, and had a wonderful effect in diminishing the numbers of the curious crowd.


On the left one molar tooth of Elephas Primigenius. On the right one molar tooth of Mastodon Americanus.More leg bones and some belonging to the feet were found (at “a” in the diagram) and shortly afterward the most important discovery up to this time was made: the skull with the upper teeth still firm in their sockets---four molars, two on each side---was found in a complete state of preservation. Excitement on the subject now rose to fever-lient [?] . his neighbors assured Mr. Mitchell that if he would take the bones to Europe he could get a fortune for them; there were millions of greenbacks in that mastodon. Of course the hopes of the owner expanded like the reveries of Alnaschar. His estimates of value ranged far above slender scientific purses. Barnum was to have been among the competitions. But Barnum did not come. A half dozen colleges made polite inquiry as to the price and then waited for it to subside. The panic in the Fall of 1873 and the “hard times” following induced economy, even in mastodons. The owner began to realize that his bones were ceasing to be a curiosity. But last Winter, at 9 ½ feet below the surface he found two ribs, some vertebrae, and finally the lower jaw (at “h” in the diagram), which materially increased the value of the whole collection. The number of real competition had, however, dwindled to three, under the pressure of hard times; Connecticut, New-York, and New-Jersey, alone survived the panic. From each a representative of a possible purchaser had called to examine the bones and report on their value. The owner’s patience at length gave out; he boxed his curiosity, and determined to sell. Prof. Marsh was busy with the presentation of red Cloud’s complaints and the exposure of the Indian ring, but he recognized the fact that the mastodon was in a crisis.


The representative of New-Jersey started from New-York the same morning with Prof. Marsh, for Otisville,. The third competitor was represented by a resident of the village. Prof. Marsh took an express train, which did not count Otisville among its shopping places. The representative of New-Jersey took the accommodation train which stops at Otisville.“Cannot you let me out as we pass Otisville?” asked Prof. Marsh when the conductor took his ticket.“Absolutely impossible,” replied that functionary. Had he been a Sioux chieftain, doubtless Prof. Marsh would have ordered for him a big feast in his tepee. No such blandishments were practicable on the rail, in Orange County, and this letter cannot chronicle them. Nor would it be fair to suppose that a long and earnest conversation, held by the Professor with conductor, had anything to do with the circumstance of the engineer’s suspecting that he had a hot box on one of his wheels when near Otisville, and stopping the train to examine it. Suffice it, that the Professor got off at the village, had dined with Mr. Mitchell, and was deep in negotiations, when a visitor was announced.“Tell him I’m engaged,” said Mr. Mitchell.“He says he’s tho [sic] gentleman from New-Jersey, and he would like to see you immediately.”“Let us close this matter first,” said Prof. Marsh.“I see that my journey was useless. If I had known you were here I should not have come,” said the New-Jersey representative, entering the room some minutes afterward, and shaking hands with Prof. Marsh.


The bones were on exhibition in the village church. Science was doing service for religion. The show as part of a fair for the Sunday-school, and the price of admission to see the fossils was reduced to 10 cents. Despite the utmost efforts to keep the matter quiet a large concourse of citizens and small boys attended the removal of the boxes to the railway depot, there to be repacked under the Professor’s eye. No first born in its swaddling clothes was ever more tenderly handled by its mother. Straw beds in sacks were laid in the boxes, one for each side, top, bottom and end. The Professor’s solicitude about the softness of those beds exceeded that of the Brooklyn plaintiff. Great bats of cotton were tied around the teeth with firm tenderness:“Well, said a bystander, “he’ll never catch cold in them jaws.”“A whole day and all the sacking in the village were consumed in the operation. Of course it could not be kept quiet. Even the railway premises were not proof against popular curiosity. The officials could not keep the towns people out of the freight house:“Why,” said one of them,” I helped to raise that there bone out of the muck myself.”“Do you really think now, Professor,” said another, wistfully, “that creature lived before the flood!”I should think he might have been before this world,” suggested another. Whereupon an argument arose as to whether there was any world before Adam, the Professor being far too much absorbed to give heed to the dispute. As he was driving the nails of one of the last covers, a lady came into the freight-house.“Can’t I see it!”“Why, no, Madam, it’s all packed.”“Oh dear! dear! And I could have seen it any time, even yesterday!” She walked around among the boxes with a piteous air.“If you’ll come to New-Haven you shall see it when it is set up in the Museum. I shall be most happy to see you there, said the Professor. “But the gallantry of the remark did not touch her grief. She wandered around among the boxes, and from time to time repeated sadly the words, “I could have seen it whenever I wanted to.” As the last nails were driven that closed the pine coffin over the remains the church-bell tolled mournfully.“Freight, 1700 pounds, “said the railway agent. “But the skull, at least, ought to go as a deadhead,” suggested the Professor.


Out of a hundred mastodons whose remains are discovered, it is safe to say that not more than one is on good condition. As a rule they have carelessly left their bones in strata not fitted to preserve them. Frequently the remains crumble at a touch. The perfect condition of the mastodon of Otisville is remarkable. It will stand probably 12 feet in height and perhaps 17 in length, when mounted. Its size and the character of the teeth indicate full maturity, if not extreme age. It is not quite so easy to judge of the age of a mastodon as of a horse by his teeth, but it can be safely said that this animal may have been a hundred years old at death. First-class mastodons can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Until this one is mounted, comparison with other specimens would be premature. The best of American mastodons was found by Dr. Koch in Missouri, and called by him “the Missouri Leviathan.” That skeleton is now in the British Museum; the engraving of it given above is reduced directly from Owen’s British Mammals. Dr. Koch circulated an absurd story about this skeleton, to the effect that the animal had been killed and partly roasted by Indians. This is thoroughly refuted by Prof. Dana in the last number of The American Journal of Science. Next in value to that specimen are the Warren mastodon now in Boston, on which Dr. Warren wrote a memoir, and the Cohoes mastodon now in the State Geological Cabinet in Albany. Two less known but almost equally complete specimens from Indiana were destroyed in Chicago’s great fire. A smaller mastodon discovered in 1844 in warren Co., N.J., formed part of the late Prof. Wyman’s collection at Cambridge, and now goes to the Boston Society of Natural History. The Otisville mastodon is at least the sixth that has been found in the swamps of Orange County.


Perfect specimens of the teeth in position in the jaws, are most desired by naturalists, to clear up doubtful points. Some years ago there was a large quantity of fossil remains found at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky. They constituted the best collection ever made of the jaws and teeth of the mastodon. They were sent to the Patent Office at Washington. A high official of the Interior Department found those bones in his way. He wanted more room. He had those specimens taken out of the Patent Office. They were sent to a bone-mill and ground up as fertilizing material. The loss to science is absolutely irreparable. Compared with this performance, the destruction of Prof. Waterhouse Hawkin’s fossil models by the Tweed Ring was an important piece facetiousness; money and skill can replace the models that were buried in Central Park, but the Big Bone Lick specimens were not made by man.


Though both the mammoth and the mastodon were elephantine creatures, they are easily distinguishable. The most prominent difference is in the tusks and teeth, but the American mammoth was a shaggy animal, while the mastodon had probably a smooth skin like the modern elephant. Of the two, the mammoth was the larger quadruped, the mastodon being stouter and on shorter legs, and probably more aquatic in its habits. The mastodon takes its name from its nipple-shaped teeth; the drawing of one of these and of a tooth of a mammoth ( Elephas Americanus ) is reduced from Dana’s Manual of Geology. The nipple-shaped teeth are principally made up of dentine, within which are separate lozenges of enamel. The Otisville mastodon has eight teeth, two on each side in each jaw. These teeth are about four inches thick, and each pair, as it stands in the jaw, is 11 ½ inches long on top. They look as though they could have crunched a good-sized tree without difficulty. The tusks of the mammoth are long and much curved, as is shown in the illustration; those of the mastodon are comparatively short and slender. In early life the mastodon had two small tusks in the lower jaw; one of these the male shed with advancing years; the female shed both. The absence of these in this Otisville skeleton inclines Prof. marsh to the belief that it was a female. Geologically speaking, the mastodon is an older animal than the elephant or mammoth, but the series of specimens already obtained of different species, indicates near affinity and probably common ancestry.


No comments:

Post a Comment