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  • Writer's pictureDante Mazza

Othniel C. Marsh House

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

The house in late summer of 2018

Americans love dinosaurs. There is evidence of that fact everywhere you look, from the programming at every summer science camp in the nation to the runaway success of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park franchise of books and movies to the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets found in the freezer section of most supermarkets and the dinner plates of so many kindergarteners. Americans of all ages gather by the tens of thousands each year at institutions like the Museum of Natural History in New York City or the Field Museum in Chicago to gawk at the life-sized, fossilized remains of these grand apex predators that once ruled the earth.

Those fossils have come to public view thanks to the field of paleontology, a branch of science concerned with the study of fossils and what they can tell us. While the field is well-known and well-developed today, it would not be so without the contributions of its early pioneers, who began chasing down American fossils in the years following the Civil War.

Chief among those paleontology pioneers was Othniel C. Marsh, America's very first Professor of Paleontology. Marsh lived in this stately sandstone mansion, set on a large, lush plot of land at the top of a hill in New Haven, Connecticut, from 1881 until he died in 1899. During that period, Marsh was on the faculty at Yale and traveled the nation hunting down new fossils and naming new species. His bitter rivalry with fellow pioneer paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope sparked the infamous "Bone Wars" that captivated the national press and began America's love affair with the prehistoric predators.

The house, now known as Marsh Hall and used by Yale's School of Forestry, has been designated a National Historic Landmark in recognition of its original owner's contributions to American scientific understanding.


The Early Life of Othniel C. Marsh

One of the locks along the Erie Canal that gave Marsh's hometown its name. The extensive excavation required to build the canal, as seen here in the steep slopes leading down to it, unveiled much of the region's fossilized history, which Marsh began studying as a boy.

Othniel Charles Marsh was born in Lockport, New York, on October 29, 1831. He came from humble roots. His father, Caleb Marsh, was a farmer, and his mother died of cholera before his third birthday, soon after giving birth to her fourth child.

Young Othniel spent a lot of time outdoors, mostly hunting the numerous small game that inhabited his local area. Before long, he took an interest in fossils, which were also plentiful.

Lockport is located in far northwestern New York, near Buffalo, along the path of the famous Erie Canal, which had been completed a few years before the boy's birth. The canal's excavation presented a prime opportunity for amateur geologists to get a good look at the region's exceptionally rich fossil and mineral history. One such explorer was Army Colonel Ezekiel Jewett, who later served as chairman of the New York State Geological Cabinet. Marsh came to befriend Jewett, and the two spent time collecting samples and documenting their region's natural history.

Despite such humble beginnings, Othniel demonstrated from a young age an evident passion for science and a profound intellect. He was soon able to pursue that intellectual curiosity more formally. Marsh's deceased mother was Mary Peabody, the younger sister of George Peabody, a wealthy banker widely credited as the "father" of modern philanthropy.

When he turned 21, Othniel inherited from his uncle the money to serve as his mother's dowry. He used it instead to obtain perhaps the best education money could buy, attending first the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts (later attended by both Presidents Bush), where he was valedictorian of his class, and then Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, the institution with which he would share an association for the rest of his life.

By modern standards, Marsh entered college later in life than expected, earning his Bachelor of Arts in 1860 at age 28. Marsh graduated eighth in his class and was also inducted into the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa society. While an undergraduate at Yale, Othniel spent his summers traveling around New York, New England, and Nova Scotia, digging for fossils. During one such trip to Nova Scotia, he discovered the fossil of a previously unknown creature. This thrilling find solidified his determination to pursue a professional, scientific career.

With the further financial support of his uncle, Othniel pursued postgraduate education, first at Yale and then later in Germany. On his way overseas, he stopped in London to meet up with his uncle and compare some of the fossil specimens he had collected in Nova Scotia with those in the British Museum. Marsh also wrote his first scientific paper during this period, which he presented to the Geological Society of London. It was so well received that he was offered membership in the group.

Arriving in Germany, Marsh attended Berlin University, where he studied mineralogy, microgeology, and chemistry in his first year and paleontology alone in his second. He also traveled during this period, spending time studying with experts in other parts of Germany, visiting Switzerland, and meeting up with his uncle again.

The two had a very important conversation in the spring of 1863. George Peabody was looking for ways to disseminate his vast fortune before his death, and Marsh was able to secure a gift of $150,000 from his uncle to Yale to establish a natural history museum. That gift gave birth to the Yale Peabody Museum for Natural History, one of America's top institutions on the subject. Though his uncle's money would erect the physical building, Marsh's scientific work would later fill it up.

Thanks to the unique combination of his uncle's generosity and his own scientific talent, when Marsh returned to the United States, he became America's very first Professor of Paleontology. His official appointment was made at Yale Commencement on July 24, 1866. He would hold the title for the rest of his life.


Paleontology Pioneer

A portrait photograph of "O.C. Marsh, Conn"

taken sometime between 1860 and 1880

Marsh has acquired a posthumous reputation as something of an "armchair" paleontologist who spent little time in the field. This was true mainly in the later years of his career, but at the beginning, he traveled earnestly, setting off on his first Yale Scientific Expedition in 1870 with a crew of thirteen Yale undergraduates or recent graduates and a military escort. The group scoured the plains of Nebraska, northern Colorado, and Wyoming for specimens, even traveling as far West as California. As the group proceeded, Marsh encouraged local groups of Native Americans that they encountered to join the effort and bring him fossils, earning himself the moniker of "Bone-Medicine man."

The 1870 expedition was the first of four in three years that Marsh personally led and partially financed (with the other participants kicking in the rest of the funds). These field excursions were, in many ways, a reflection of his own travels as a student and gave his successors at Yale opportunities much like the ones he had enjoyed while studying there. Yet by 1874, Marsh had begun employing the services of professional field collectors. Once he made the switch, he never went back. By his own estimation, Marsh would spend a couple hundred thousand dollars of his own money financing the collection of fossils by several hundred people over the course of his career.

So steady was the stream of new specimens flowing back to New Haven that Marsh wouldn't have even had the time to make field visits. He was entirely consumed by cataloging the treasures sent back to him and publishing scientific papers on his findings. And there was plenty to write about.


Marsh may have been one of the first Americans to catch the dinosaur fever so widespread in our culture today. The fossilized bones of these prehistoric predators were first noticed by scientists in the 1820s, popping up one bit at a time in various locations around the globe. After some twenty years of such discoveries, the British anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen had seen enough evidence to suggest that these creatures were not merely the common reptiles of his day. So, he proposed a new classification for them: Dinosarua, meaning "terrible reptiles."

Marsh first began collecting dinosaur fossils in 1877 when he received a letter from Arthur Lakes, a Denver schoolteacher who was digging up a massive skeleton and wanted to sell it. After dispatching a trusted collector to the site to examine the findings, Marsh bought the skeleton, a specimen so massive he named it Titanosaurus montanus. The big bones created a big splash in the local press, and soon Colorado was crawling with bone hunters, expert and amateur alike. Later digs in the Denver area also uncovered the world's first bones of the now well-known Stegosaurus and Triceratops dinosaurs, both of which Marsh named.

It turned out, however, that Colorado was just the warm-up act for the real dinosaur show, which was sitting just to the north on the plains of Wyoming. There, two Union Pacific Railroad workers, William Harlow Reed and William Edward Carlin, had discovered some dinosaur fossils at Como Bluff. They wrote to Marsh, who immediately dispatched Lakes to follow up on their report. Marsh had first been alerted about Como Bluff in 1868 when he had been shown a bone recovered from the area, but apparently did not investigate what else might be there. What Lakes and Reed soon discovered, however, was that Como was home to one of the richest deposits of dinosaur fossils in America, so full of bones that digging there under Marsh's direction continued for over twenty years until 1892. He was sent 134 small packages of dinosaur teeth and nearly 500 large boxes of dinosaur bones, literally by the ton, from the Como Bluff dig site over the years, a massive trove of bones that allowed Marsh to discover and name the dinosaurs Brontosaurus, Diplodocus, and Barosaurus. Today, a massive, nearly complete Brontosaurus skeleton recovered from Como Bluff by Marsh's team is the centerpiece of Yale's Peabody Museum collection.

Flying Reptiles, Sea Serpents, and Birds With Teeth

While dinosaurs were the most dramatic and shocking of Marsh's many finds, some of his other work did as much, if not more, to challenge America's perception of the natural world. For example, anyone who works in agriculture or spends much time outdoors, as most Americans did during Marsh's lifetime, can tell you that reptiles (like snakes and lizards) can't fly and birds (like crows and chickens) don't have teeth. Marsh, however, proved with his fossils that both things used to be true.

A strikingly complete Pterosaur fossil featuring the imprint of the volant membranes in the wings and a long tail that culminates in "a separate vertical membrane, which was evidently used as a rudder in flight," according to Marsh. He purchased the specimen from Europe.

Pterodactyl fossils had previously been found in Europe before Marsh's expeditions, but during an 1870 dig in Kansas, he recovered what he later determined to be a wing finger bone from one of these mystical flying creatures. Further investigation revealed the full, fossilized wing, which Marsh used to estimate a wingspan of over twenty feet, far larger than anything uncovered in Europe. The significant difference allowed Marsh to identify and name three new genera and eight new species of flying lizards. To augment his own American collection, Marsh also purchased one of the most complete pterodactyl skeletons ever uncovered in Europe, which today also resides at the Peabody Museum and is seen above.

Marsh found that giant reptiles used to rule the seas as well as the sky. While not quite the sea serpents of ancient lore, these massive creatures, called mosasaurs, could grow to be thirty, sometimes forty, feet long and were supported by backbones with over 100 vertebrae (a human has only 33). On one occasion, Marsh recalled that while riding "through a valley washed out of this old ocean bed, I saw no less than seven different skeletons of these monsters in sight at once." Marsh's collection at Yale grew to include the bones of over 1,400 different mosasaurs, from which he could identify and name 18 new species.

In the earlier years of his career, when he was still making field visits, Marsh had come to prize the Smokey Hill region of Kansas as a prime location to find bird bones, which are notoriously hollow and fragile and thus unlikely to be preserved through time. In the fall of 1872, Marsh heard that one of his top collectors had recently been to the area and wrote him to ask about what he had found. The collector brought Marsh a box of bones, which he quickly identified as two different species. Further investigation, however, revealed that it was, in fact, all the same skeleton, a bird with teeth, something that no scientist or bone collector had ever discovered before. In 1880, Marsh published Odontornithes: A Monograph on the Extinct Toothed Birds of North America. The pioneering text provided bone-by-bone descriptions of five different species of toothed birds, an analysis made possible by the extensive amount of samples brought to Marsh by his paid collectors. Through his detailed notes and the accompanying woodcut illustrations based on the collected fossils, Marsh essentially brought a long-extinct species back to life, setting the standard for modern paleontology.

It was momentous discoveries like these, published in the leading scientific journals of his time and made possible by the massive amount of bones recovered from the field, which were themselves assembled into incredibly complete skeletons and displayed prominently in the population centers on the East Coast, that allowed Marsh to paint such a vibrant picture of the prehistoric world for America and almost singlehandedly shape the field of paleontology in this country.


Yet Marsh's contributions to science were not limited to paleontology alone. His work also proved to be precious evidence supporting Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Marsh was an outspoken endorser of the evolution theory at the time it was still being openly debated in the scientific community. He called evolution the "key to the mysteries of past life on the earth" and maintained that "to doubt evolution is to doubt science, and science is only another name for truth."

Others may have had trouble accepting evolution as truth, but America's leading paleontologist had plenty of proof right in his lab. His discovery of birds with teeth had proven a long suspected though much disputed genetic connection between birds and reptiles. Evolution critics had seen the two groups as so profoundly different that they considered the gap between them enough evidence to disprove Darwin's theory. Marsh, however, filled that open gap full of fossils, providing so much proof in support of evolution that by his 1877 speech to the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Nashville, the father of American paleontology was able to declare with pride that "It is now generally admitted, by biologists who made a study of the

vertebrates, that birds have come down to us through the Dinosaurs." This recognition is regarded as a scientific fact today. It is even nodded to culturally, as in the prevalence of dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, a playful homage from modern birds to their ancestors, offered up by human handlers.

But the connection between birds and reptiles, though groundbreaking, was not Marsh's most valuable contribution to the evolution theory's evidence bank. That honor belongs to his extensive collection of horse fossils. While the prevailing theory at the time was that horses had been brought to America by European colonizers, further investigation by Marsh revealed that horses had a long history in the Western Hemisphere but hadn't always looked the same. Today, horses are considered gold-standard examples of evolution by natural selection, but Marsh's pioneering work put them on that pedestal.

Through his vast collection network, Marsh was able to acquire enough varieties of horse fossils to show their evolution through time clearly. The change was especially noticeable in the animal's size. The smallest specimen was about the size of a fox, another was the size of a sheep, the third was as large as a donkey, and the fourth matched the stature of a modern horse. The evidence was clear. Horses had evolved, and if they had, then there seemed no reason other animals couldn't do the same.

Marsh's contributions to the theory of evolution were of such consequence that it was that work, not his paleontology, that was cited as the reason for his significance in the original Department of Interior press release announcing the home's designation as a National Historic Landmark. But the highest praise came not from the government or the scientific community writ large but rather from one scientist in particular, who wrote Marsh in 1880 to say that his:

"work on these old birds and on the many fossil animals of N. America has afforded the best support to the theory of evolution which has appeared within the last 20 years. With cordial thanks, believe me,

Yours very sincerely,

Charles Darwin."

The Cardiff Giant Hoax

The Cardiff Giant

Photo from the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress

Even as Marsh developed the field of paleontology and piqued Americans' interest in fossils and the world of prehistory, he found himself having to defend the integrity of the science from those who sought to twist it for their own gain. Perhaps no example of such behavior was more egregious than that of the men behind the famed Cardiff Giant hoax.

In 1869, two workmen were digging a well on a farm in upstate New York when their shovels hit stone. Further digging uncovered a foot, which in turn revealed the entire body of a massive man, some ten feet tall, apparently petrified in gypsum. Word of the discovery spread quickly, and crowds gathered, hoping to catch a glimpse of the unearthed wonder. Given the intense interest, it wasn't long before the farm's owner, William “Stub” Newell, started charging admission to see the Giant, sharing the profits with his business partner and distant relative George Hull, who had commissioned the statue, which was specially designed to look as old as possible, and buried it on Newell's farm a year earlier. Hull, an atheist, had specifically dreamt up the hoax to mock a verse in the Bible's Book of Genesis, which states that giants once roamed the earth.

The Giant proved such a commercial success that a group of businessmen bought it from Hull and Newell and took it on tour, which was so popular that P.T. Barnum had his own version made and exhibited just so he too could get in on the action. Further fueling the excitement was that some scientists, like New York State Geologist James Hall, vouched for the Giant's authenticity or, at the very least, mused that it might have some scientific merit.

Marsh wasn't so sure. He visited the Giant while it was on tour in Syracuse and was able to confirm that it was, in fact, made of gypsum. His discovery did not prove authenticity, though. It proved just the opposite. Marsh noted that gypsum is soluble in water, which means it could not have survived the wetness underground where it was purported to have been lying for hundreds or thousands of years. Marsh knew it was fake, and in a letter to a friend who ran a newspaper, he called the hoax a "humbug," one of the biggest ever "launched upon the credulity of a humbug-

loving people." Marsh's revelation was followed by public admissions from Hull and even the sculptor of the Giant that it had all been a hoax, which caused interest (and profits) to fade quickly.

The Cardiff Giant affair was undoubtedly a high-profile moment for Marsh in the national press, but it was far from his only one. He soon found himself at the center of a long-running media circus surrounding his paleontology work and bitter rivalry with his colleague Edward Drinker Cope. The papers called their feud "The Bone Wars."


The Bone Wars

In the post-Reconstruction era, only two names mattered in American paleontology: Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. So deep was the divide between these two men that nearly every scientist, collector, or person connected to the field in any way found himself having to pick a side. And though their relationship grew frosty and eventually degraded beyond repair, the two giants of their era first met on amicable terms.

Marsh had first encountered Cope while studying abroad in Germany, and the two had been friendly pen pals before that time. Once he returned stateside, Marsh visited Cope in New Jersey, where Cope had been making numerous important fossil discoveries. While admiring the work of his colleague to his face, Marsh, behind the scenes, secretly bribed some of the men working Cope's dig site to send any new finds to him at Yale rather than to Cope, who operated out of his native Philadelphia (his home on that city's Pine Street is also a National Historic Landmark). The friendly relationship soured quickly, and the two, who had once even named species after each other, were soon ruthless academic rivals.

One of their most memorable scientific disagreements was over the skeleton of an Elasmosaurus, a large marine reptile, that had been discovered by railroad workers in Kansas and sent to Cope. As he was assembling the skeleton, being the first to do so, Cope appeared to mistake the creature's long neck vertebrae for a tail and wrongly placed its skull at the end of the actual tail, making a rather notable and perhaps obvious mistake, one which was confirmed by his mentor Joseph Leidy, curator of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (now part of Drexel University), the scientific institution with which Cope was affiliated. Deeply embarrassed by his error, Cope tried to recall all copies of scientific articles he had written that included the mix-up. One of them, however, had already fallen into Marsh's hands. It has also been said that Marsh could have been the first to discover the error, and Leidy only verified that it was incorrect, but whatever the case may be, Marsh never let Cope live the incident down, further fueling their intense rivalry.

Eventually, the intensity of their competition spilled over from the scientific community to the general press. An 1890 headline in the New York Herald read "Scientists Wage Bitter Warfare" and kicked off a brutally intense and very public letter-writing campaign between the two rivals. In that initial article, Cope accused Marsh of plagiarism and incompetence, saying that the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Geological Survey, both of which Marsh ran, were filled with his acolytes and inherently corrupt. Marsh, in turn, slammed Cope for making what he claimed were libelous statements and made his own allegations of improper or concerning behavior.

While the Bone Wars played out in print, there are some reports that the conflict got physical at points: when Marsh and Cope's men encountered each other out in the field, they were known to cover their tracks and destroy their own dig sites so that the enemy could not recover any fossils they may have missed. By some accounts, the two crews even sometimes pelted each other with rocks. The Wars were also consequential for the field of paleontology. Marsh and Cope were so rushed to outdo each other that they often mistakenly claimed to have uncovered new species. In reality, all they had done was rediscovered something already named by each other or themselves. Meanwhile, Congress took Cope's allegations against the federally funded U.S. Geological Survey seriously, slashing the organization's budget and eliminating its paleontology division, headed by Marsh.

Yet, for all the immediate damage the conflict did to the field and the rivals' own reputations, the Bone Wars produced a vast trove of scholarship that is still drawn upon today. The two men discovered well over 100 new types of dinosaurs, published thousands of scholarly articles, and developed unprecedented fossil collections that are still held in the nation's top scientific institutions and have paid dividends to the world of scientific discovery for over a century. Their cultural legacy is also quite notable, as the Bone Wars remains a topic of intense interest for many science and history scholars, and even today, it seems recognizable as a modern tale of press-fueled rivalry and intrigue.


The House: A Period Piece

Marsh's fortresslike red sandstone home is rugged enough to reflect his role as a paleontologist yet grand and bucolic enough, especially with its large, lush gardens, to reflect his wealth and status

A man of Marsh's stature needed a residence of appropriate grandeur to serve as a base of operations. Cope had his townhouse in downtown Philadelphia, but Marsh, a native of rural upstate New York, preferred the more suburban and bucolic feel of New Haven. In 1875, he commissioned J. Cleveland Cady, a prominent New Haven architect often employed by Yale, to design the home he would live in for the rest of his life. It took five years and cost $60,000 (a grand sum in those days) to build and furnish the house, which stands three stories high and boats eighteen rooms.

Cady selected red sandstone for the building material, giving the home a rustic look that fits well with Marsh's occupation as a paleontologist and bone collector. Its varied massing and sharp design, as seen in the photos below, suggest the Queen Anne architectural style with a hint of Jacobean revival character, which was popular in England's rural architecture at the time.

Tall, thin protruding chimneys of molded brick contrast with the conical, colored tile roofs of some wings, the sharp triangles of others, and the blocky, rough-hewn sandstone of the walls.

Some facades of the building feature an eclectic mix of shapes, from the pointed gambrels of the roof to the blocky rectangles of the windows to even Romanesque style arches at the base.

The home sits atop a large hill and features a wide porch and lookout tower on the west facade from which Marsh could have taken in a grand view. Trees have since obstructed that sightline, but the land at the bottom of the hill, donated to Yale along with the house when Marsh died, is now home to the university's Marsh Botanical Gardens, named in his honor.

The home's interior was a prime location for Marsh to show off the treasures of his collection, particularly in what he called the "Wigwam" of the home (its large octagonal entrance hall), where any number of various artifacts were on display.

Photo Credit: Yale University Press via the National Parks Service

Today known as Marsh Hall, the building now serves Yale's School of Forestry, and its modern users carry Marsh's legacy of increasing the scientific understanding of the natural world.

Considered one of New Haven's finest homes at the time of its construction, the Marsh House is very much an icon of that era. It is grand, like many homes built for the wealthy during the Gilded Age, but far more subdued than the most extravagant excesses of the period. Even the most prominent features, like the expansive back porch and soaring roofline, are miniaturized and subdued compared to the grandest of the home's contemporary projects. The use of sandstone as the primary building material gives the structure an earthy humility, especially in the context of its sprawling and lush grounds, which even today though reduced in size, are still noticeably part of the building's presence, as they were for many of the era's finest homes.

Marsh left the home and its grounds to Yale when he died, and they have been put to good use by the university ever since. Marsh Hall was formally designated a National Historic Landmark along with nearby Connecticut Hall and the James Dwight Dana House in a special ceremony held in Yale's Old Quad on June 4, 1967. Elwyn L. Simons, an eminent paleontologist who was the then-curator of vertebrae paleontology at the Peabody Museum, delivered a special address about Marsh's importance.


Marsh's Legacy

Marsh is buried in New Haven's Grove Street Cemetery, itself a National Historic Landmark. The inscription on his gravestone reads:


Marsh's contributions to Yale, science, and American history have been well documented and are indeed profoundly significant. He put the field of paleontology on the map in the United States in a way that no man had previously done. Marsh sparked the dinosaur mania this country still experiences with his groundbreaking discovery of eighty new kinds of dinosaurs, including some of the best known today, like Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops. His work provided invaluable support to Darwin's theory of evolution and almost singlehandedly proved the now widely accepted evolutionary connection between reptiles and birds. The fossils he collected and displayed fundamentally transformed how Americans understood and interacted with the natural world and the prehistoric one that came before.

When his collection was left to Yale at the time of Marsh's death, his colleague J.L. Wortman said it was:

"without doubt the finest and most complete of any in the world, and, when properly installed and exhibited, will make a monument in every way worthy of the greatness of the man who dedicated his life and his fortune to its formation."

Of Marsh himself, Wortman stated:

"The influence of his work for advancement in this department of knowledge [paleontology] has probably no equal in any country."

While Cope probably would not have concurred with that assessment, no unbiased party can deny all Marsh did for paleontology and science. Though he remains one of the few scientists honored by history at the national level, it is a well-deserved honor for a true giant of American life.


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