4. Spies and Whisperers Again

ON JANUARY 12, 1890, a Sunday, the New York Herald was ban nered with scare headlines:

SCIENTISTS WAGE BITTER WARFARE. PROF. COPE, OF THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA, BRINGS SERIOUS CHARGES AGAINST DIRECTOR POWELL AND PROF. MARSH, OF THE GEOLOGICAL SURVEY. CORROBORATION IN PLENTY. LEARNED MEN COME TO PENNSYLVANIAN’S SUPPORT WITH ALLEGATIONS OF IGNORANCE, PLAGIARISM AND INCOMPETENCE AGAINST THE ACCUSED OFFICIALS. IMPORTANT COLLATERAL ISSUE. THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, OF WHICH PROFESSOR MARSH IS PRESIDENT, IS CHARGED WITH BEING PACKED IN THE INTERESTS OF THE SURVEY. RED HOT DENIALS PUT FORTH. HEAVY BLOWS DEALT IN ATTACK AND DEFENCE AND LOTS OF HARD NUTS PROVIDED FOR SCIENTIFIC DIGESTION. WILL CONGRESS INVESTIGATE? 1

This time Cope and his cohorts had come out loaded for bear. It is doubtful that any modem controversy among men of learning has generated more venom than this one did. All the old charges were there in the Herald’s full and delighted story, all distilled and aged but not mellowed through twenty years of hatred. Powell was not the principal object of attack, but he took some blows aimed at Marsh and he took some in his own right. He was a political boss who had built a scientific Tammany within the government, intimidated or bought off his opposition, gained control of the National Academy, and made himself head of a great scientific monopoly. His bureaus were asylums for Congressmen’s sons and provided sinecures for press agents and pap for college professors, and the activities and influence of these were used in turn to milk great appropriations from Congress.

Powell’s personal learning was a fake, and in supporting Marsh he supported the worst snake, fake, and plagiarist in American science. Moreover Powell had stolen or duplicated the work of the state geological surveys; had jealously blocked publication of Cope’s paleontological work done for the Hayden Survey; had insulted Cope by suggesting that some of Cope’s collections actually belonged to the government; had obstructed geological work which contradicted his own; had attempted to dominate scientific meetings; had neglected mining geology in his conduct of the Geological Survey; and had misused Survey funds by sending Captain Dutton to Hawaii to study volcanoes.

As for Marsh, he was an incompetent, a plagiarist, a cheat. He consistently published the work of his assistants as his own; he failed to pay his helpers; he destroyed fossils in the field so that no one else could study them; he kept the enormous collections of the Geological Survey in his Yale laboratory under lock and key and refused other scientists access to them; and he had mixed them so hopelessly with the Yale collections that no one would ever be able to sort them out. He had conspired with Powell to pack the National Academy with Geological Survey stooges. He had committed every stupidity possible to a man who called himself a scientist. He had stolen some of his work from Cope, and his celebrated genealogy of the horse was a pure theft from the Russian Kowalevsky.

Supporting this blast was an extensive collection of letters and testimonials, gathered over a period of many years, as well as Endlich’s 23,000 word smear which Congress had looked at and decided to ignore in 1885.

It was not, in spite of its hysterical extravagances, an attack to be laughed off. William Hosea Ballou, the Herald reporter who had assembled it out of interviews with Cope, Endlich, Sterry Hunt, Persifor Frazer, a group of Marsh’s disgruntled assistants, and another group of dissident and anti-Powell scientists, was obviously convinced that he had stumbled upon a good deal of fire as well as a lot of murky smoke. He did have the courtesy to bring the article to Powell and send it to Marsh before it appeared, and he ran Powell’s reply in the same issue in which the charges were made.

In that reply, Powell had one great advantage over Cope: hatred had not seared his thinking apparatus, and the dignity of his defence made the attack look as hysterical as in fact it was.

As Director of the Survey a great trust is placed upon me, and I recognize that I am responsible not only to the President of the United States, whose commission I bear, and to the Secretary who is my immediate chief, and to the Congress of the United States, to whom I make an annual report setting forth in full the transactions of the survey, but also to the people of the United States, whose servant I am.... I feel myself deeply responsible to the scientific men of the country also, for during a period of more than twenty years they have supported me and the work under my charge almost with unanimity....

Having put Cope where he belonged, in an envious minority, Powell traced step by step, with documents at least as convincing as Cope‘s, the progress of almost two decades of malice, from the founding of the survey and the defeat of Hayden’s forces to the Cope-Endlich attempt to smear him before the investigating committee of 1885.2 He corrected some of Cope’s figures, especially with regard to the funds annually allocated to Marsh, and he defended Marsh’s scientific reputation, leaving to Marsh himself the defense of his personal honesty. He stoutly defended his arrange inents with several state surveys for topographical mapping, categorically denied duplicating or stealing from any state survey, justified his press agent W. A. Croffut as the general editor of extensive survey publications, told Cope that any time he submitted a completed manuscript his paleontological volumes for the Hayden Survey would be published, and made some mildly deleterious remarks about “species fiends” that applied about as well to Marsh as to Cope. And he concluded with a touch of kindly and ironic condescension:

I am not willing to be betrayed into any statement which will do injustice to Professor Cope. He is the only one of the coterie who has scientific standing. The others are simply his tools and act on his inspiration. The Professor himself has done much valuable work for science. He has made great collections in the field and has described these collections with skill. Altogether he is a fair systematist. If his infirmities of character could be corrected by advancing age, if he could be made to realize that the enemy which he sees forever haunting him as a ghost is himself... he could yet do great work for science.

Professor Marsh’s reply was marked by no such restraint and decorum. Having been attacked with talons, he replied with claws. First he collected a series of denials from people whom Cope had quoted against him. The denials in very few instances took back anything their authors had previously said about Marsh: they merely denied that Cope had been authorized to publish anything. Still, they prepared the way for Marsh’s own turn in the Herald on the following Sunday.

Marsh’s statement was cold, controlled, furious. He denied Cope’s charges of plagiarism and misuse of his assistants, and to Cope’s charges of scientific incompetence he replied with countercharges, notably with reference to Cope’s achievement in articulating one skeleton backside-to. And he noted also Cope’s raids on private collections, admitting that since Cope had sneaked into the Yale laboratory and stolen and published some of Marsh’s uncompleted work he saw there, the Yale collections, including those of the Geological Survey, had indeed been closed to unauthorized persons, especially Professor Cope. “Little men with big heads, unscrupulous in warfare, are not confined to Africa,” he said, “and Stanley will recognize them here when he returns to America. Of such dwarfs we have unfortunately a few in science.”

And what of Cope’s claim that Marsh had stolen his genealogy of the horse from Kowalevsky? Poppycock. Marsh had never seen Kowalevsky’s work. He had convinced Thomas Henry Huxley of the true genealogy in 1876, and a few days later Huxley had cited the source of his altered opinions in a New York speech. More than that, Kowalevsky was as notorious in Europe as Cope was in America for raiding other people’s museums. “Kowalevsky,” wrote Professor Marsh with his teeth precisely together, “was at last stricken with remorse and ended his unfortunate career by blowing out his own brains. Cope still lives, unrepentant.”

Cope had shot off all his ammunition in the first charge. He was scattered and routed by Powell’s dignified immovability and by the bullwhip of Marsh’s tongue. Given opportunity to make fresh statements so that the Herald could keep its profitable controversy going, he replied only that “the recklessness of assertion, the er roneousness of statement and the incapacity of comprehending our relative positions on the part of Professor Marsh render further discussion of the trivial matters upon which we disagree unnecessary, and my time is too fully occupied on more important subjects to permit me to waste it upon personal affairs which are already sufficiently before the public. Professor Marsh has recorded his views aere perenne, and may continue to do so without personal notice by E. D. Cope.” 3

But he was not to get away with any such lame and lofty curtain line. Marsh would have the last word. Cope’s feeble rejoinder, he said, showed that he was now in the exact position of the boy who twisted the mule’s tail. He was not so good-looking as he once was, but he knew more.

Up to a point, Marsh’s cold triumph was justified. And yet, though discomfited and even discredited in the eyes of most scientific men, Cope could take a smoldering satisfaction in what he had done. It was both true and important that the “personal affairs” toward which he now expressed indifference were “sufficiently before the public.” A smear never quite washes clean from a public character, and when a public character has need of all the public confidence he can muster, even a refuted charge can hurt. Cope had no interest in Powell’s general plan, probably knew little about it. But his narrowly paleontological and personal attacks could damage everything that Powell had been working for. How much, Powell could not tell until he faced the committees of both houses in the spring.

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