Monday, August 10, 2009

Stuff: Portrait of a Victorian ghost hunter.

After the digital archives of the Brooklyn Eagle yielded up the odd story about a cult of blood-drinking faith healers, I decided to poke around some more. Subsequent poking around led me to the gentleman pictured above: Edward Drinker Cope, paleontologist and ghost hunter.

In 1894, the town of Mapleton on Long Island was caught up in a ghost panic. The public hysteria began on the first day of August. Passengers on a commuter train spotted the phantom near Woodlawn station. The Eagle quotes Richard Larke, superintendent of the road, who was a passenger on the train at the time:

We had just passed Woodlawn, the only station between Coney Island and Mapleton, without stopping, and had rounded the curve, when Fireman Van Pelt pulled my coat sleeve and pointed ahead, over to the left of the track. I saw what seemed to be a tall white figure. It seemed motionless at first, and you may believe me or not, but I'll take my oath that it was standing, or appeared to be standing, just where last Sunday's suicide occurred. It was tall and shadowylike. It had the appearance of a substance gradually melting into a filmy white nothing, and seemed to be covered with a long white, filmy veil. Two seconds after I saw it it began moving over toward the railroad track. It moved slowly at first, waving its long draped arms. I could see distinctly, as we approached nearer, that it motioned to us, gesticulating as one would do trying to stop a train. Engineer Mailon then saw it. He began to blow his whistle with a sucession of sharp toots and put on brakes. The thing didn't get out of the way, though it was careful to avoid the light of the head lamp, and the train was brought to a standstill. Just as the train stopped the thing glided off the track and skimmed along toward the woods, all the time gesticulating as if motioning someone to follow. It disappeared in the woods.

The same article includes a description of the phantom, though the source of these details is unclear.

It is about the size of a woman. It crouches. It has eyes of fire and is as big as a tree, but gets smaller when you look at it. It may have genuine feet, but perhaps they are imitation, for what use would feet be to a ghost? It can wail in a lonesome and despairing manner. Of course, it can glide. The most ordinary kind of a ghost can glide.

"Sunday's suicide" refers to Margaret Barning. She's a blank in the record. We know she killed herself with a pistol not far from the tracks. Witnesses, Mapleton residents, and reporters quickly linked the ghost to suicide and assumed the ghost was the restless soul of Barning.

After the initial report, Mapleton resident Jere Lott and his coachman came forward with their account of the apparition. They claimed to be the first residents to have seen the spirit. Mr. Lott describes the encounter:

I'm the first man, I believe, who ran against that ghost. Thursday morning, about 12:30 o'clock - and that was a whole twenty-four hours before the train stopped out here to let the thing get out of the way - I was awakened by hearing a tapping at my window pane. It was gentle at first. Then it got louder and oftener. I woke up with a kind of a start, but lay right still. I thought it was birds at first, but soon found it was no bird's sound. Then I began to get up, and, as I stirred about, the tapping stopped, and I heard a brushing sound against the window and then all was still. Next morning, when I had the ghost had been seen by the train folks I knew that's what I'd heard.

On August 11, just ten days after the first reported story, the ghost appeared to a rail work crew.

Saturday night the Sea Beach railway had a work train out in charge of Conductor Hilger and Engineer Kirk. A gang of laborers was along. This train was on a side track just below Mapleton, near Woodlawn, waiting for the 1 o' clock train from Coney Island to pass. The latteh [sic – CRwM] train was running in two sections to accommodate the crowd. After the first section of twelve cars had gone by, Mike Clooch, one of the laborers on the work train, emitted a blood curdling yell, pointed toward the woods, where the ghost had been seen to retreat, and made for the locomotive. Everyone divined at once the cause of his fright. The other employees caught the alarm and a general panic ensued.

Over the next couple of weeks, the number of sightings skyrocketed into the hundreds. These sightings, and others left unreported by the Eagle, were enough to attract the attention of a team of would-be ghost hunters. This crew was led by Edward Drinker Cope.

Edward Drinker Cope was a notable paleontologist whose fame in his chosen field of study has been stunted due to his occasional flights of theoretical fancy and his heroic capacity for engaging in reputation destroying rivalries. Cope's successes demand respect. He identified the Triassic class Archosauria, he was a brilliant taxonomist, a renowned field researcher, and the discoverer of two distinct dinosaurs. Even today he holds the record for scientific publications: Cope has more than 1,200 published papers. His theory that evolution tends towards increases in body size, known as Cope's Law, is still referenced in evolutionary theory, though its application is understood to not be universal.

Despite all those accomplishments, what Cope's best remembered for is his vicious feud with fellow paleontologist O.C. Marsh, a long running and mean-spirited rivalry that became known in as "The Bone Wars."

Both Cope and Marsh inherited a vast amount of wealth. Using their family's money, they launched on massively expensive fossil hunts that, over time, turned into a sort of bone-collectors race between the two deep-pocketed scientists.

More than professional jealousy was at stake in this mad race to accumulate specimens. Both men believed that accumulating data in the form of fossils would allow them an edge over their rival in solving one of the pressing scientific issues of the day: the historical role of evolution. Marsh was a Darwinian. Marsh's reconstruction of the evolution of the horse over sixty million years is widely credited as the first substantial fossil proof of evolution. Cope could not accept the absence of divine design in nature due to his religious upbringing. He became a leading exponent of the "Neo-Lamarckian" school of evolution, which relied on a proto-intelligent design premise. At the time, Neo-Lamarckian evolution was more popular in American than Darwin's ideas.

The two rivals also represented two differing paradigms of scientific endeavor. Cope was, in some ways, a throwback to the self-made polymath gentlemen scientists of the Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Centuries. A youthful prodigy, Cope was college educated, but disdained what he felt was the creativity-crushing organization and intellectually isolating atmosphere of university life. He never managed to score a degree (though he obtained honorary degrees from several institutions) and preferred to work as far on the fringes of academic life as possible.

In contrast, Marsh was educated in private schools, graduated from Yale, studied mineralogy in the US, learned anatomy in Berlin, an was an excellent example of a new kind of international, college-trained, theoretically-rigorous scientist-as-professional.

The first great fight between these two occurred in 1869. Marsh discovered a serious error in Cope's reconstruction of a Plesiosaur, a giant ancient sea monster. Cope had mistakenly put the skull of the giant beast on its ass-end, capping its long tail instead of its snake-like neck. This started a two decade-long tit-for-tat game of public corrections and humiliations between the two men. (Though Cope screwed up first, Marsh's biggest blunder is still with us. Marsh put the wrong head on an Apatosaurus body and dubbed the new species "Brontosaurus." Though the scientific community has long since debunked the bronto's existence, its popularity with lay people keeps the beast alive and well.)

From 1877 to 1892, the two men rushed to get new fossils discovered. In their dash to claim the next big find, Cope and Marsh's work led to the discovery of over 140 new dinosaur fossils. At one point, the rivalry got so fierce that Cope and Marsh's digging teams attacked one another with stones. The "wars" came to an end when Marsh's funding dried up and a financial crash dealt a blow to Cope's personal funds.

In 1892, Cope was given a position as the professor of zoology at the University of Pennsylvania. The small stipend helped stem the financial fallout of the Bone War, but it also tangled him up in the spiritualist movement. Since 1889, with the formation of the University of Pennsylvania Seybert Commission for Invesigating Modern Spiritualism, the school had thrown resources at some very unorthodox studies. Cope's 1894 ghost hunt was part of the same trend.

What Cope's stake in the study of spiritualism was is unclear. An 1888 article in Knowledge magazine summarized Cope's attitude to the is of life after death in the following terms:

Professor Cope seems to regard immortality as possible in spite of apparent evidence against it, but doubts the persistence of personality.

Still, Cope's skepticism did not rule out more general belief in the existence of a spiritual dimension to life and his own religiously influenced views of evolution were often described (as in an 1887 issue of Popular Science Monthly) as "spiritualistic conception of evolution." Perhaps Cope's sudden interest in the supernatural was a logical extension of his feud with Marsh. The Bone Wars had ended inconclusively for Cope. In sheer numbers of animals discovered, he'd actually come out behind Marsh. Though that wasn't as bad as the fact that the rapid accumulation of data did nothing to unseat Darwinism. However, evidence of the supernatural would seriously undermine the materialist basis of evolution.

Cope's ghost hunting expedition arrived in Mapleton on August 21, 1894. The team included Colonel John L. Burleigh, who, the Eagle claimed, was responsible for "offensive, defensive, and tactical movements." What sort of trouble they expected from the tree-sized specter of the late Ms. Barning is unclear from reports. Economist, statistician, and geographer Henry Farquhar took a short leave from his government post in Washington D.C. to join the expedition. In Mapleton, at the team's headquarters in the Clarendon Hotel, the team was joined by novelist William Hosea Ballou. Ballou had made a name for himself cranking out hack dime novels like A Ride on a Cyclone, before gain a reputation as a naturalist (though many felt that he was little more than a partisan propagandist for Cope in his long-running feud). Ballou's expressed reason for joining the team was to gather material for a new novel. Finally, an unidentified reporter from the The Brooklyn Eagle rounded out the team.

The team left the Clarendon Hotel at 10:00 and marched to the site of Barning's suicide. The site itself was in the middle of an untended field bounded by train tracks on one side. At the exact location of the suicide rested a "stone with a white cross on its face . . . level as a billiard table . . . it is the only stone in the field."

At 11:00, the team began searching a tree that, according to reports, was the site the ghost most frequently materialized from. To Cope's surprise, the team uncovered another team of would-be ghost hunters! Two members of the South Brooklyn Dramatic Society were conducting their own investigation in the hopes of creating a play from their research. If the sudden appearance of second Mapleton Phantom project upset Mr. Ballou, the Eagele did not report it.

Finding no evidence near the tree, the now seven-man team took positions in a nearby ditch to spy upon the haunted rock. Out of boredom, Ballou began making bad puns. He pointed to the gas-lamp glow of the nearby town of New Utrecht and questioned the newly-joined dramatists what town it was. When they answered New Utrecht, the novelist responded, "When was New Ute wrecked?" The Brooklyn reporter said that he didn't get it. Ballou repeated the joke several times. Professor Cope told everybody to ignore him.

The conversation turned to the question of personalities surviving after death. Cope expressed the opinion that it does not. He also stated he'd attended many séances, but all he'd ever witnessed was faked up stage gimmicks. Colonel Burleigh, however, claimed to have felt the presence of a departed spirit. According to Burleigh, he'd made a deal with five other soldiers that the first one to die would attempt to communicate from the dead. Burleigh claimed that he had been approached, in daylight and on a crowded city street, by the spirit of one of his dead comrades. He supplemented the story with several anecdotes from the Civil War regarding spirits and ghosts.

At 1:00, the members of the expedition grew quiet as, across the field, several dark figures approached the haunted stone. One of the figures rapped on the stone and the members of the expedition leap from the ditch and rushed them.

It turns out to have been a third ghost hunting party: several drunken ensigns from the ships the San Francisco and the New York. The ensigns were, it turned out, heavily armed. Only their inebriation had prevented them from firing on Cope's team.

Convinced that the ghost would not come out tonight, the all three groups of ghost hunters returned to town to catch the last train to Brooklyn. According to the reporter, the naval personnel remained roaring drunk and Ballou kept up the steady stream of awful puns.

Cope died in 1897. He suffered from gastrointestinal problems that were exacerbated by the fact that he was self-medicating with a derivative of formaldehyde. After he died, his brain was removed and given to the Wistar Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. Cope's bones were extracted and studied by anatomy students at the University. Many theorized that Cope had died of syphilis. However, in 1995, Dr. Morrie Kricun a professor of radiology declared there was absolutely no evidence of bony syphilis on Cope’s skeleton.


C.H. said...

Oh man, what an awesome find.

wiec? said...

excellent stuff. warring fossil hunters, ghosts with or without "genuine feet", the one upsmanship amongst scientists. sheeesh there's a good movie or six in all this.

i used to just read the police blotter section of the Brooklyn Eagle and that was about it. not anymore.

zoe said...

oh, bless you for this, thank you! what a great post.. the head on the wrong end, and the dangers of ghost-hunting.. everything. thank you!

Paul said...

"When was New Ute wrecked?" I'll be taking that one out for a test run Friday night after a few tequilas, you can bet yer bottom dollar. Thoroughly excellent stuff, makes me want to dig out my old copy of Wisconsin Death Trip and soak up the weird old atmosphere.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Steampunk said...

Fantastic story! Since I was a dinosaur-loving kid I've been fascinated by the Bone Wars, but I never knew there was a Spitirualism angle to it! All the great things about the Victorian age come together in this story..

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