However, there are two very notable – and exceedingly sizeable – pseudo-reptilian exceptions to this generalisation. Moreover, both of them were created by the very same hoaxer, as will now be revealed here in this present 2-part ShukerNature blog article.
Long before the box-office blockbuster movie The Greatest Showman, loosely based upon his highly eventful life, was released in 2018, Phineas T. Barnum (1810-1891) was already world-famous as a slick 19th-Century American purveyor of curiosities. Barnum began what became a highly successful foray into this field by establishing a magnificent museum packed to the rafters with all manner of extraordinary specimens, many genuine but also including a sizeable number of deftly fabricated fakes, including one of the afore-mentioned Feejee Mermaids. But after his museum burnt down, he lost no time in assembling a new collection, one that featured both preserved and living exhibits, and which this time travelled with him throughout the USA and overseas too, in the form of a spectacular show unlike anything that had ever been seen before.
Moreover, although Barnum certainly eclipsed all would-be rivals in this phantasmagorical field, he didn't entirely extinguish them. Inspired by his success, a fair few loitered and even thrived in his shadow, presenting their own lesser but still financially lucrative exhibitions of oddities. Among these entertainers of the snake-oil sideshow variety was one notorious figure whom I always think of as "the other Barnum" – a certain self-styled Dr Albert C. Koch (evidently dismissing as a mere technicality the inconvenient fact that he had never actually obtained a doctorate!), who transformed his genuine passion for palaeontology into a money-making scheme of monstrous proportions, literally!
Born in 1804 in Roitzsch, near Dresden in Saxony, Germany, Koch emigrated to the USA in 1827 (not 1836 as often claimed – that is the year when he opened his museum in St Louis, see below). Several years later, his entrepreneurial epiphany was inspired from taking particular note of the financial success enjoyed by Peale's American Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1805 by painter/naturalist Charles W. Peale (1741-1827). Its centrepiece was a magnificent mounted specimen of a fossil American mastodon Mammut americanum (although back then it was incorrectly dubbed a mammoth) that had been discovered in 1799 by farmer John Masten on his land outside Newburgh, New York.
It had subsequently been disinterred by a team of workers employed by Peale, who had then purchased it, paying Masten a total of US$ 800 for the specimen and the right to search his land for further remains. This was the first complete mastodon specimen ever procured and assembled, for which Peale cannily charged visitors an extra 50 cents on top of the museum's normal entry fee in order to view it. In 1806, Peale painted a somewhat dramatised rendition of this historic specimen's disinterment, entitled 'The Exhumation of the Mastodon'.
Consequently, in 1836 Koch opened a museum of his own, based in St Louis, Missouri, where he was currently living. It was principally dedicated to the exhibition of American natural history specimens and indigenous archaeological curiosities (although it did include performing magicians and ventriloquists too!). Some of these specimens were living or stuffed, others were long since deceased, as they included examples of his greatest passion – fossils. Indeed, Koch's primary purpose for opening his museum was to obtain sufficient money, via the entry fee that he charged to its visitors, to fund his palaeontological searches and excavations for ever more, ever greater fossil specimens.
Striving accordingly to elicit the maximum visitor footfall through his museum's doors, Koch was by no means averse to employing the same tricksy, theatrical advertising for which Barnum was infamous. Namely, employing the wiles of ambiguous exaggeration and factual flexibility in order to pull in credulous and credible visitors alike, from local yokels to eminent scientific figures, all equally curious to discover what was awaiting their attention within this extraordinary establishment. Yet to be fair, Koch's collections did include some very significant specimens too, especially within his assemblage of early Osage Nation artefacts that he had reputedly found alongside various excavated fossil animals, and in 1838 he had even successfully unearthed some fossil remains of a giant ground sloth Mylodon east of the Osage River in Missouri. However, in 1840 his museum would gain an exhibit that entirely – and literally – overshadowed all others.
On 24 March 1840, Koch learnt that a farmer living in Missouri's Benton County had found some remains of an enormous creature on his land. Mindful of the handsome monetary remunerations that the mastodon skeleton had garnished for Peale, and despite being beset with fever at that time, Koch swiftly travelled to meet the farmer there. Four months later, after supervising several different teams of workers, Koch was rewarded with the unearthing of a huge fossil skeleton, which he took back to his museum in St Louis and assembled into the most prodigious palaeontological creature that had ever been seen at that time.
Measuring 32 ft long and standing 15 ft high, this gargantuan mega-beast towered over Peale's mundane mastodon (indeed, it was so immense that a three-piece band was hired to play inside its ribcage!), and sported an enormous pair of tusks curving out laterally from its skull's jaws. But that was not all. As the pièce de resistance of his publicity campaign to promote this stupendous specimen, which he alleged to have resembled a vast hippopotamus-like creature with scaly alligator-like skin when alive (see more details later here), Koch sensationally claimed that it was nothing less than the fossilised reptilian remains of the ocean-dwelling biblical Leviathan itself!
Indeed, Koch clearly deemed his Missourium to be so good that, just like New York, he named it twice – formally dubbing it Missourium leviathan and also Leviathan missourii, both names translating as the Missouri Leviathan. (Moreover, in later advertisements, he also referred to it by yet another name, Missourium theristrocaulodon.) In colloquial parlance, he referred to it simply as the Missourium. So was the Missourium truly a latter-day remnant of Leviathan – "the dragon that is in the sea" (Isaiah 27:1)? Needless to say, the unspoken reality was very different from Koch's outspoken claim.
In fact, Koch's monumental Missourium was not a single specimen but a composite. That is to say, it was composed not merely from the fossil bones of the mastodon that Koch had unearthed in Benton County but also from various additional mastodon vertebrae, ribs, and limb bones that he had obtained in the Ozarks, most of which he had skilfully combined together to yield his colossal creation. While doing so, he increased its extended spinal column even further by surreptitiously adding concealed wood blocks between its supernumerary vertebrae. He also utilised the longest limb bones available in order to make this titanic entity far taller than any normal mastodon, as well as rotating its shoulder blades and pelvis to enhance its elevated height to an even more dramatic extent. And he had purposefully angled its tusks to splay out sideways and upwards, instead of correctly pointing them forwards and upwards, in order to increase still further this monstrous creature's perceived size and dramatic appearance. After all, Koch reasoned, if Peale's mastodon could pull in the crowds, how much more so would his even more spectacular Missourium?
The year 1841 saw the publication of a short pamphlet-style booklet authored by Koch that was very grandly (and wordily) entitled Description of the Missourium, or Missouri Leviathan; Together With Its Supposed Habits. And Indian Traditions Concerning the Location From Whence It Was Exhumed: Also, Comparisons of the Whale, Crocodile and Missourium, With the Leviathan, as Described in 41st Chapter of the Book of Job. In it, notwithstanding that he knew only too well that its subject was a blatant fake, Koch offered the following confident, and comprehensive, prediction of the appearance and lifestyle of the Missourium in the living state:
The animal has been without doubt an inhabitant of water courses, such as large rivers and lakes, which is proven by the formation of the bones: 1st, his feet were webbed; 2d, all his bones were solid and without marrow, as the aquatic animals of the present day; 3d, his ribs were too small and slender to resist the many pressures and bruises they would be subject to on land; 4th, his legs are short and thick; 5th, his tail is flat and broad: 6th and last, his tusks are so situated in the head that it would be utterly impossible for him to exist in a timbered country. His food consisted as much of vegetables as flesh, although he undoubtedly consumed a great abundance of the latter, and was capable of feeding himself with the fore foot, after the manner of the beaver or otter, and possessed, also, like the hypopotamus [sic], the faculty of walking on the bottom of waters, and rose occasionally to take air.
The singular position of the tusks has been very wisely adapted by the Creator for the protection of the body from the many injuries to which it would be exposed while swimming or walking under the water; and in addition to this, it appears that the animal has been covered with the same armor as the alligator, or perhaps the megatherium [prehistoric ground sloth].
In fact, even a cursory examination of his Missourium skeleton would readily reveal that even if it had been genuine, many of Koch's assertions concerning it were eminently nonsensical. These include, but are not limited to: its feet being webbed (how could he deduce that, bearing in mind that its feet were actually those of a mastodon?); its ribs being too small and slender to resist damage if the creature had been terrestrial (we're talking about decidedly sturdy mastodon ribs here!); its legs being short (the Missourium stood a very lofty 15 ft tall); its tail was flat and broad (despite consisting of mastodon tail bones); its undoubted consumption of a great abundance of flesh (its exclusively herbivorous mastodon dentition would suggest otherwise); its ability to feed itself with its forefoot like a beaver or otter (not when possessing the highly inflexible skeletal structure of a mastodon's forelimb); and its body being covered with alligator-like armour, i.e. scaling (how could anyone assume that from what in reality were the assembled remains of conspicuously non-scaly mastodons?).
same laughable manner of hyperbolic hypothesising, Koch then presented a point
by point comparison of his Missourium's predicted form and lifestyle with that
of the biblical Leviathan in the Book of Job, and, unsurprisingly in view of
his agenda for yielding a phoney phenomenon, concluded that the two great
creatures were evidently one and the same species. And so it was that according
to the highly imaginative gospel of Koch, the spectacular fossilised remains of
a colossal reptilian sea monster from the holy scriptures came to be placed on
public display by him inside a small Missouri museum for all to see (once an
entry fee to do so had been paid, of course).
Eventually, however, scientists visiting Koch's show not only perceived that the bones of his Missourium were mammalian, not reptilian, in nature (i.e. merely mastodon, as opposed to Leviathan!), but also readily discerned its composite nature. Yet because he recognised its scientific worth, due to it containing at least one complete, genuine mastodon skeleton, in 1843 the eminent British zoologist Prof. Sir Richard Owen from London's British Museum arranged for the latter establishment to purchase Koch's Missourium from him for £1300 (a very sizeable sum back in those days), plus an additional yearly payment of approximately £650. It was then dismantled, and a complete standard mastodon skeleton reassembled from its components, which is still on display at London's Natural History Museum today.
Handsomely reimbursed for his multi-mastodon Missourium, what did Koch do next?
Why, construct an even more enormous pair of fossil sea serpent skeletons, of course – as revealed here in Part 2 of this ShukerNature blog article, so be sure to check it out!