A Fraud Called Missourium

A Fraud Called Missourium

In 1841 a curious individual by the name of Albert Koch placed on exhibition a rather strange fossil skeleton of a creature that superficially resembled an elephant but made ordinary mammoths and mastodons look like pygmies. He called the creature Missourium.

Who was Albert Koch? We know little about him and his early life. Koch was born in Germany and came to the United States about 1835. What scientific training, if any, he had was completely unknown. He always referred to himself as "Dr." Albert Koch but never explained where or how he had acquired his degree.

Koch settled in St. Louis, where he opened a business as a dealer in fossil specimens. He went on frequent fossil collecting trips through many parts of the southern United States, tracking down reports of fossil finds and persuading farmers to let him dig on their land. His most spectacular fossil finds he placed on exhibit in a sort of traveling circus; minor pieces and scattered bones he sold to museums or universities. Any exhibited, mounted fossil that lost public interest was quickly offered for sale.

The man did not behave like a scientist, and for this he was deeply despised by real scientists. They looked on him, quite accurately, as a peddler of old bones and a charlatan showman making a profit out of relics of the past. But despite the fact that his approach to scientific specimens was strongly commercial, he did dig up a great many specimens that could have been of value.

Early in 1840 Dr. Koch unearthed a nearly complete skeleton of a mastodon in Benton County, Missouri. It lay on the shore of the small Pomme de Terre River, covered over with clay, gravel, and quicksand. This was the second time such a nearly complete mastodon skeleton had been discovered, and thus it was an important scientific event. But Koch handled it in his own special way to make it seem even more important than it really was.

Later in 1840 Koch began to mount the Benton County skeleton for exhibition. It was a fine specimen of Mastodon americanus, but Koch improved on it quite a bit by weaving the bones of other mastodons into his exhibit. He added ribs and vertebrae until he had created a true monster. Out of three mastodons, Koch pieced together the Missourium, 32 feet long and 15 feet high. He completed his masterpiece by attaching the tusks to the skull in such a manner that they curved up and back over the animal's head like a pair of gigantic horns, instead of jutting downward and outward in the proper fashion.

The finished product was awe inspiring, and Koch hauled it all over the country on a highly profitable exhibition tour. On October 15, 1841, in Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society heard a speech by Dr. Richard Harlan, one of the United States' leading authorities on fossils. "There is now exhibiting at the Masonic Hall in Philadelphia, one of the most extensive and remarkable collections of fossil bones of extinct mammals which have hitherto been brought to light in this country." Dr. Harlan was great in his praise of Dr. Koch and was surprisingly gentle in dealing with the grotesque distortions and errors Koch had made in assembling the skeleton of Missourium. Of such things as attaching the tusks upside down to form horns, Harlan said merely that "no doubt" Koch's further researches "would enable him to rectify these."

By the end of 1841 the majestic Missourium went on display at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London. Such an exhibition had never been seen before in England. It created quite a sensation; immense crowds came to view it, and the money rolled in.

Sir Richard Owen, England's foremost anatomist and paleontologist, came to view the display and eyed the monster with suspicion. It seemed to have far too many ribs, and the horns looked like upside—down elephant tusks (which they were). Owen, on February 23, 1842, read a paper on Koch's Missourium to a meeting of the Geological Society of London. He disputed the exhibit as a mastodon that had been mounted incorrectly. Koch had the audacity to challenge the great Englishman on his home grounds; on April 6, he addressed the same Geological Society and insisted that he had indeed unearthed a previously unknown genus.

The debate did not seem to affect business. Month after month the customers thronged into Egyptian Hall, and the money kept coming.

In summer 1843 Koch decided to close his London show and went on tour with his monstrosity. He first went to Ireland and then to Germany. In the latter country his fossil aroused even greater interest than it did in England. Customers were never lacking, and the money continued to roll in.

Koch returned to the United States in May 1844, but with a brief stopover in England, where he sold Missourium to the British Museum. He received an extraordinary price for his mastodon: $2,000 down and $1,000 a year for the remainder of his life. Evidently the museum officials didn't expect him to live long, but he hung on long enough to receive $23,000 before his death in 1866. Ironically the scientists at the museum knew the fossil was a fraud. As soon at the specimen arrived, the paleontologists took the monster apart, stripping away the extra bones and putting the tusks where they belonged. The dehorned skeleton, correctly labeled Mastodon americanus, is still to be seen at the gallery of fossil mammals of the British Museum's natural history collection at South Kensington. It is still one of the finest mastodon fossils in existence.

Almost immediately after he sold his monstrosity in 1844, Koch showed up with a new wonder: a gigantic 114—foot—long skeleton of a "sea serpent" he called Hydrarchus. It also drew tremendous crowds in American exhibition halls, and again the money rolled in. But a famed zoologist named Jeffries Wyman soon pointed out that Hydrarchus was actually the fossil of an extinct whale that Koch had decorated with bones from at least four other animals. Wyman was right on!

Koch immediately closed up his U.S. tour and left for London, where he received a rather chilly reception. So he and Hydrarchus were off to Germany, where he was well received. He rewarded the Germans by selling them Hydrarchus for a fine price. Once again the money rolled in.

In 1838, two years before the good doctor presented his Missourium, Koch appears to have been more scientifically inclined. He actually discovered the remains of a mastodon that was clearly associated with artifacts of early man. Plenty of evidence supported his find, and Koch wrote a report on it, which he published in a Philadelphia magazine called The Presbyterian. He did an excellent job describing his find, but since nothing like this had been found in the United States, belief was slow in coming. Too many people doubted that human beings had been around to hunt "antediluvian" creatures. Other than that one article, Koch kept his find quiet. But in 1841, when he was in Kentucky exhibiting his Missourium concoction, he issued a booklet describing his various fossil finds. The book included a section on early human hunts for mastodons and gave an account of what must have happened. The hunters came upon a disabled mastodon and killed and roasted it on the spot. Koch went on to describe in great detail the numerous artifacts found with the mastodon.

These really were important discoveries. They showed that humans had lived in the New World for many centuries. But few scientists took Koch seriously; because he proved to be an archeological profiteer his findings were wholly discredited. He finally settled in St. Louis and eagerly sought to win scientific respectability.

That he was regarded as a fraud by the men whose esteem he most dearly craved really seemed to bother Koch. He lived quietly in the last years of his life, publishing no more and harboring deep bitterness toward those who refused to accept his one genuine contribution to science. True, he had put horns on a mastodon, then doubled the length of a whale and called it a fossil sea serpent. He had committed many a crime against truth. But he had also shown that humans in North America had hunted prehistoric pachyderms, and it pained him that his fondness for fame as a showman had robbed him of credit for that scientific achievement.


From the book: 
Petrified Lightning