The brilliance of January 31st has proved a bit elusive, so I’m going to tell you about an exhibition that you could definitely have seen on this date if you were in London in 1842, and again in 1843. It was at the Egyptian Hall which was a rather unusual, but now sadly lost, building in Piccadilly. The main exhibition hall was very large and Dr Albert Koch, a fossil collector from St Louis, had something really big to exhibit. In 1840, he had discovered an almost complete skeleton of a mastodon in Missouri. The mastodon was a large mammal, related to the mammoth and the elephant that, up until 10,500 years ago, ranged across the northern hemisphere. His specimen, Mastodon americanum, would have stood somewhere between seven and ten feet high. Koch had reassembled the bones and then added a few extra bits, according to his own fancy.
The result was impressive. He took the bones from no less than three mastodons and added extra vertebrae and ribs. He even added some extra pieces made from wood. Koch had constructed an animal that was thirty-two feet long and fifteen feet high. As a final touch, he added the tusks, but he put them on upside down so they looked like horns curving over the animal’s head rather than pointing down and outwards. He named his new animal ‘Missourium’. Koch had already had some success hauling his monster all over the United States. Although in Philadelphia, a leading fossil expert, Dr Richard Harlan, had gently suggested that he might be able to do a bit better job of it when he’d done a bit more research.
At the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, Koch’s exhibit was extremely popular. But it did draw the attention of England’s foremost anatomist and palaeontologist, Sir Richard Owen. Owen was immediately suspicious. It seemed to have far too many ribs and its horns looked like upside down elephant tusks. Of course, he was completely right. In February, he read a paper to the Geographical Society, in which he said that Koch’s Missourium was a mastodon that had been incorrectly mounted. In April, Koch had the gall to address the same society, insisting that it was definitely a new species. None of this affected public interest in his monster and the exhibition remained until the summer of 1843. Then Koch moved on to Ireland and Germany, where he met with equal success.
In 1844, Koch returned to the United States, but stopped over briefly in London where he sold his Missourium to the British Museum. He sold it for $2,000, with a further $1,000 to be paid every year for the rest of his life. Maybe they were hoping he wouldn’t live quite so long as he did, because they paid $23,000 in the end. The British Museum knew perfectly well they were buying a fake. As soon as it arrived, they took it all apart, removed all the extra bits, reassembled it, put the tusks on the right way round and correctly labelled it Mastodon americanus. They had themselves a very fine specimen. It is still in the collection, at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.
It wasn’t very long before Koch was up to his old tricks. Later that year, he was on the road with a 114 foot long sea serpent he had named Hydrarchos. We mentioned the creature back in August when we wrote more about sea serpents. Koch’s skeleton was soon identified for the fake it was, the fossil of an extinct whale with the bones of at least four other animals added to it. When he travelled to England with it, he met a similarly frosty reception. He eventually sold it in Germany.
Dr Albert Koch was thought of as a complete fraud. He wasn’t even really a doctor of anything, it was a title he awarded to himself. It’s a pity his career took a wrong turn, because early on, he actually discovered something quite important. In 1838, he had found the bones of a mastodon along with arrow heads. It proved that this animal had lived alongside, and been hunted by, early man. But no one believed him.