The Phrenology of a Monster


An engraving of Koch's "Hydrarchos", from the American Phrenological Journal. (Pardon the smudges)

In July of 1845 the amateur fossil hunter Albert Koch brought his sea monster to New York City. A cousin of the serpentine creatures that so many had claimed to see off the coast of New England, the 114-foot-long skeleton looked to be the bones of the Leviathan itself, and crowds flocked to see the its ghastly form. It was called "Hydrarchos" by Koch, and it was was the ruler of the ancient seas.

It was also a monstrous hoax. The Hydrarchos skeleton did not belong to any one animal but to several, and much of its skeleton represented an animal that had been described years before. With the exception of its paddles, which were made from collections of invertebrate shells, the majority of Hydrarchos was made from several specimens of the prehistoric whale Basilosaurus. Koch was aware of this, but he did not seem to care. The thing was an even bigger success than his artificially-enhanced mastodon, which he called Missourium, had been.

Depending upon who you asked, however, Hydrarchos was either one of the greatest scientific humbugs ever perpetrated or the most spectacular fossil discovery ever made. While naturalists such as Jeffries Wyman pointed out the obvious marks of forgery in the construction of Hydrarchos an anonymous author of a report on the skeleton in the American Phrenological Journal took the latter view, proclaiming:

Some affect to consider it as a "humbug," made by human hands on speculation. This idea is entirely erroneous. I have SEEN, and therefore KNOW it to be veritable bone, and in as perfect a series of spinal vertebrae as that of any other skeleton, human or animal. Those who call this a hoax are poor judges between bone and wood, besides being of that class who condemn Phrenology without a hearing, and too skeptical to believe their own senses.

Phrenology, too, would turn out to be a different sort of scientific humbug, but the author of the 1846 article was certain of his "science." If the mentality of humans could be deduced from looking at lumps and bumps on the noggin then the same rules would apply for animals, and the notoriety of Hydrarchos made it too difficult to resist mapping what its manner would have been like based upon its skull.

The attributes of Hydrarchos that were most apparent were "coarseness" and power. The organization of its skeleton left no doubt that it was a muscular, powerful animal, and even the great whales of the modern ocean would have been as helpless as mice before it. The question "What did it eat?" could only be answered with "Anything it wanted", and after excerpting a long description of the animal the author promised that the full bearing of its anatomy on its attitudes and mental abilities would be elucidated in a following article.

But, for all that I can tell, that article was never written. As the Hydrarchos continued its tour up the east coast and through Europe naturalists continued to decry it as a fake, and perhaps the author thought better on publishing on it further. Then again the head of the creature was a very battered Basilosaurus skull, and held so high in the air by the supporting armature perhaps it was difficult to make out anything distinctive about its habits from the "coarse" fossil. Whatever the fate of the missing article, though, Hydrarchos continued to kick up controversy wherever it went and it was not until many years later that an accident would confirm, once and for all, that it was truly a whale. That, however, is a story for another time.

Post script: What became of the skeleton? I am sorry to say that the bones of Hydrarchos were destroyed during the Allied bombing of Germany during World War II. Before that, however, Koch had made a second, smaller sea monster he called "Zygodon" (a bastardized version of the name Zeuglodon, which was the moniker given to Basilosaurus by Richard Owen), but it was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Plenty of Basilosaurus bones have been recovered, but I do find it a bit sad that these historically significant specimens have been lost.

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More on our old friend Koch! (Grin!)

I don't have a good Basilosaurus specimen at hand to measure, but I don't think it had a three-meter-long skull: the engraving seems to exaggerate the size of Hydrarchos relative to that of the humans provided for scale. It also doesn't show any detail of the armature supporting the fore-part of the body. I'm guessing that it was not based on a drawing of the actual mounting, but is a composite: drawing of the skeleton, with the room, the inadequate-looking props for the after-part, and the onlookers added afterwards. Do we actually know how Koch mounted the thing?

Comparing the drawing to a to what I think I know about Basilosaurus anatomy... The flippers (and the start of the rib cage) are way too far back, and the aft end of the rib cage also way too far back. Ther are too many vertebrae, of course, though it's hard to get an accurate count from the engraving: I'm guessing there are somewhere in the 95 to a 100 range? Real Basilosaurus have what? about 60? I've seen 70 foot estimates for the length of B., so with a hundred or so vertebrae you could probably make a 114 foot skeleton that didn't look too stretched.

(Flippers made out of invertebrate shells! I can shake my head, but can't think of anything to say.)

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

In fairness Hydrarchos was a lot more real than phrenology.

Oh yes, the sad story of material lost because of war bombings. I recently tried to make a list of Kentrosaurus stuff: what is listed in old publications, what is still there. After about half the work was done I had to stop, it was too depressing. Of the femora, half are still in the cellars of the Berlin museum. One third of the sacra survived. All the other, lighter bones were kept on the top floor of the building part that took direct hits in '44. :(

By Heinrich Mallison (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

And not just fossil materials, either, Heinrich. I discovered to my dismay that an astounding number of extant fish holotypes had been lost in the bombings. War sucks.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

and I do not even want to imagine what else is gone :( OK, not as bad as München, wer the director was an ardent Nazi and forbade the evacuation.....

By Heinrich Mallison (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink