Popular Science Monthly/Volume 5/May 1874/A Gigantic Relic
|←Observations of a Naturalist in Nicaragua||Popular Science Monthly Volume 5 May 1874 (1874)
A Gigantic Relic
By Hezekiah Butterworth
|Evolution and the Doctrine of Design→|
THE rarest collections of scientific relics are often the most unvisited, and it is a somewhat singular fact, that the choicest and most instructive curiosities in many of our larger cities are not to be found in the popular museums. Thousands of people living in the city of Boston, who are familiar with the stuffed animals and astonishing wax figures in the old Boston Museum, and are accustomed to air their fancy among the respectable fossils and gorgeous tropical birds in the Museum of Natural History, have perhaps never so much as heard of the wonder-exciting collection of anatomical curiosities known as the Warren Museum. The building stands on Chestnut Street, a quiet, tenantless alley, running from Charles Street to the Charles River, but a few steps from Beacon Street and the Public Garden. It is made of brick, with heavy iron doors and shutters, and of all places would be the least likely to attract the eye of the stranger, but for the inscription over the door —
Dr. John Collins Warren was the son of Dr. John Warren, a most skillful surgeon in the American army during the Revolutionary War, and the founder of the medical school in Harvard College. He was educated in the best medical schools of London and Paris, and, on the death of his father, in 1815, was elected Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at Harvard College, and in 1820 was placed at the head of the surgical department of the Massachusetts General Hospital, a position that he held for thirty-three years. During the latter period he made the most extensive collection of anatomical specimens to be found in the country. A part of these are still at the Massachusetts General Hospital, a part at the Boston Museum of Natural History, and a part, comprising the rarest and most valuable, constitute the Warren Museum.
The museum belongs to Dr. Warren's heirs. For a considerable period after his decease, they used to open it on certain days to the public, but it ceased to excite curiosity, and it is now only opened by special permission, on application to members of the family. Every courtesy is extended to those who wish to visit the place for scientific purposes, although no provision was made in Dr. Warren's will for the preservation of the relics or care of the building.
The curiosities collected by Dr. Warren, which are to be seen in the Boston Museum of Natural History, are comparatively unimportant. The biography of the highwayman, Walton, bound in his own skin, attracts the lovers of sensation, and the cast of the French horned lady, and the skeletons of certain rickety Indians, seem to be particularly appetizing to children. The anatomical specimens, showing how near a person may come to death, and yet escape, are, however, interesting. Among these, is the cranium of the once famous Vermonter, who lived twelve years and a half after the passage of an iron bar through his head, the consequence of an accident in blasting rocks. He used to travel about New England, exhibiting himself and his bar. He died in California about the year 1860. The bar was three feet seven inches in length, and 11⁄4 inch in diameter, and weighed 131⁄4 pounds. It is placed near the cranium, in the museum.
The Warren Museum consists of two fire-proof rooms, one of which contains gigantic fossils, and the other, relics which the great anatomist wished to preserve with more than ordinary care. Among these are the skull, brain, and heart of Spurzheim, the phrenologist and anatomist, who died in Boston in 1832, and whose monument graces one of the principal avenues of Mount Auburn.
Spurzheim was a martyr to science, and those who were familiar with his self-forgetful life, and the vicissitudes of his career, could hardly view these relics with unmoistened eyes. The heart is preserved in a glass jar of alcohol, and the brain in a glass box filled with liquid. The Prussian philosopher died only two months after his arrival in Boston, during the delivery of his first course of lectures. He gave his body to science, to which, from boyhood, he had devoted all the energies of his soul.
The most remarkable object in the Warren Museum is the largest skeleton of the Mastodon giganteus ever discovered on the continent. By its side, in way of contrast, is the frame of the elephant Pizarro, the largest ever brought to this country. The skeleton of the Mastodon giganteus will not fail to cause the visitor to start back in awe, and he will be hardly able to suppress that adjective of fools, "Impossible!" It is twelve feet high, and thirty-four feet in length, from the tips of the tusks to the extremity of its tail. Its trunk is seventeen feet in length. The animal must have weighed more than 20,000 pounds!
Dr. Warren, in his magnificent and very costly work on the Mastodon giganteus, copies of which are only to be found in the rarest libraries, has given us an account of all that is known of this animal, and a very interesting description of the finding of this particular specimen, of which we make an abridgment:
At a very early period after the settlement of this country, relics of the mastodon were found in the vicinity of the Hudson River. Among these were a tooth, which is described by Dr. Cotton Mather, of Boston, as weighing more than four pounds, and a thigh-bone, said to have been more than seventeen feet long.
As the country became settled, mastodon-bones, in greater or less numbers, were found scattered over a large part of the territory of the United States, but chiefly near the Hudson, in the salt-licks of Kentucky, in the Carolinas, in Mississippi and Arkansas. They have recently been found in California and Oregon.
The Hudson River country, between New York and Albany, seems to have been a favorite resort of the mastodon race. The lands here were fertile, undulating, and well wooded, and the valleys contained lacustrine deposits, favorable to the growth of such trees and shrubs as would be likely to afford this animal subsistence.
In the year 1845 there was found, at Newburg, on the Hudson, the largest perfect skeleton of a mastodon which has yet been exhumed on this continent. The summer had been exceedingly hot and dry. Many small lacustrine deposits had been exposed by the drought, and the farmers had industriously seized upon the opportunity to remove these rich beds of fertility to their tillage-lands and fields.
The drought at last laid bare one of these deposits in a bog on the farm of Mr. N. Brewster, a spot that had never been known to become dry before. Mr. Brewster at once summoned his men to remove the deposit, as rapidly as possible, to his fields and farm-yards. One day, toward evening, in the latter part of summer, these laborers struck a hard substance. Some said it was "a rock;" others, a "log;" others, jestingly, "a mammoth."
Early the next morning, Mr. Brewster went with his laborers to the field, and found the supposed rock or log to be an immense bone. The men began digging, full of eager curiosity, and exposed to view the massive skull and long white tusks of a mastodon. These tusks were of such immense size and length as to cause the most wonderful reports to go flying about the neighborhood, and to draw the good people of Newburg in crowds to the place. It was soon discovered that the perfect skeleton of a mastodon was embedded in the peat. Sheer-poles and tackles were obtained, and, amid excitement, cheering, and many cautions, the bones of the monster were raised from the bed where they had lain no one can tell how many thousand years.
Two days were occupied in these interesting labors. The relics drew to them an immense number of people from the surrounding country. Beneath the pelvic bones of this mastodon were found five or six bushels of broken twigs, which evidently had constituted the animal's last meal. He had undoubtedly been mired while attempting to cross this bog, and in this manner perished. These twigs were from one-quarter to three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and a little more than an inch in length. They were supposed to belong to the willow, linden, and maple trees.
It is impossible to conjecture how many years ago this creature may have lived. What marvelous scenes must have passed before its eyes in its wanderings! What gigantic forests; what noble watercourses; what luxurious vegetation; what strange animals may have been its companions—species that passed away long before civilization brought its destructive weapons to the Western shores! Was man, too, its contemporary; if so, how humiliating to intellectual pride is the oblivion that consigns to conjecture and mystery so large a portion of the human race!