A new paper from the University of Bristol has rewritten the history of the darkest and most bizarre events in the history of paleontology.
In New York, in May of 1871, life-size models of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures intended for a prestigious new museum in Central Park are completely destroyed in a violent act of vandalism by a gang of thugs with sledgehammers. The shattered pieces were carried away and buried somewhere in the garden, never to be seen again.
To date, the gruesome work of former US politician William ‘Boss’ Tweed has been honored.
But now, a new paper from Ms Victoria Coles of Bristol’s Department of Art History and Professor Michael Benton of the Bristol School of Geosciences sheds new light on the incident and, unlike previous accounts, lays out who was behind it and what prompted it. For such a brutal destruction – a strange man known as Henry Hilton, treasurer and vice president of Central Park.
“It’s all about the struggle for control of New York City in the years after the American Civil War (1861-1865),” Mrs. Cowles said. “The city was at the center of a power struggle—a battle for control of the city’s finances and lucrative building and development contracts.”
As the city grew, the iconic Central Park was taking shape. More than just a green space, it once contained other attractions, including the Paleozoic Museum. British sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, who created Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, life-size models of prehistoric creatures in London, traveled to America and was commissioned to build American versions of the models for the Paleozoic Museum.
But the infamous William “Boss” Tweed took over the city’s leadership and, in a dramatic change to city governance, put his followers in charge of the city’s departments – including Central Park. They canceled the partially complete project in late 1870, and there it might have continued, but in May 1871 someone ordered a gang of workmen to destroy all of its partially completed contents.
Professor Benton explains: “Previous accounts of the incident had always indicated that this was done under the personal instructions of ‘Boss’ Tweed himself, for various reasons of anger that the show would be blasphemous, to avenge a perceived criticism of him in The New York Times Project cancellation report.
“Reading these reports, something just wasn’t right,” Ms. Coles said. “At the time Tweed was fighting for his political life, already accused of corruption and financial irregularities, so why was he involved in a museum project?” She added, “So we went back to the original sources and found that it wasn’t tweed – and the motive wasn’t blasphemous or hurting vanity.”
The situation was complicated by two other projects in development at the same time in Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and the Central Park Zoo. But, as Professor Benton explained, “Drawing on the detailed annual reports and minutes of Central Park, together with the reports in The New York TimesWe can show that the real villain was one strange character by the name of Henry Hilton.”
Ms Coles adds: “As all the primary sources are now available online, we can study them in detail – and we can show that the destruction was ordered at a meeting by the real culprit, Henry Hilton, Treasurer and Vice President of Central Park – and carried out the day after that meeting.” “.
Hilton was already famous for her other bizarre decisions. When he noticed a bronze statue in the park, he had it painted white, and when a whale skeleton was donated to the American Museum of Natural History, he also painted that white. In later life, other ill-advised decisions included betraying a widow from her inheritance, squandering a vast fortune, and ruining businesses and livelihoods along the way.
Professor Benton concluded: “This may seem like a local act of bullying but correcting the record is extremely important in our understanding of the history of paleontology. We have shown that it was not blasphemy, or an act of revenge by William Tweed, but the act of a very strange person who made equally bizarre decisions.” On how to handle the artifacts—painting statues or whale skeletons white and destroying museum models. He might be considered the villain of the piece but as a character, Hilton remains a mystery.”