I suppose you have seen my advertisement respecting my intention of appropriating a part of my house for a repository of natural curiosities. Perhaps you could procure the stuffed skin of an alligator …
—Charles Willson Peale to David Ramsay, 15 October 1786
Three months before his letter to David Ramsey, artist, natural historian and polymath Charles Willson Peale opened the doors to the most famous museum in America. Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia brought together natural history and art, and symbolized Enlightenment values in the fledgling United States. Over the next six decades, it would bring into its orbit almost every scientific, political and celebrity persona of the day.
Peale’s Museum opened as an extension to Peale’s home on Lombard Street. A few years later, the museum moved to the American Philosophical Society’s Philosophical Hall. Soon though, with thousands of new items pouring in, the museum outgrew Philosophical Hall, and part of the exhibit was moved to the second floor of the State House (today’s Independence Hall). It was sacred ground of a sort. On the floor below the museum sat the room where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were signed, and above it, what we now call the Liberty Bell rang each day.
The museum was born of serendipity. And some very large bones. In May 1784, Peale was sketching some bones for a client. The bones were those of what, at the time, was called the mammoth or incognitum, but we now know was a mastodon (Mammut americanum). People had been digging up “mammoth bones”—as they were called—since 1705, when a Dutch farmer near Albany, New York unearthed a tooth weighing close to five pounds. When Edward Taylor, grandson of Ezra Stiles, the future president of Yale University, saw the bones, he thought they were the remains of a beast that he judged to be more than 60 feet tall, and he imagined:
His arms like limbs of trees twenty foot long,
Fingers with bones like horse shanks and as strong
His thighs do stand like two vast millposts stout.
The bones caused quite a stir. Cotton Mather, who had considerable sway, believed they were the remains of giants of the Old Testament, but everyone else thought the bones were those of the creature Taylor eulogized. Two Royal Society papers settled the matter in 1728: the bones were those of an animal. Today we know the creature was an herbivore, but at the time, the mammoth was painted as a killer of enormous proportions, capable of apocalyptic actions.
As Peale was sketching the very large bones sitting in the box before him, his brother-in-law, Nathaniel Ramsay, happened to visit. Ramsay could not take his eyes off the bones. He told Peale that he “thought them so interesting … he would have gone 20 miles to behold such a collection.” That caught Peale’s attention, but it was what Ramsey said next that set his mind abuzz. “Doubtless there are many men like myself,” Ramsay continued, “who would prefer seeing such articles of curiosity than any paintings whatever, it would be little trouble to keep them, and the public would be gratified in the sight, at such times as they came to see the paintings.” The bones in the box were not Peale’s to display, but other mammoth bones might be acquired. Soon the idea of a museum that paired natural history with art, particularly Peale’s own art capturing the early history of the republic, became a lifelong obsession.
By September 1800, Peale’s Museum was fourteen years old and a focal point of enlightened Philadelphia (which until two months prior had been the capital of the United States). That month, Peale happened upon two letters in the Medical Repository Journal: one was from Sylvanus Miller, and the other from James Graham, and both had been sent to Samuel Latham Mitchill. Peale read of a trove of mammoth bones—including a rib, a massive thighbone forty inches in circumference, and a skull section suggesting nostrils eight inches in diameter—found in a marl pit on John Masten’s farm a few miles west of Newburgh, New York. The bones, Peale read, had been laid out on the floor of Masten’s granary. The Mercantile Advertiser also learned of these bones and ran a story entitled “Bones of a Mammoth or some other Wonderful Animal” and told a tale of “a monster so vastly disproportionate to every creature; as to induce a momentary suspension of every animal faculty but admiration and wonder … a fearful figure—his head extended to the summit of an ordinary tree, he could seize his prey if sheltered among its branches.”
In his letter, Graham speculated on “the great probability that these animals must have been very numerous in this part of the country,” and Miller noted that “they appear little decayed by the lapse of time … there were now prospects of procuring the whole of the skeleton … nothing but want of exertions, or means to defray expense, will hinder the whole of them from being procured.” Peale did not want of exertions, and his credentials for “procuring the whole of the skeleton” were superb: natural historian, curator of the only natural history museum in America, and tinkerer with all things mechanical—a skill that might come in handy when digging up some very large bones. As Peale’s son, Rembrandt, recalled, his father “immediately proceeded to the spot.”
On the morning of 5 June 1801, Peale took a stagecoach from Philadelphia to New York to examine what was and wasn’t at Masten’s farm, what was and was not for sale and, most importantly, how feasible future digs there would be. Four days after he got to New York City, he met up with Dr Mitchill, who promised him a letter of introduction to James Graham, one of the authors of the letters Peale had read, who lived near the Masten farm. That letter of introduction arrived on 17 June, and Peale chartered a sloop called the Priscilla to sail him up to West Point, about fifteen miles south of Newburgh. When Peale got there, Graham told him that he would accompany him to the Masten farm, a few miles away, the next day.
Farmer Masten took Peale to the granary and gave him permission to make life-sized sketches of each bone. At dinner that evening, one of Masten’s sons asked Peale if he’d he like to buy the bones. Peale decided that “it would be best to make as liberal a price as I could well afford.” After a bit of haggling, a deal was struck, in which Peale would buy a “handsome gun” for Masten’s son and pay the farmer himself two hundred for the bones and the rights to return and excavate for further mammoth remains.
On 25 June, Peale explored the farm, looking for sites for future digs. The marl pits there had been dug by Masten and were 12 feet deep and full of water. Peale soon wrote to his friend President Jefferson of the “Herculean task to explore the bottom where the remainder of the bones are supposed to lay.” The next day he packed the bones he had already purchased into a wagon for the ride to Newburgh, where they and he boarded a ship down the Hudson, eventually reaching New York City on 28 June.
News of Peale’s arrival in New York City with the bones “flew like wildfire”: eighty visitors, including Vice President Burr, came to see the remains of the behemoth. Peale savoured the attention the bones received. It was pleasing, he wrote in his diary, “[that] everybody seemed rejoiced that the bones had fallen into my hands.” Next, the bones were packed onto a schooner back to Philadelphia and the museum.
Peale began dreaming of what he was certain would come next. “The grandeur of this skeleton when completed,” he wrote to his friend Jefferson, “will I hope excite your curiosity so far as to produce me the favor of a visit to the museum and that you may enjoy pleasure while contemplating the magnitude of the animal and the manner of its support.” The President congratulated Peale on his “zeal enough to devote himself to the recovery of these great animal monuments.”
In late July, Peale was back at Masten’s farm for a full-fledged paleontological expedition. With him was his son Rembrandt and James Woodhouse, a professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. On the way back to Masten’s farm, Peale tracked down the captain who shuttled him to Newburgh on the first trip, and asked where he could get a pump to use to drain the marl pits. Soon he got that pump as well as “the use of tools of every sort … [and] quoils of rope.”
Peale was ready. He had sketched out a contraption for emptying the marl pits, and—working with a carpenter and a wheelwright—pieced together a giant wheel, twenty feet in diameter, supported by a pyramidal truss system, which Peale dubbed “the crab.” Attached to the crab was an ingenious pulley system with buckets connected by chains to siphon the pits. In addition to the pump, Peale had a wheel powered by three people, whom he paid nine New York shillings and a daily measure of grog to walk inside the giant circle “as in a squirrel cage.” Another group of men emptied the buckets into the trough and gathered the bones in the pit as they were found. It was quite the sight. Rembrandt Peale recalled:
Every farmer with his wife and children, for twenty miles round in every direction flocked to see the operation. A swamp always noted for being the solitary and dismal abode of snakes and frogs, became the active scene of curiosity and bustle … the greater part astonished at the whim of an old man in travelling two hundred miles from his home, to dig up as a treasure, at incredible risk, labor, and expense, a pile of bones, which, although all were astonished to see, many imagined fit for nothing better than to rot and serve for manure.
By 16 August, Peale and his crew had dredged up more foot bones, a tusk, a partial sternum and parts of “grinders” [teeth], but had not found a complete lower jaw, which would be needed to complete the head. But the pits were yielding diminishing mammoth bone returns, and so Peale decided “that the difficulty of obtaining any more bones [at the Masten farm] would be a waste of money.” He moved the bone hunt eleven miles west and slightly north and began digging on the farm of a Captain Barber. The first find there was a toe. Eventually the crew excavated forty-three foot bones, ten tail bones, numerous vertebrae, a scapular (shoulder) bone and a tusk that matched the one found earlier at Masten’s farm. But they still had no lower jaw. By 2 September they hit diminishing returns there as well and moved to a marl pit a few miles away, owned by Peter Millspaw.
Peale made some tweaks to the wheel-and-pulley system, and quickly dug up a rib, knee, heel bones and the top of a skull from the marl pits. Then one of the crew called over to Rembrandt saying that his spear had hit something that felt like a large bone. Digging deeper, they uncovered a humerus, scapula and the lower jaw they had been searching for. “The woods echoed with repeated huzzas, Gracious God, what a jaw!” wrote Rembrandt, “How many animals have been crushed between it! was the exclamation of all, a fresh supply of grog went round, and the hearty fellows, covered with mud, continued the search.”
Years later, starting in 1806, Peale, in a juxtaposition of fact and fiction, put the mammoth dig to canvas in his painting, today called Exhumation of the Mastodon. The painting, set at Masten’s farm, against a dark, threatening sky, shows Peale’s device excavating the water-filled marl pit. Masten is seen emerging from the pit and Peale paints himself in with one hand resting on a large drawing of mammoth bones, and the other hand pointing to a labourer in the pit holding a newly discovered leg bone. Though only Peale and Rembrandt were at the dig, Peale added in a slew of absent relatives, turning his canvas into a family portrait of sorts.
Once back in his museum, Peale found that he had enough bones to construct not one, but two, mammoth skeletons, “filling up the deficiencies in each by artificial imitations from the other, and from counterparts in themselves.” One of the skeletons—which measured 12 feet tall at the shoulder, nine feet tall at the hip and 19.5 feet from tusk to tail—was ready for a museum unveiling in late December 1801. The skeleton was given its own room in the Philosophical Hall branch of the museum and an additional charge of fifty cents, above and beyond the normal twenty-five cent admission, was tacked on.
The mammoth room was opened to the public on Christmas Day 1801. The Aurora newspaper reported:
In another century the proofs of the existence of such an animal as the mammoth would have been totally lost. The skeptical part of mankind would have then called in question even the truth … Thanks to the indefatigable exertions of Mr. Peale … [it] embodied the truth, brought to light, that which had lain in obscurity for ten thousand moons, and would have puzzled the naturalist for ten thousand to come.
Ticket sales at the museum soared to record levels and remained high for the next decade. In arguably the first American fad, the public was going mammoth crazy. Mammoth squashes, mammoth radishes, mammoth peaches and mammoth loaves of bread were the talk of the day. There was also a 1,300 lb “mammoth cheese” made by milking the cows from every farm in the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts and sent to President Jefferson, who delighted at this “passion of republicanism.”
Peale advertised the new exhibit in many newspapers, but it was his broadside “Skeleton of the Mammoth” that really captured the fancy of the public. “Of this animal,” the broadside read,
it is said the following is a tradition, as delivered in the very terms of a Shawnee Indian: ‘Ten thousand moons ago, when naught but gloomy forests covered this land of the sleeping sun, long before the pale man … a race of animals were in being, huge as the frowning precipice, cruel as the bloody panther, swift as the descending eagle and terrible as the Angel of Night. The pines crashed beneath their feet; and the lake shrunk when they slaked their thirst.’
In a self-congratulatory tone, the broadside notes that though “numerous have been the attempts of scientific characters of all nations to procure a satisfactory collection of bones,” Peale had at last “accomplished this great object.” And it sat in the mammoth room for all enquiring minds. Peale had the broadside distributed throughout the city by a rider on horseback wearing “feathered dress” and preceded by a trumpeter.
When visitors entered the mammoth room, they saw the reconstructed beast appearing even grander in contrast to the mouse skeleton Peale had placed by its side. Visitors were mesmerized. Poet and satirist Charles Godfrey Leland recalls being a boy of eight years old “standing in awe before the tremendous skeleton.” A British Army lieutenant, who travelled through America many years after the war, was struck by how “the human stature is, indeed, pygmean [sic] beside it.” Another visitor wrote that “a human being shrinks into insignificance beside the bony fabric of this enormous antediluvian.” William Blane, who had a more biblical leaning, saw visions of the book of Genesis: “Perhaps we ought to imagine that Noah,” Blane mused, “found it too large and troublesome to put in the ark, and therefore left the poor animal to perish.”
Peale had engravings of the skeleton mounted on the walls, together with Rembrandt’s treatise A Historical Disquisition on the Mammoth: A Great American Incognitum, an Extinct, Immense, Carnivorous Animal, Whose Fossil Remains Have Been Found in North America in 92 sections each surrounded by a gilded frame. Some of the excerpts included speculation on what caused the extinction of the great beast.
What of the doppelgänger of the mammoth on display at the Peale’s Museum, that second mammoth dug up in New York? Under the care of twenty-four-year-old Rembrandt Peale and his eighteen-year-old brother Rubens, the doppelgänger was sent on an international mammoth tour. Though Charles Willson Peale fretted about convincing “John Bull or Jack Frog that what they are looking at, nay holding in their hands, is really bone, is really a tooth … not a damned English impostor,” he and his sons began preparations. At one point, Peale speculated that they would “probably not return in less than four or five years.” Venues would be determined as the tour progressed. England would be first. From there they would improvise. Paris was a likely next stop, and Madrid after that. Even an exhibition in Russia was possible.
Peale and his sons gave the doppelgänger a bon voyage present by hosting a dinner inside the rib cage of the mammoth that was staying put in Philadelphia: a “collation WITHIN the BREAST of the animal, all comfortably seated round a small table and one of Mr. Hawkins’s Patent Portable Pianos.” There were toasts galore, including to “the biped animal man—may peace, virtue and happiness be his distinguishing character,” and to “the American people—may they be as pre-eminent among the nations of the earth, as the canopy we sit beneath surpasses the fabric of the mouse,” in reference to the wee skeleton placed beside the mammoth. The Port Folio magazine could not pass up the chance to have some fun with this, mocking the grand toasts and the great beast itself—“What toasts roar’d loudly thro’ the mammoth’s ear, or, were sweetly sounded thro’ his wide posterior.”
During the last few days of June, or possibly the first few of July 1802, the Peale boys, with the deconstructed mammoth in tow, boarded a ship to England: but first their father dispensed some advice to young Rubens. He warned Rubens to avoid talk of politics and religion, and to be leery of “the frivolity of the coxcombs of any country you visit.” Rembrandt and Rubens, and “their pet” the mammoth, arrived in London in early September. The Peales moved into a small third-floor apartment in the Westminster area and rented a large room, with a sixteen-foot-high ceiling, to exhibit the mammoth.
Hopes were high that the response to the mammoth would be similar to that seen in Philadelphia. But that was not to be. Soon Rubens was writing his father, “I wish we were only in America once more, with the skeleton; I have no doubt we would make more than we shall here.” Follow-up letters made it clear why, as “very few Englishmen love to pay for looking at a dead set of bones.”
The London exhibit closed on 18 June. Paris was not to follow. England had withdrawn from the short-lived Treaty of Amiens and declared war on France the prior month, and so a mammoth visit to France was unfeasible. Instead, the Peales took the “damned heavy load” to Reading, where the mayor allowed them to use the council hall to exhibit it. From there it was off to Bristol, where the response was no better than in London or Reading. “Perhaps a dancing bear would afford me more profit or almost any living foreign animal,” Rembrandt wrote his father from Reading.
Soon Rembrandt, Rubens and the mammoth were sailing back to America, arriving home in Philadelphia on 13 November. The citizens of the city welcomed them back with open arms, though the New York Morning Chronicle was less kind, opining:
We are happy to hear of [the return of] our great fellow countryman the mammoth and suite,” they opined. “Various reasons have been given for his [the skeleton’s] abrupt departure from Great Britain, some say that he was expelled as an alien, others that Mr. Peale was apprehensive he might be seized as a war horse for the first consul, and others again, that Mr. P. had heard of the voracious appetite of the French soldiers, as also their late invention of extracting soup from bones, and feared his precious skeleton might be stewed down into a kettle of ‘bone soup’ for to refresh the army, after the grand expedition.
We don’t know the ultimate fate of the unheralded mammoth that went overseas, only to return to Philadelphia. But the mammoth that stayed home, in the museum, continued to attract visitors and generate revenue for the next forty-six years, until the Peale’s Museum closed its doors forever and Johann Jakob Kaup purchased the great beast for the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany. The mammoth resided there until it came back across the ocean to America in 2021 to be part of a Smithsonian Exhibit on Alexander von Humboldt (a friend of both Peale and Jefferson) that ended on 11 July 2021, only a few weeks ago.