True culprit behind destruction of New York’s first dinosaur museum exposed

New York City, May 1871: A menagerie of partially-built, life-size models of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures — destined for display in a prestigious new museum — is destroyed. The gang that trashed the sculptures and their moulds with sledgehammers carted the pieces away and buried them in the south-west of Central Park, never to be seen again.

The finger of blame has long been pointed at the notorious politician William “Boss” Tweed, who, six years later, would be jailed for defrauding the city to the tune of up to $200million (£160m). Now, however, a pair of researchers from the University of Bristol have shone a new light on the bizarre act of vandalism — and revealed the true culprit.

University of Bristol art historian Victoria Coules explained: “It’s all to do with the struggle for control of New York City in the years following the American Civil War [that is, post 1865].

“The city was at the centre of a power struggle — a battle for control of the city’s finances, and lucrative building and development contracts.”

As New York City grew, so Central Park took shape. More than just an open green space, the park was also eyed up for other attractions — among which was the Paleozoic Museum, foundations for which were laid at the intersection of Central Park West and 63rd Street.

In both architecture and contents, the museum was to take a great deal of inspiration from England’s Great Exhibition of 1851 — which was held in the Crystal Palace, south London..

The American architect Frederick Law Olmstead planned a building with a great iron frame and an arched glass roof, while the English sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins — the designer of the model dinosaurs in the Crystal Palace Park — was commissioned in 1868 to make models of the States’ own antediluvian giants to populate the museum.

Surviving illustrations of Hawkin’s workshop in Central Park and his concept sketches reveal that the display would have featured an assortment of creatures from various time periods — including Mesozoic dinosaurs and marine reptiles, as well as cenozoic mammals like extinct armadillos, giant ground sloths, an Ice Age elk and woolly mammoths.

Before the museum and its contents could be completed, however, Boss Tweed had essentially taken control of New York, establishing his “ring” in charge of the city’s various departments, including Central Park.

The Museum was cancelled in late 1870 — and in the following May, a gang of workmen broke into Hawkin’s workshop and destroyed the seven already-completed models, their moulds, and other materials into rubble.

Bristol palaeontologist Professor Michael Benton said: “Previous accounts of the incident had always reported that this was done under the personal instruction of Boss Tweed himself.”

Various motives have been put forward for why Boss Tweed might have ordered the destruction of the models.

These range from suggestions that he found the very idea of dinosaurs to be “blasphemous”, to revenge after the New York Times published comments made by Hawkins about the Museum’s cancellation at a meeting of the New York Lyceum of Natural History.

However, after reviewing all the evidence, the researchers came up with a different theory.

Ms Coules explained: “Reading those reports, something didn’t look right.

“At the time, Tweed was fighting for his political life, already accused of corruption and financial wrong-doings. So why was he so involved in a museum project?

“So, we went back to the original sources and found that it wasn’t Tweed — and the motive was not blasphemy or hurt vanity.”

The answer, Prof. Benton explained, lay in the annual reports and minutes of Central Park — supported by reports published in the New York Times.

The reports were highly detailed, and the solution to the mystery was obscured by the fact that two other projects were also in development in Central Park at the same time — the American Museum of Natural History and the Central Park Zoo.

Ms Coules added: “Because all the primary sources are now available online, we could study them in detail.

“And we could show that the destruction was ordered in a meeting by the real culprit — Henry Hilton, the treasurer and vice president of Central Park.”

The vandalism, she noted, “was carried out the day after this meeting.”

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By all accounts, Hilton — also a jurist and businessman — was a most unusual personality.

The Paleozoic Museum was far from the only example of his vandalisation of art and natural history.

He is reported to have ordered that a bronze statue he spotted in Central Park — as well as a whale skeleton donated to the American Museum of Natural History — be coated in white paint.

Later in his life, he became notorious for essentially swindling a widow — Cornelia Stewart, wife of the department store tycoon Alexander Stewart — out of her inheritance, squandering the fortune he acquired as a result and leaving a trail of trashed businesses and livelihoods in his chaotic wake.

The vandalisation of Hawkins’ models, Prof. Benton concluded: “might seem like a local act of thuggery, but correcting the record is hugely important in our understanding of the history of palaeontology.

“We show it wasn’t blasphemy, or an act of petty vengeance, or an act of petty vengeance by William Tweed, but the act of a very strange individual.”

Hilton, Prof. Benton continued, “made equally bizarre decisions about how artefacts should be treated — painting statues or whale skeletons white and destroying museum models.

“He can be seen as the villain of the piece — but as a character, Hilton remains an enigmatic mystery.”

The full findings of the study were published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

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