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Captain Theophilus H. Turner and the Unlikely Discovery of
Elasmosaurus Platyurus
Author(s): Michael J. Everhart
Source: Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, 120(3–4):233-246.
Published By: Kansas Academy of Science
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Transactions of the Kansas
Academy of Science
Vol. 120, no. 3-4
p. 233-246 (2017)
Captain Theophilus H. Turner and the unlikely discovery of
Elasmosaurus platyurus
Michael J. Everhart
Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Fort Hays State University, Hays, Kansas
Theophilus Hunt Turner (1841-1869) was the military surgeon assigned to Fort Wallace in
far western Kansas during the construction of the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division.
The circumstances surrounding his 1867 discovery of the type specimen of Elasmosaurus
platyurus were not recorded in Cope’s (1868a) original reports, and were unknown until
the 1987 publication of Turner’s personal letters. As described originally by Turner, the
story involved the unlikely association of four men and a series of events that resulted in
the collection of the largest fossil specimen of the time from the wilderness of western
Kansas. Here I provide additional details regarding Turner’s posting at Fort Wallace and a
review of the historical accounts surrounding this exceptional discovery.
Cope immediately recognized the bones as
belonging to an extinct marine reptile called
The bones of an unknown and very large fossil
a plesiosaur, but one much larger than any
reptile were discovered in the spring of 1867 by
he had seen during his travels in Europe. He
Captain Theophilus Hunt Turner (1841-1869),
quickly wrote a letter asking Turner to send the
the Army surgeon stationed at Fort Wallace in
specimen to him at the expense of the ANSP.
far western Kansas. Dr. Turner, a 26-year-old
Turner, along with others from Fort Wallace,
Civil War veteran, had no previous experience
returned to the site in late December 1867 and
in paleontology, but recognized that the large
recovered more of the bones. In all, some 35
vertebrae represented an ‘extinct monster.’ The
feet of the creature’s vertebral column and
remains were discovered when Turner was
several concretions containing other bones,
exploring exposures of the Late Cretaceous
in total weighing about 800 pounds, were
rocks around Fort Wallace in the company of
transported overland by wagon about 15 miles
the fabled Army scout and interpreter, William
back to the fort. However, as the railroad was
‘Medicine Bill’ Comstock.
still under construction and about 100 miles
away to the east, Turner wanted to wait until it
Then in late June 1867, General Wright’s
arrived at Fort Wallace, which did not happen
survey party for the Union Pacific Railroad,
until mid-1869. More letters were exchanged
Eastern Division, reached Fort Wallace on
and Turner eventually sent several crates of the
their trek into New Mexico. A member of the
remains eastward on a military wagon train to
party, Dr. John LeConte, received three of the
where the railroad was under construction.
fossil vertebrae from Turner to take back East
for identification. Following completion of the
The specimen was shipped cross-country by
railroad survey, LeConte delivered at least two
rail in late February and arrived in Philadelphia
of the vertebrae (accounts differ) to Edward D.
in March 1868. Cope (1868a) then hurriedly
Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences of
examined the remains and reported on them
Philadelphia (ANSP) in December 1867 (Note
orally at the March 24, 1868 meeting of
here that the institution’s name was changed
the ANSP, formally naming the plesiosaur
to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel
Elasmosaurus platyurus. A year later Cope
University in 2011).
(1869c) published a more complete description,
Figure 1. A. William ‘Medicine Bill’ Comstock, civilian scout and interpreter at Fort Wallace. A copy
of this photo was found among Turner’s personal effects; B. Dr. Theophilus H. Turner, Assistant
Surgeon, Fort Wallace; C. Dr. John LeConte, a member of the 1867 party surveying the extension
of the Union Pacific Railroad, Eastern Division; Edward D. Cope, Academy of Natural Sciences
of Philadelphia, and E. Elasmosaurus platyurus, as initially and erroneously reconstructed in
publication (modified from Cope 1869c, Plate II, fig 1.).
including a figure of the reconstructed skeleton
(ibid., pl. II, fig. 1; Fig. 1E). Subsequently
Joseph Leidy (1870) reported to the ANSP
that Cope had incorrectly reconstructed the
plesiosaur, having placed the head on the
wrong end. Cope (1870) recognized his error,
made some changes to his reconstruction and
republished the description. The considerable
controversy that followed has been discussed at
length by others (Williston 1906; Welles 1952;
Storrs 1984; Carpenter 1999: Everhart 2005;
Sachs et al. 2013) and will not be repeated here.
Many of Dr. Turner’s letters, and those sent
by E. D. Cope to Turner, were preserved by
Turner’s family. The letters were later collected
and transcribed by Kenneth J. Almy (1987), the
husband of Marjorie Turner, one of Turner’s
grand nieces. Almy’s valuable historical work
was first recognized in scientific publication by
Carpenter (1996, 1997). The original letters have
since been donated to the Academy of Natural
Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia.
The discovery, collection, transportation
and eventual description of this important
specimen was due in large part to the unlikely
and diverse association of four men brought
together by the ongoing construction of the
Union Pacific railroad across Kansas in 1867.
Elasmosaurus platyurus Cope 1868, a longnecked marine reptile from the Late Cretaceous
Western Interior Seaway, was the first major
fossil to be collected in Kansas, and also
marked the start of a fossil rush that literally
sent thousands of Kansas fossils to major
museums on the East Coast. At the time of
discovery, the Union Pacific Railroad, Eastern
Division, had been completed more than
halfway across Kansas and the U.S. Army
had established three forts along the planned
construction route to provide protection for
railroad workers and the first groups of arriving
settlers. Fort Wallace was the furthest west
Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 120(3-4), 2017
military post in Kansas, about 25 miles from
the Colorado border, and last to be completed.
The conflict with the Indians caused in part by
the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad,
and the need for a military presence in western
Kansas bought four men together at the right
time and place to discover, collect and properly
recognize the first known specimen of a long
necked plesiosaur. Those men were:
William Averill ‘Medicine Bill’ Comstock:
(1842-1868; Fig. 1A): Born in Michigan,
Comstock was a young, but well respected
scout and interpreter for the U.S. Army at Fort
Wallace. His name is often associated with
that of William Cody and a contest to see who
could rightfully claim the nickname “Buffalo
Bill” (Comstock lost). The scout had already
been involved in several campaigns against
the Indians, serving with the 7th Cavalry under
George Armstrong Custer and others. He also
owned a ranch near Fort Wallace and supplied
the Army with hay for the livestock. It is unlikely
that he would have recognized the fossil remains
if he had encountered them without Turner.
Comstock was reportedly killed by Indians on
August 16, 1868, but the circumstances of his
death are subject to some controversy.
Theophilus H. Turner: (1841-1869; Fig. 1B):
Born in New Jersey, Turner received his medical
degree in 1863 from Jefferson Medical College
in Philadelphia. During the Civil War, he served
as a Contract Surgeon at Fort Delaware from
May 1863 through August 1864, and later
in the Army of West Virginia under General
Crook (Simmons 2008). Mustered out of the
Army after the war, he re-joined in 1866, was
promoted to Captain and briefly stationed at
Fort Dodge, Kansas, before being re-assigned
to Fort Wallace in May of that year. However,
at the time of Turner’s arrival (May 22, 1866;
Simmons 2008) the location for the fort had
not been determined and Turner actually went
to the temporary encampment at Pond Creek
(Armes 1900, p. 165). The actual site for the
fort was not finalized until early July 1866
(ibid., page 167). While at Fort Wallace, Turner
Figure 2. This 1867 photo shows the officers
of Fort Wallace posing in front of the adjutant’s
office at Fort Wallace. Dr. Theophilus Turner
is standing, second from the left. The dark
smudges in the background to Turner’s left
are trees along the Smoky Hill River. In a letter
written to his wife by Captain Albert Barnitz,
7th Cavalry, while at Fort Wallace, Kansas on
June 29, 1867, he noted that “Dr. (W. A.) Bell of
Phila. an amateur photographic artist with the
[Wright] engineering party, took photograph of
myself and the other officers at the post, sitting
in front of the commandant’s quarters, with
cavalry horses, and boundless prairie in the
background, on the afternoon of the day of the
battle...” (Utley 1977, p. 74; Oliva 1998). The
photograph has been digitally enhanced by the
author. Credit: Albert Barnitz Papers, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare
Book and Manuscript Library.
was commended for his professional treatment
of wounded soldiers after the Battle of Fort
Wallace (Bell 1870, p. 65) and patients during
the August 1867 cholera epidemic. Turner
also participated in the relief of the Army
scouts following the Battle of Beecher’s Island
(Cozzens 2003). Many of his letters to his
family describing his time and activities at Fort
Wallace, as well as his correspondence from
E. D. Cope, were published by Almy (1987).
Turner also appears in a photograph of the
officers of Fort Wallace taken by Dr. William A.
Bell on June 26, 1867 (Fig. 2). Although Turner
had no training in paleontology, his medical
training and interest in collecting mineral
samples certainly contributed to the discovery.
John Lawrence LeConte: (1825-1883;
Fig. 1C): Born in New York City, LeConte
graduated from the College of Physicians
and Surgeons in 1846. During the Civil War,
he served as a surgeon with the California
volunteers in the Union Army, leaving the
service as a Lieutenant Colonel. Although
he had practiced medicine, his major interest
was in entomology. He had traveled through
the West and Kansas almost ten years earlier,
published a paper (1859) on the ‘Coleoptera of
Kansas and New Mexico,’ and was recognized
at the time as one of the foremost authorities
on beetles (Coleoptera). In 1867, he served as
the geologist in the survey party led by General
W.W. Wright that evaluated the proposed
route and coal resources of the Union Pacific
Railroad from Fort Wallace to Santa Fe, New
Mexico (Copley 1867). The first section of
LeConte’s (1868) report from that survey
describes the geology and fossils he collected
along the Smoky Hill River from Salina,
Kansas, to Fort Wallace. His report (ibid., p.
68) also included a short note by E. D. Cope
(1868b) about the discovery of Elasmosaurus
platyurus. LeConte lived in Philadelphia at
the time and probably knew Cope through
the various scientific societies of the day,
including the Academy of Natural Sciences of
Philadelphia (ANSP).
Edward Drinker Cope: (1840-1897; Fig. 1D):
Born in Philadelphia, Cope became interested
in science at an early age. He did not complete
his formal education but was somewhat of a
child prodigy, publishing his first scientific
paper (1859), describing two new species
of amphibians. Cope traveled and studied in
Europe in 1863-1864, and then returned to a
teaching position at Haverford College. He
was also closely associated with the Academy
of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP)
and the American Philosophical Society.
Following his descriptions of the Elasmosaurus
platyurus (Cope 1868a) and the mosasaur,
Tylosaurus proriger (Cope 1869b), he became
well acquainted with paleontology in Kansas
as a result of the many specimens sent to
him for identification by Professor Benjamin
Mudge (Everhart 2017a). Cope then briefly
collected fossils himself from western Kansas,
including the giant marine turtle, Protostega
gigas, in late 1871 (Everhart 2017b). At the
time that Elasmosaurus was discovered, Cope
would have been one of a small handful of
people in North America who would recognize
plesiosaur vertebrae.
The Discovery: Soon after arriving at Fort
Wallace in 1866, Dr. Turner made friends
with William A. Comstock, the Army scout
and interpreter for the 7th Cavalry. According
to Turner’s letters, the two young men had
spent some of their free time hunting game
and exploring the immediate area around
Fort Wallace. One of the officers at the fort,
Lieutenant Ames (1900, p. 177), noted in
his diary that on September 23, 1866 that “
Lieutenant Flood, Dr. Turner, Mr. Warner
and Comstock returned this evening form the
buffalo hunt.” Turner (Almy 1987, p. 181) also
noted that he had never been more than 15
miles away from the fort during his first year
there. His initial letters from Fort Wallace do
not indicate any problems with the Indians.
In Turner’s first surviving letter from Fort
Wallace to his brother, Daniel, dated July
1, 1866 (Almy 1987, p. 177), he mentioned
that he had been ‘wandering over the plains
after antelopes and other game as well as
minerals.” Later in the same letter he wrote
that about four miles south of the fort [Wallace
Bluffs] there were “great numbers of bowlders
[sic] …” Actually, these large masses of
rock are septarian concretions in the Sharon
Springs Member of the Pierre Shale. Turner
noted that they contained “monstrous pieces
of crystallized sulpher [sic], and beautiful
specimens of sulphate of strontia (Celestina).
Sulphate of Baryta [Barium sulfate or barite;
Fig. 3] is in abundance as well as many other
impure preparations. I have a collection to
bring home. The most beautiful of which are
gypsum carbonate and sulfate of iron. I need
books on mineralogy, which [I] shall send for.”
Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 120(3-4), 2017
Figure 3. Two views of a cluster of barite (barium sulfate) crystals collected from a septarian
concretion in the Sharon Springs Member of the Pierre Shale about one mile north of McAllister
Butte in western Logan County, Kansas. This would be similar to one of the minerals collected by
Turner and given to LeConte. About 14 cm in width.
Turner wrote (February 8, 1867; Almy 1987, p.
179) that attacks by Indians “have thus far been
confined to the country north and west of here
about 300 miles. There are a great many Indians
between here and the states [at the time western
Kansas was a state in name only] but so far they
are perfectly peaceable and it is hoped that they
will remain so.” In the same letter, Turner noted
that he “was hunting the day before with the
interpreter. He [Comstock] shot what is known
as a blacktail [mule] deer. It was certainly the
prettiest game I ever saw…”
The exact date of the discovery of Elasmosaurus
platyurus is unknown, but it likely occurred
sometime in April or early May of 1867.
Although Turner and Comstock had seen the
general extent of the skeleton, they did not
attempt to recover it and only brought a few
pieces back to the fort. The situation with the
Indians changed quickly for the worse in 1867
and Turner (May 5, 1867; Almy 1987, p. 181)
wrote “General [Winfield Scott] Hancock and
General [George Armstrong] Custer are making
arrangements to conduct a campaign against the
Indians.” However, in late May Turner managed
to make a three day visit to Denver, apparently
by way of the Butterfield Overland Despatch
stagecoach (letter of June 18, 1867; ibid.).
According to LeConte’s (1868) published
journal entries, the railroad survey party
left Salina, Kansas on June 7 and proceeded
westward along the Butterfield Overland
Despatch (BOD) route. The group passed
Castle Rock in eastern Gove County around
noon on June 20 and Monument Rocks in
western Gove County on June 22, a distance of
about 35 miles. LeConte examined the geology
and collected fossils along the way apparently
out of scientific curiosity since, as noted in
LeConte’s report, the actual survey work was
not to start until the group passed Fort Wallace.
The survey party also included Dr. William
A. Bell as a photographer. Bell (1870) wrote a
book describing his experiences, including the
events at Fort Wallace in late June 1867.
Figure 4. Three vertebrae from the sacrum
of Elasmosaurus platyurus (ANSP 10081) in
left lateral view. Although neither LeConte nor
Cope specifically identified the three vertebrae
provided by Turner, this piece is a likely
candidate. Scale = cm.
According to LeConte (1868; see also Bell
1870; Nye 1967), the survey party arrived at
the fort on June 24, and stayed there about two
weeks because of the ongoing warfare with
the Indians. LeConte spent the time talking
to people at the fort, including Comstock and
Turner, and gathering information about local
geology and water resources. While there
he “received from Dr. Turner … several fine
crystals of sulfate of baryta, found in geodes,
with calcium and selenite, about seven miles
west of the fort …” and added that “hostility
with the Indians prevented a visit to the
locality” (ibid., p. 10-11). In addition, he
“obtained three imperfect vertebrae [Fig. 4]
of a large reptile, pronounced by Professor E.
D. Cope to be of Dinosaurian or Plesiosaurian
affinities. Mr. Comstock, the guide and scout
attached to the fort, informed me that almost
the whole skeleton of this animal is exposed
in a ravine fifteen miles northwest of the post.
The ravine debouches [discharges] into the
Smoky by the Henshaw Springs, …” [Note:
Henshaw Springs was located about 15 miles
northeast of Fort Wallace, not northwest].
LeConte’s (1868) published report raises
questions concerning who actually discovered
Elasmosaurus and where it was discovered.
Was it Turner, or Comstock? Was Comstock
intentionally misleading LeConte as to the
location? Or was LeConte simply mistaken
in recording what he had been told. Even the
locality reported for Turner’s mineral samples
is suspect because there are no exposures of the
Sharon Springs Formation seven miles west of
the fort. It is more likely the mineral samples
came from the exposures, as Turner wrote, four
miles south of the fort. In a footnote added just
prior to publication, however, LeConte (1868,
p. 11) wrote that “On the termination of the
Indian war, Dr. Turner explored the locality
above mentioned, and recovered about 35 feet
of the vertebral column, with fragments of the
extremities and head of this gigantic reptile.”
LeConte’s footnote was apparently added as the
result of Cope sharing Turner’s letter of January
28, 1867 with him (Almy 1987, p. 188).
To add to the confusion of the time, General
Wright’s survey party and LeConte were
present for “Battle of Fort Wallace” on June
26, 1867, and Dr. Turner was busy treating
the wounded soldiers afterward (Bell 1870).
LeConte did not mention the battle in his
report, and the survey party left Fort Wallace
on July 8, 1867 (ibid., p. 69), headed southwest
toward the Arkansas River. Unlike LeConte’s
notes during the trip down the Butterfield
Overland Despatch trail to Fort Wallace, his
subsequent report does not provide dates for
his progress after leaving the fort.
Turner also did not write home about the battle,
or at least it is not mentioned in his surviving
letters. Most likely his time was well occupied
during the summer of 1867 with treating
wounded soldiers in late June, then the flurry
of activity following the July 2, 1867, Kidder
Fight where 11 soldiers and an Indian scout
were killed, and finally the outbreak of cholera
that lasted nearly the entire month of August.
In Turner’s next letter (September 20, 1867;
Almy 1987, p. 182) he wrote that he had “not
felt well at all for some time, in fact I have not
Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 120(3-4), 2017
Figure 5. A view of the north side of McAllister Butte, looking to the northwest. This is the most likely
location where Elasmosaurus platyurus was discovered in 1867. The tracks of the Union Pacific
Railroad are visible at upper right.
been exactly streight [sic] since we had cholera
at the post when I was worked very hard, and as
the weather was very hot…” Later in the same
letter, he mentions the hundred degree heat
that was endured during the August epidemic.
Turner’s two page report sent September 1,
1867 regarding the epidemic and his methods
of treatment was included in the 1868 Surgeon
General’s Office, Circular No. 1 (Report on
Epidemic Cholera and Yellow Fever in the Army
of the United States, During the year 1867).
The Acting Commandant of Fort Wallace at
the time was Captain Miles W. Keogh. His
report of the epidemic in the National Archives
(quoted by Almy 1987, p. 183) commended
Turner by saying “thanks to the great energy and
professional merits of our Post Surgeon not a
single case has proved fatal in this garrison…”
The Recovery: As early as May, 1867, Turner
reported that Fort Wallace was getting mail
‘triweekly’ – most likely via the Butterfield
Overland Despatch stagecoach – but he did
not indicate how long it was taking for mail
to reach him from New Jersey. However,
sometime in December, Turner received a
letter from E. D. Cope, dated December 3,
1867, in which Cope said he had received the
vertebrae from LeConte and was aware that “a
greater part of the creature could be obtained”
(Almy 1987, p. 185). Cope further indicated
that the Academy of Natural Sciences would
pay all expenses to have the specimen shipped
to him. It seems likely that Cope’s letter may
have spurred Turner to dig up the rest of the
In Turner’s letter of December 20, 1867, he
wrote “On Friday last [December 13, 1867]
some of us started on the prarie [sic] ostensibly
for the purpose of hunting but in reality for the
purpose of procuring the skeleton of an extinct
monster which is embedded some fourteen
miles north of here. It is found to rest in a slate
hill (Fig. 5) similar in appearance to those
which are found on the road between home
and Newton [New Jersey].” Later in the letter
Figure 6. A. The muzzle of Elasmosaurus platyurus (ANSP 10081) as collected by Dr. Turner. The
muzzle is composed of the front of the skull (premaxilla and anterior portions of both maxillae) and
the anterior portions of the lower jaw (dentarys); B. (left) The premaxilla and anterior maxillae in
ventral view, (right) separated from the anterior portion of the lower jaw in dorsal view. Scale = cm.
he adds, “… if it is as valuable as it appears,
it will be forwarded to some eastern scientific
institution …”(Almy 1987, p. 184). David
Parris (pers. comm., 2017) noted that Turner’s
reference to the slate hill in New Jersey was
probably “an observation of the Martinsburg
Formation (Ordovician) which contains much
true slate.”
Turner wrote to his brother again (February 2,
1868) and described his discovery in greater
“… the fossil skeleton … proved to be
a huge affair and was located in an almost
perpendicular bank of slate [shale] hill which
made up one side of a ravine. It was located
near its bottom and required no small amount
of labor in its excavation – It is probably
a reptile of the cretatious [sic] formation.
I have in my possession boxed ready for
transportation to the Philadelphia Academy
of Natural Sciences something over thirtyfive feet of its vertebrae with about four
inches of the anterior portion of its head with
imperfect teeth; imperfect [because they
appeared to have been freshly broken off]
at the sockets [Fig. 6] – I can assure you I
sincerely regret this imperfection. There is
however enough of this to lead me to suppose
that the critter had a head little short of four
feet in length. We also secured part of one
of its jaws containing teeth [Fig. 7] – There
is a large amount of bony matter contained
a very hard stone matrix [concretion] some
of which retains its connection with the
backbone. Among the rest is a portion a limb,
a perfect bone eight or ten inches in length.
Which will assist in no small way toward
its identification. The whole, stone and all,
weighs about eight or nine hundred pounds
…” (Almy 1987, p. 186).
Cope wrote back to Turner in a letter dated
February 13, 1868 (Almy 1987, p. 188),
identifying the remains as “a form related
to Plesiosaurus ...” and providing additional
instructions regarding how to pack the bones for
shipping. He also encouraged Turner to “continue
the explorations of the neighborhood of the post.”
Upon receipt of Cope’s letter, Turner was
apparently in no hurry to send his “confounded
serpent” back East. In a letter to his brother
dated February 22, 1868 (Almy 1987, p. 188),
he noted that Cope “wished me to express
it [by stagecoach] through from West, a
procedure that would cost about one hundred
and fifty dollars. To save the institution
[ANSP] expense, I shall keep it for two or
three days and forward it by government train
[Army supply wagons] to the Railroad which
is about a hundred miles … [Near present day
Ellis, Kansas]”
Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 120(3-4), 2017
Turner then wrote to his brother (ibid.; May 24,
1868) that “… I think I shall do no more for the
fossil till the working party of the Rail Road
reaches the spot as the present survey runs
directly to the hill...”
Figure 7. Fragments of the skull and lower
jaw of Elasmosaurus platyurus (ANSP 10081)
containing the bases of teeth. These may
represent portions of the lower jaw mentioned
by Turner in his letter of February 2, 1868.
Scale = cm.
Cope (1868a) received the shipment containing
the specimen in mid-March and gave a brief oral
description and scientific name in front of the
Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia
meeting on March 24, 1867. Then he wrote
to Turner on March 25 (Almy 1987, p. 189)
to confirm that it had arrived: “The invoice of
fossils has been received in good order and has
been the object of my examination for some days
past.” He noted that it was a “genus different
from Plesiosaurus, which I call Elasmosaurus
platyurus. … It appears to have had a tail of
immense length and flattened form. Indeed I think
there must be a considerable number of vertebrae
of the dorsal and cervical series remaining in the
cliff. I have no doubt the remainder of the cranium
is there and can be recovered. This will be a most
desirable [piece?] to be restored.” Cope then asked
about the relative locations of the pieces as they
were collected, and questioned Turner about some
other bones (the gastralia or belly ribs) that were
apparently missing.
In a reply to Turner dated May 3, 1868 (Almy
1987, p. 189), Cope expressed his regrets that
“the Indian disturbances render it unsafe to
pursue investigations in the beds of the region,
but no doubt time will come ere long when
such investigations can be readily made.”
The railroad reached Turner’s hill in August
1868 and construction was stopped there for
nearly a year due to the lack of construction
funds. A rather lawless railroad town called
Sheridan was briefly established at the railhead
just east of the fossil locality (Webb 1872, 1875)
and served as the terminus of the railroad until
construction resumed in the summer of 1869.
The summer of 1868 passed relatively
peaceably at Fort Wallace and in late August a
Congressional fact finding party led by Senator
Conkling of New York visited the fort on their
way to Denver. In a letter dated September 13,
1868 (Almy 1987, p. 193), Turner noted “Prof.
Aggazis [sic] was of this party. Of course, he
was searching after bugs, fish and fossils. He is
certainly a very funny old fellow and afforded
us much amusements by his jokes and quaint
manners.” More importantly, Turner wrote
“Not long ago I forwarded to Philadelphia the
ballance [sic] of my big fossil. It added a good
deal they say to the perfecting of the skeleton
and they were exceedingly glad to secure it.”
At the December 15, 1868 meeting of the
ANSP, the members adopted Cope’s (1869a)
resolution thanking Turner for “his very
valuable gift of the skeleton of the great extinct
reptile, the Elasmosaurus platyurus…” Cope
followed up with a letter (Almy 1987, p. 195)
to Turner telling him of the resolution.
Turner died unexpectedly at Fort Wallace on
July 27, 1869 of ‘acute Gastritis” (Almy 1987, p.
197), and was initially buried in the Fort Wallace
cemetery until his body could be returned to the
family cemetery in New Jersey. Cope continued
to write to him and was unaware of his death
until he received a letter (dated January 11,
1870; Almy 1987, p. 199) from Turner’s brother,
Daniel. In that letter, Daniel also told Cope
that Dr. Turner had returned home (New
Jersey) briefly on leave, showed him the fossil
under preparation at the ANSP and explained
its collection. Cope apparently was absent at
the time of the Turner’s visit. Simmons (2008,
p. 44) noted that Turner had taken “a 45 day
leave of absence from Fort Wallace in the
Spring of 1868.”
were destroyed by vandals in May 1871. A
story in the New York Times (January 20, 1872)
noted that “... the models of extinct animals,
constructed by Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins
had, with brutal vandalism, been deliberately
broken in pieces. The fragments were buried
near Mount Vincent, and some of them were
dug up by Mr. Hawkins...”
Following the receipt of the two shipments
from Turner, Cope (1869c) went on to formally
figure and describe Elasmosaurus platyurus
(incorrectly; Fig. 1E) in print. Once his error
was pointed out by Leidy (1870), Cope (1870)
partially corrected his reconstruction, placing
the head on the extremely long neck without
reversing the orientation of the vertebrae.
Cope noted that there was about 4 feet of
dorsal vertebrae (10 vertebrae by his estimate)
missing from the skeleton, along with the
gastralia, the limbs and portions of the skull.
The limb bone that Turner had mentioned in
his letter of February 2, 1868 (Almy 1987, p.
186), and Cope (1868, p. 92) reported as “two
long bones somewhat like femora...” turned
out to be the paired ilia from the pelvic girdle.
One of the ilia (Fig. 8C) was subsequently
illustrated by Cope (1869c, p. 52, fig. 10; 1870,
p. 53, fig. 10).
No comments regarding the Elasmosaurus
specimen were made following the incident
by either Hawkins or Cope. In any case, all we
have are Cope’s (1869c, 1870) drawings of the
pectoral and pelvic girdles (Fig. 8A, B). See
Sachs et al. (2013) and Everhart (2005, 2017b)
for updated descriptions of the Elasmosaurus
Cope (1869c, p. 51; 1870, p. 52) had also
requested the assistance of Benjamin
Waterhouse Hawkins in preparing the pectoral
and pelvic girdles out of the concretions
that surrounded them. Hawkins was an
English sculptor and natural history artist
renowned for his work on the life-size models
of the dinosaurs in the Crystal Palace Park
in South London, and who wanted to do
something similar in the United States. He
had previously mounted the first dinosaur
skeleton (Hadrosaurus) in the world at the
ANSP in Philadelphia. According to Debus and
McCarthy (1999; see also Carpenter 1999),
portions of the Elasmosaurus skeleton were
in Hawkins workshop in Central Park, New
York City and, along with many other exhibits,
As noted by Turner in his letter of September
13, 1868 (Almy 1987, p. 193) the dig for
additional remains of the Elasmosaurus
skeleton was completed by late August or
early September 1868. There is only scant (and
sometimes misleading) information regarding
the exact location of the specimen in Turner’s
letters, LeConte’s (1868) report, and Cope’s
(1869c, 1870) publications. Apparently the
exact locality was unimportant at the time and
not recorded, and by July 1869 the two men
who knew the most about the site, Turner and
Comstock, were dead.
The locality issue becomes interesting the
following year because Professor Benjamin
Mudge and his partner Joseph Savage collected
fossils in the vicinity of Sheridan, Kansas in
August 1870. Mudge sent some of them to
Cope and received a reply by letter naming
“eight new species” (Lawrence Daily Journal,
November 16, 1870, p. 3; Everhart 2017a).
Then Mudge and Savage met Marsh and the
first Yale College Scientific Expedition along
the North Fork of the Smoky Hill River near
Sheridan in December 1870 (Lawrence Daily
Journal, December 4, 1870, p. 1; Everhart
2017a) while collecting fossils.
Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 120(3-4), 2017
Figure 8. Drawings of the A. scapular (pectoral), and; B. pelvic girdles of Elasmosaurus platyurus
modified from Cope 1869c (figs. 7 and 8). Fig. 8c is one of the ilia of the pelvis that was mistakenly
mentioned by both Turner and Cope as a possible limb bone. Cross-hatched areas represent
damaged portions of the original specimen. No scale.
Mudge and Savage returned to Sheridan in
July1871, still unaware that Elasmosaurus
had been collected nearby. There Savage
discovered the type specimen of Plesiosaurus
gulo co-mingled with those of a mosasaur
(Cope 1872c). Of more interest in regard to
Turner’s discovery, Savage wrote in a letter to
the Lawrence Daily Journal (August 1, 1871,
p. 2) that Mudge had found:
“ … just beyond the water tank near
Sheridan … a section of an enormous saurian,
probably fifty feet long in life, incased [sic]
in a flat concretion of clay, with rib bones
preserved, and in exact position they occupied
in the living animal, showing its size and
shape perfectly. The back bone served as a
nucleus around which the concretion formed,
and preserved the exact skeleton in its strong
rocky bands, like a turtle shell… It will go
to his cabinet [collection] in the Agricultural
College in Manhattan [KSAC, now Kansas
State University].”
Although this brief description fits a plesiosaur
like Elasmosaurus, no further mention of the
specimen was ever made, and the specimen was
likely lost or destroyed when Mudge was fired
from the college in 1874. Was this a missing
piece of Elasmosaurus? We will never know.
It is perhaps more curious because Cope
(1872a) visited Mudge in Manhattan, Kansas
in October, 1871 and did not mention Mudge’s
‘saurian bones in a concretion’ in his report
to the ANSP. Cope would have certainly
recognized the similarity to the concretions
enclosing the limb girdles of Elasmosaurus.
After leaving Manhattan, Cope (1872b)
then visited western Kansas for the first
time, stopping initially at Sheridan, and was
apparently unaware that he was very close to
the Elasmosaurus locality.
In a final note, William Webb (1875) in Buffalo
Land, his semi-fictional, autobiographical
account of a 1868 hunting party in western
Kansas, describes the discovery of a large
fossil on the slopes of the volcano-like hill
Figure 9. Panoramic view of the reconstructed skeleton of Elasmosaurus platyurus (ANSP 10081;
Triebold Paleontology, Inc.) at the Fort Wallace Museum, Wallace, Kansas. The skeleton is
approximately 12.8 m (42 ft) in length. Photograph used with permission of Jayne Humphrey Pearce,
Fort Wallace Memorial Association.
west of Sheridan, Kansas. His account closely
parallels what Turner and Comstock might
have encountered there in 1867. Further
research has revealed that Webb was actually
describing the type specimen of Tylosaurus
proriger collected near Monument Rocks by
another Army officer, that Webb had obtained
and sold to Louis Agassiz at Harvard (Everhart
2016). That said, Webb’s story may have some
basis in personal accounts of the Elasmosaurus
discovery that were still fresh in the minds of
people living at that time around Fort Wallace
or Sheridan, Kansas.
Cope did little additional work with the
specimen following his revised description
(1870) of Elasmosaurus platyurus. Beyond
the undocumented work done by Waterhouse
Hawkins in connection with his Paleozoic
Museum, the specimen languished in storage
for nearly 30 years until examined by Williston
(1906). According to Ken Carpenter (pers.
comm., 2017) the current three-dimensional
reconstruction of Elasmosaurus platyurus on
display at the ANSP was completed in January
1986. Triebold Paleontology later copied
the cast and made copies available to other
museums. Most recently a copy of the original
cast has been installed at the Fort Wallace
Museum in Wallace, Kansas (Fig. 9).
The discovery and recovery of the skeleton of
Elasmosaurus platyurus (ANSP 10081) was
unlikely from the very beginning, involving
the friendship between an civilian scout who
knew the terrain around Fort Wallace, and
a young military doctor who was interested
in collecting minerals, but knew little about
fossils or how to collect them. The unexpected
visit by a railroad survey crew including
a medical doctor who was knowledgeable
about fossils and was acquainted with one of
the few people in the world at the time who
knew anything about plesiosaurs brought the
discovery to the attention of the scientific
community. Turner’s ability to organize the
collection of what was certainly the largest
fossil of its kind discovered up to that time,
and to get it transported half across the United
States is certainly a commendable feat in itself.
It is unfortunate that Turner did not live to see
the completion of the work that he began.
I am thankful for discussions over the
years with David Parris, Glenn Storrs, Ken
Carpenter, Earl Manning, Bruce Schumacher,
Jane Davidson, Sven Sachs and the late
Larry Martin in regard to the facts and myths
surrounding the discovery of Elasmosaurus
platyurus, and to the staff at the Academy
of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (now
the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel
University) for allowing me access to the
specimen in 2002 and 2009. I am greatly
indebted of Kenneth J. Almy for all the
work that he did collecting, organizing and
transcribing Dr. Turner’s correspondence for
publication. Without this valuable resource,
we would know virtually nothing about the
discovery of Elasmosaurus platyurus. I have
Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 120(3-4), 2017
taken the liberty here of republishing a large
number of excerpts from Turner’s letters in
Almy’s (1987) paper because it is generally
unknown and until recently was somewhat
difficult to obtain, being published more than
30 years ago. I also appreciate the help of
my late friend, Jerome ‘Pete’ Bussen (19272015) who was the first person to conclude
from Almy’s publication that Turner’s hill
locality was actually the north side of present
day McAllister Butte along the Union Pacific
Railroad tracks in western Logan County.
Leo Oliva, Hugh Simmons and George Miles
provided valuable historic background. The
comments and suggestions of two anonymous
reviewers were also greatly appreciated.
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