Even without Social Media, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was a trendsetter for the emerging field of paleontology. A firm believer in visual education for the masses, he popularized Natural History. In 1854 Hawkins made a huge splash in his prehistoric swamp with 33 life-sized dinosaurs for the Crystal Palace grounds in southeast London. In 1868, he was commissioned to create Central Park Dinosaurs for a Paleozoic Museum. Sadly, corrupt politicians smashed his works in progress and buried the evidence, presumably somewhere in Central Park. But where are they?
It’s easy to look back smugly at the “errors” Hawkins and Owen made in their early sculptures. Even today’s grade-school kids “know” that Ichthyosaurus had a dorsal fin and did not bask on land. We also “know” that the horns Hawkins placed on the noses of his Iguanodons were really thumb spikes.
Unlike scientists in the Victorian Era, paleontologists today have a sizable body of knowledge and evidence to help them reconstruct extinct creatures. But like Mary Anning who made some of the world’s first significant skeletal discoveries, the best paleontologists are also excellent anatomists.
Hawkins was as much artist as scientist. With limited education, he worked closely with renowned Biologist/Paleontologist Richard Owen to determine the general size and shape of his Crystal Palace creatures.
These hugely popular sculptures were the first like them in the world. They were favorites of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and attracted millions of visitors over the years.
In 1868, Hawkins traveled to America to lecture from New York to Chicago. Also in that year, he collaborated with paleontologist Joseph Leidy in the re-construction of the world’s first complete dinosaur skeleton. Their Hadrosaurus Foulkii skeleton was displayed at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.
Hawkins was definitely the hot ticket of his day. Andrew Green was then Commissioner of The Central Park. Like Hawkins, he believed in educating the masses and he had big plans for the park. Among them, was a Paleozoic Museum for which he commissioned Hawkins to build Central Park Dinosaurs.
Their grand plan was to create a sculptural menagerie of prehistoric flora and fauna of North America. Like the Crystal Palace, it would be a massive building with an arched steel and glass ceiling. It was slated for the corner of Central Park West and 63rd Street. Architect Frederick Law Olmsted won the commission. Designs were completed and foundations were being laid.
Meanwhile, Hawkins established his workshop in Central Park’s Arsenal Building. He started work on enormous molds for several American’s antediluvian giants. Among them was a mix of Mesozoic dinosaurs, a 39-foot hadrosaur, plesiosaurs and mosasaurs, plus a few Cenozoic mammals for good measure. Several of the Central Park Dinosaurs were well on their way to completion when the plan changed.
Green and many others were committed to the idea of establishing an American Natural History Museum (ANHM). Many prominent citizens and organizations donated their personal collections. Desperate for a place to safely store the flood of donations, the Arsenal building was taken. Hawkins and his Central Park Dinosaurs were relocated to a nearby shed. Since the foundations were well underway for the Paleozoic Museum, he cooperated.
William Tweed had become a fiercely powerful leader of Tammany Hall politics with the loyalty of waves of Irish immigrants. He and his associates gained unchecked power to borrow money and make contracts. Tweed was eventually convicted of stealing through political corruption an estimated $25 to $45 from New York City taxpayers. Later estimates ran as high as $200 million. He eventually died in Ludlow Street Jail.
Just two months after the AMNH was established, Tweed declared himself commissioner of public works. His associates took over the parks department, with Henry Hilton overseeing Central Park.
According to David Goldman in Prehistoric Times Magazine, January 2003:
“In December, the Tweed Park Commissioners discontinued Hawkins contract. In April 1871 the American Museum of Natural History had a spring reception at the Arsenal showing off the new Museum’s collections.
May 3rd 1871 was a pleasant clear day according to Prof. Draper’s weather station on the arsenal. A great day for spring-cleaning, I suppose. Henry Hilton ordered all of the molds, models, and casts from Hawkins’ temporary shed to be taken out, broken up and discarded. According to Hawkins they were carted up to Mount St. Vincent and buried.”
This is something of a Victorian Secret. Various commissioners in charge of Central Park development soon fled because the political climate was too difficult to manage. It’s not hard to imagine that Tweed and his gang were not particularly impressed with English born Hawkins telling them what to do.
Some say Hawkins spoke out against the politicians. Others say that Tweed needed to start from scratch to work his usual deals. Either way, the Central Park Dinosaurs were as doomed as the real ones. Tweed’s goon squad destroyed them with sledgehammers.
For now, this also remains another great Victorian Secret. Hawkins himself said Mount St. Vincent, and old convent. It burned to the ground in 1881. Others say they were dumped in a nearby lake in the park or the southwestern corner of the park.
Hawkins never received payment for his work on the Central Park Dinosaurs. Green eventually regained control of the park, but he was not able to pay Hawkins. Hawkins continued to lecture and educate the masses. Oddly, he had a conflicted view of the science of evolution. A reporter for the New York Times said:
“The lecturer in conclusion said he did not like the theory of evolution because it mars belief in the purpose of the Almighty, and because it murders poetry, without which life would be little worth living.”
Hawkins eventually packed his bags and returned to England. Tweed died in jail. Green went on to be known as the Father of New York City.
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