New research uncovers true culprits behind the destruction of prehistoric models in Central Park

A recent research paper from the University of Bristol has shed new light on a notorious incident in the history of paleontology. In 1871, a gang of vandals destroyed life-size models of prehistoric creatures that were being built for a new museum in Central Park, New York. Until now, the incident was thought to have been orchestrated by William “Boss” Tweed, a former American politician. However, the paper’s authors, Victoria Coules and Professor Michael Benton, have identified a new culprit: Henry Hilton, the Treasurer and VP of Central Park.

According to Coules, the incident was part of a broader power struggle for control of New York City’s finances and development contracts in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Central Park was a key part of this struggle, and the Paleozoic Museum was one of its most anticipated attractions. The museum was being built by British sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, who had previously created life-size models of prehistoric creatures for London’s Crystal Palace.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’ studio at the Central Park Arsenal, with models of extinct animals. Credit: 12th Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park for the Year Ending December 31, 1868

In late 1870, William “Boss” Tweed took control of New York City and installed his own allies as heads of various departments, including Central Park. As a result, a partially completed museum project in the park was cancelled. However, in May 1871, the project was completely destroyed by a group of workers who were apparently ordered to do so.

According to Professor Benton, previous accounts of the incident attributed the destruction to Tweed himself, citing various reasons such as blasphemy or retaliation for criticism in the New York Times. However, upon closer examination of original sources, it was discovered that Tweed was preoccupied with fighting corruption charges and was unlikely to have been involved in the museum project.

The situation was further complicated by the concurrent development of two other projects in Central Park: the American Museum of Natural History and the Central Park Zoo. After examining annual reports and minutes of Central Park, as well as reports in the New York Times, it was determined that the true culprit behind the destruction of the museum project was a man named Henry Hilton.

Thanks to the availability of primary sources online, researchers were able to investigate the 1871 destruction of a museum project in Central Park and identify the true culprit as Henry Hilton, the Treasurer and VP of Central Park. Hilton was known for making eccentric decisions, such as painting a bronze statue and a whale skeleton white.

In addition to his strange behavior, Hilton also cheated a widow out of her inheritance and squandered his own fortune while causing harm to businesses and livelihoods. While Hilton can be seen as the villain of the story, his character remains enigmatic and mysterious.

The importance of correcting the historical record regarding this incident is highlighted by the fact that it sheds light on the history of paleontology. The paper detailing these findings has been published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

Source: University of Bristol

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