A little while back I shared a lecture that the esteemed Claude-Nicolas Le Cat gave on the subject of giants to the Academy of Science at Rouen in 1764. The full text is now on my Fragments on Giants page, but the important takeaway was that Le Cat’s lengthy list of supposed discoveries of giant human skeletons were reprinted in early editions of famous encyclopedias, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica and his lecture was recycled throughout the nineteenth century as a convenient source of “proof” of the existence of giants. Now Andy White has discovered an interesting adaptation of Le Cat’s text attributed to the scholar Benjamin Silliman, Jr., a Yale professor, chemist, and major figure in the oil industry. In 1840s, various papers claimed that Silliman gave a lecture on giants, and the text of that lecture matched the Britannica transcript of Le Cat’s lecture nearly point for point, with an odd series of typos that were as distinctive as they were clearly derived from an inferior (pirated or otherwise badly transcribed) copy of Le Cat, in which, for example, “Orestes” was given as “Grostes” or “Grestes.” Mixed in were some passages on giants from Adam Clarke’s famous commentary on the Bible and Jedidiah Morse’s Geography.
To understand just what happened, let’s look at the earliest available version of the introductory text, just before Le Cat’s list of giants. This text comes from the Sunbury American and Shamokin Journal for December 14, 1844 but was widely reprinted elsewhere and is obviously summarizing an earlier report:
A correspondent of the Brooklyn Advertiser, in referring to a late lecture by Professor Silliman, Jr., who mentioned the discovery of an enormous animal of the lizard tribe, measuring 80 feet in length, from which he naturally inferred, as no living specimen had been found, that all animals had greatly degenerated in size, confirms the supposition by referring to the history of giants in the olden time, of which he furnishes a list.
In 1842, Benjamin Silliman, Sr., a Yale professor, chemist, and natural historian, gave a famous series of lectures on geology in New York, and these may be the lectures referred to in the Advertiser, which has not been digitized. (It was apparently very easy to confuse the two Sillimans.) So far as I can tell, only Silliman’s second lecture was reported in the New York press. In that lecture he discussed dinosaurs and other ancient lizards, according to accounts, and made reference to the Mosaic account of creation to explain the succession of animals over time.
Notice very carefully that the grammar of the report’s sentence states clearly that Prof. Silliman gave a lecture on a lizard and that the correspondent provided the list of giants, obviously from Le Cat’s lecture, likely from the Britannica or a similar encyclopedia. The only ambiguity is whether Silliman or the correspondent argued for the degeneracy of species, but since the existence of dinosaurs and mammoths seemed to support that supposition, this was not a controversial claim. Later editors, though, did not distinguish between the correspondent and the professor after they chopped off reference to the Brooklyn Advertiser. In fact, the Advertiser correspondent was himself likely recycling material; he seems to have attached to an account of Silliman’s lecture a garbled version of Le Cat’s lecture that had been running in newspapers (and would run in others like the Huron Reflector) in the 1840s—without Silliman’s name—apparently from a phrenology journal (to judge by reference to phrenology and crania) as proof of giants.
By 1847 Scientific American and other journals were running a misunderstood version of the story in which Silliman was now made to advocate giants:
In one of his recent lectures, Professor Silliman, the younger, alluded to the discovery of the skeleton of an enormous lizard, measuring upwards of eighty feet. From this fact the Professor inferred, as no living specimen of such gigantic magnitude has been found, that the species of which it is the representative has greatly degenerated. The verity of position, he rather singularly endeavors to enforce by an allusion to the well known existence of giants in olden times.
It would not be the first time Scientific American published a half-understood, garbled newspaper account in those years, as quickly rewriting and reprinting newspaper stories was its bread and butter; its concluding paragraph sarcastically agreeing that giants existed because the Bible said so is just as snarky as its (correct) dismissal of the Dorchester Pot, from a similarly confusing reprint a few years later. This version of the Silliman story was repeated over and over through the nineteenth century, sometimes with Silliman misunderstood as “Williams.”
But what on earth was Silliman going on about? Here the story intersects with a fascinating case of fraud.
In April 1841, Dr. Benjamin Silliman, Sr. and his son, Benjamin Silliman, Jr., attended the meeting of the Association of American Geologists where he heard Richard Harlan give a lecture on a newly discovered set of bones taken at the time to be those of a giant ocean-dwelling lizard. The bones, belonging to Basilosaurus cetoides were later shown by Sir Richard Owen and later scholars to be those of a forty million year old whale. However, in the 1840s, only the skull and spinal column were known, lending the creature the appearance of a sea-serpent, which many took it to be. Silliman certainly did, and his name became attached to a skeleton fabricated to capitalize on the new species. Silliman had been a longtime supporter of the existence of sea serpents, having endorsed the Gloucester Serpent of 1817-1819 in 1827.
In 1844, a certain “Dr.” Albert C. Koch, a German scientist and mountebank who ran a museum of antiquities and oddities, traveled to Connecticut and paid a visit to Silliman, a longtime and close friend, to show him some fossils of the Basilosaurus and other species. The two had become friends in 1839, when Silliman published one of Koch’s articles on extinct megafauna in his academic journal, the American Journal of Science, and became an enthusiastic supporter of Koch’s ideas about fossils. (There is, understandably, some confusion in the sources between Silliman and his son, Benjamin Silliman, Jr., also a professor of chemistry, so others write that Silliman, Jr. was the person in question who befriended Koch.)
Silliman told Koch about a woman who knew where another Basilosaurus skeleton was located, in Alabama. Using Silliman’s tip, Koch traveled to Alabama and collected the bones. Another version of the story, told by fossil hunter, Israel Slade, claimed that he and Koch met one another in Alabama and that Slade had collected the bones but lost them to Koch, who bribed the owner of the Alabama land to give them to him. Either way, Koch had two partial whale skeletons, it is true, but he fashioned it into a tourist attraction from five different skeletons, mostly whale but some of other species, and passed it off as the being of the same species but still greater than the hydrarchos Harlan had taken to Britain and studied with Richard Owen. Koch obtained his bones wherever he could find them; Basilosaurus bones were so common that Alabama residents used them in construction, or even destroyed them to clear fields for plowing.
Upon the fake skeleton’s arrival at the Apollo Saloon on Broadway in New York City in July 1845 it was exhibited as Hydrarchos sillimani, after the professor, in honor of Silliman’s role in leading Koch to his newest money-maker, in some tellings, or in honor of the elder Silliman’s role in endorsing the reality of sea-serpents in 1827. This did not sit well with Prof. Jeffries Wyman, soon to be of Harvard, who railed against the skeleton as an obvious and crude fake. Wyman and Silliman knew each other well; Wyman had studied under Silliman and published in Silliman’s academic journal. Both men, along with Silliman, Jr., were members of the Association of American Geologists and were privy to the facts behind the Basilosaurus. Wyman thought much of the elder Silliman, whom he spoke of with a “feeling of deep reverence,” according to his memorial eulogy. Who better, then, to prop up the reality of the skeleton against Wyman’s attack than Wyman’s clearest equal?
Koch invited his close friend Silliman to pay a visit to the skeleton, and Silliman (Sr. or Jr., depending on the source; both seemed to have viewed the bones) was enthusiastic about it to the point that, according to Koch at least, he felt compelled to spread the word to the public about the amazing creature and its history. To help promote the wonder, Silliman (apparently Sr.) allegedly wrote a letter dated September 2, 1845, which Koch published in a pamphlet for the exhibit and which was republished in many New York papers. The best I can conclude is that Silliman, Sr. really did see the bones and find them convincing—at first, at least until Prof. Wyman rained on the parade.
From Silliman’s letter—be it authentic or cobbled together from reports of Silliman’s lectures on geology and/or the Basiolosaurus—we can obtain a good idea of what he or his son (for they shared common interests and common research—Jr. investigated the hydrarchos alongside his father) would have said about the bones, which he believed to be those of the Basilosaurus, in the early 1840s, before Koch had fabricated the skeleton of the hydrarchos.
He began by sketching the history of the skeleton, tying it very closely to Harlan’s legitimate find and implying they were the same. The skeleton “belonging to one individual” fossilized in limestone, he said, had measured “between seventy and eighty feet long” in situ, but upon reconstruction now measured 114 feet. Therefore, we can safely assume that the lizard “80 feet in length” was in fact the Basilosaurus as Silliman understood it between 1842 and 1844. The fraudulent hydrarchos version had been found in Alabama and was one of many similar sets of bones Silliman had seen and, presumably, lectured upon:
Judging from the abundance of the remains (some of which have been several years in my possession) the animals must have been very numerous and doubtless fed upon fishes and other marine creatures—the inhabitants of a region, then probably of more than tropical heat; and it appears probable also, that this animal frequented bays, estuaries and sea coasts, rather than the main ocean. As regards the nature of the animal, we shall doubtless be put in possession of Professor Owen’s more mature opinion, after he shall have reviewed the entire skeleton. I would only suggest that he may find little analogy with whales, and much more with lizards, according to Dr. Harlan’s original opinion.
Note the reference to the 1827 sea-serpent claim. He then says that Dr. Koch found an arrowhead buried in an ancient strata far too old to be Native American, associated with the skeleton of a wooly mammoth, the Missourium—another fake composed from several skeletons. (Koch sold it to the British Museum for $10,000, and they disassembled it and rebuilt it the right way.) While real ancient people from the Clovis culture had in fact hunted mammoths (and many believe that despite his frauds Koch really did find a Clovis point), in Silliman’s day stone points and mammoth bones suggested antediluvian people:
The bow which shot that arrow must have been bent by some “hunter of Kentucky,” long before Noah entered the ark; and the “Native American” who was on a still hunt after that Missourium, instead of being a Tarter from the north of Asia, or a descendant of the lost tribes of Israel, must have been a true Alleghanian son of the soil, of a breed somewhat older than Nimrod.
And now we see how giants enter the story. Giant lizards, giant elephants, and a people older than the Biblical giant Nimrod who hunted them: To audiences, this must have implied that Silliman was discussing Bible giants themselves. Silliman, in what sounds like a fabricated passage, went on to suggest what sounded much like a Biblical theory of degeneracy:
But the fossil snake! “The great serpent of the Apollo,” this is undoubtedly the grandest osteological exhibition that has ever been submitted to public curiosity; for we believe no Saurian has as yet gone beyond seventy-five feet, and this grandfather of the sea serpents would reach at least to one hundred and thirty, it the cartilage were restored to the articulations of his vertebrae.
The New York newspapers were dazzled and gave glowing coverage to both the sea-serpent, which they took to be the Leviathan of the Bible, and to Silliman’s full-throated defense of it. Unfortunately, it seems that Koch overstepped. While I do not know how much of the letter is genuine, after Wyman revealed the hoax, the enraged Silliman demanded that Koch remove his name from the ridiculous skeleton, though as was his wont he phrased it as a polite request to give the honor to the first to describe the skeleton, Richard Harlan. Koch made the best of a bad situation, and he reissued all of his publicity material under a new name--Hydrarchos Harlani, after Richard Harlan, “by the particular desire of Professor Silliman.”
Before any of this occurred, Silliman (Sr. or Jr.) would have been giving popular lectures on the real skeleton of the Basilosaurus, the one Harlan had taken to London for Richard Owen’s opinion. In so doing, Silliman would likely have framed the story in Biblical terms for his audience, as was his wont in discussing geology, so as not to offend believers. The Sillimans, despite being scientists, were also devout (if not especially literal) Christians, and the elder Silliman called the Bible a “lamp to his feet.” He rejected a literal reading of Genesis, but he felt that in general science and the Bible were in harmony (“geology… presents a demonstration of the truth of Mosaic history, which nothing else can afford,” he wrote on July 24, 1854), so it is not impossible that he or his son would have cited Bible giants in describing the antediluvian world, or cited degeneracy after the Flood, following the Mosaic text and its account of the loss of the giants (human and animal) and the shortening of lifespans.
Certainly, after the hydrarchos hoax that is how newspapers read the story. The New York Evangelist, for example, asked how many “giants of old” battled the monster in pre-Flood days. “Who knows but Noah had seen him from the window! Who knows but he may have visited Ararat! Who knows how many dead and wicked giants of old he had swallowed and fed upon!”
In that context, Silliman’s lecture on the Basilosaurus became conflated with the question of Leviathan and Behemoth and the Nephilm and in the bastardized form from the Brooklyn Advertiser misunderstood by later editors became “proof” of Bible giants rather than a natural history lecture on prehistoric lizards. Oddly enough, there is a strange footnote to the hoax: The editor of The Mechanics’ Magazine, writing on August 19, 1848, obviously took the story for some species of lunacy. He noted that the professor’s name was “Silly-Man” and suggested that if the professor could provide proof of the existence of a single giant, he would in turn send him a copy of the fictitious “Chronicles of the Lost Atlantis,” which describes and even larger giant. The “silly man / Silliman” pun became a popular rejoinder to Koch’s exhibit, even after the name change, much to the chagrin of the Sillimans.
The hydrarchos hoax skeleton didn’t fare so well either. Koch took it with him to Europe, where it found a permanent home in Dresden and in time was destroyed in the Allied bombings of World War II. Koch had also made a smaller copy of hydrarchos, but the universe killed that monstrosity with fire, too: It perished in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. But Benjamin Silliman, Sr. seemed to have forgiven Koch. Ten years later he penned a letter endorsing Koch’s smaller hydroarchos and wishing him “best wishes for your success.” Unless, of course, that letter was a fraud, too…
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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