The Missouri Leviathan
In 1840, a self-described scholar named Albert Koch excavated a great many fossilized bones from the banks of the Pomme de Terre River in eastern Missouri. The bones were from mastodons: prehistoric elephants once found in the region. But Koch assembled them into a creature the world had never seen before! His story is bizarre, and it makes for a super memorable plot hook.
Bones have distinct ways in which they fit together, and a competent anatomist can use this knowledge to accurately reassemble a disarticulated skeleton, even of a species she’s never seen before. Albert Koch was not a competent anatomist. The beast he created was a monstrosity. He jammed together bones from multiple animals, adding extra ribs, vertebrae, and toes. He jammed the tusks in sideways. He chose the longest leg bones, and rotated the pelvis and shoulder blades to make the skeleton taller. Koch claimed he’d discovered no mere mastodon but a new species entirely: Missourium theristrocaulodon, the Missouri Leviathan.
Image credit: Wellcome Collection. Released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
Koch’s description of his Leviathan was of a strong, ferocious omnivore. It was fifteen feet tall, thirty-two feet long, and had no trunk. It boasted an armored hide like an alligator’s, a flat tail like a beaver’s, webbed and clawed feet, and tusks emerging sideways from its head. The beast was primarily aquatic. It could swim like an otter or beaver, but it could also run along the bottom. The Missourium lurked in ponds and rivers, eating plants and animals alike. This ferocious monster particularly preyed upon carnivores, especially alligators!
The published description of the creature also set it in a particular cultural context. Koch devoted considerable ink to his claim that his Missourium was none other than the Leviathan described in the Biblical book of Job. And Koch cites vague Osage Indian legends about ferocious giant monsters as further evidence of his accuracy. To this day, fans of Bigfoot and Ogopogo cite indigenous legends and the Bible’s Leviathan and Behemoth as evidence for their cryptozoological claims. It’s worthwhile to be as skeptical today as we should have been in 1840.
Behemoth and Leviathan, detail, William Blake
Koch took his Missourium on the road. In Philadelphia, one of the country’s leading experts on fossils certified Koch’s claims as authentic. In London, crowds flocked to see the skeleton, and paid for the privilege! But in 1841, trouble started. Dr. Richard Owen, who only months before coined the word ‘dinosaur’, noticed the subtle impossibilities in Missourium’s anatomy. He accused Koch of selling a badly-assembled mastodon to the gullible public – which, of course, Koch was! Koch denied Owen’s claim before London’s Geological Society, and took his Leviathan to Ireland and Germany in hopes of finding a more receptive audience. Koch concluded his European tour by selling the Missourium to the British Museum for $2,000 down and $1,000 per year for the rest of Koch’s life. Owen reassembled the skeleton as a mastodon, and it’s still on display today.
Koch’s next venture was a 114-foot-long sea serpent cobbled together from mollusk shells and fossilized bones from five ancient Zeuglodon whales. The ‘serpent’ went on display in Boston. Again, the paying public was fooled. But this time, scientists were much quicker to debunk the claim. When British geologist Charles Lyell visited the spot in Alabama were Koch claimed to have dug up his ‘serpent’, Lyell discovered parts of the spinal column were excavated fifteen miles from the skull. That fact is important, because it makes clear that Koch wasn’t just a well-intentioned incompetent. He was a deliberate fraud. Advance warning of Koch’s hoax caused his show in London to flop, but King Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia bought Koch’s ‘serpent’ for the Royal Museum in Berlin.
At your table, the Missouri Leviathan is a cool monster in its own right, occupying much the same role as the Catoblepas: a weird, ugly semi-aquatic thing made cooler by its historical backstory. For the Catoblepas, it’s classical myth. For the Missourium, it’s the wild tale of Albert Koch.
But I think the Missourium really shines as a fossil. PCs could be hired by an NPC based on Dr. Richard Owen, who’s heard the Missourium is coming to the PCs’ country, and fears the public is about to be duped by a con man. The PCs may have to travel to where the Leviathan is on display: it’s Philadelphia in real history, but could be any big city in your campaign setting. There, the notes provided by your version of Dr. Owen will show the skeleton doesn’t make sense fit together the way it is. PCs may interview Albert Koch, get the opinions of local scientists, steal Koch’s accounts ledger, and try to determine how much he’s motivated by scholarship and how much by greed. A journey to the place the skeleton was excavated will likely turn up more bones, supporting the idea this is several skeletons fused together. But Koch paid well for those bones, and the locals may be unwilling to help the PCs! Similarly, Koch made sure to make his discovery a Christian one. A firebrand preacher may suspect the party is trying to overturn evidence supporting the literal truth of the book of Job. He may send some of his more fanatical congregants to stop the PCs!
Do you have thoughts about the Missouri Leviathan? Have you ever used paleontology (fraudulent or otherwise) as a plot hook at your table? Come tell me about it over at the Facebook page!
Description of the Missourium or Missouri Leviathan by Albert Koch
American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became A Symbol of National Identity by Paul Semonin