It was December 24, 1801, when bundled-up Philadelphians bought their 25¢ tickets and entered Peale’s Museum on Fifth Street. Once inside, they saw the owner’s paintings. And I’ll bet you have too—even if you’ve never heard of Charles Willson Peale. This one, for instance, of his fellow Revolutionary War soldier:
Visitors to the museum had seen Peale’s collections of butterflies, too, and other nature specimens, such as the fossilized teeth of mysterious beasts. (Who knew then that animals went extinct? Hardly anybody!) But on this extra-special Christmas Eve, people probably hurried past Peale’s handmade dioramas, with the lifelike bodies of birds and mammals that he’d stuffed and posed. Today, Mr. C.W. Peale himself was introducing his NEW ATTRACTION. People had paid an extra 50¢ just to see it! Now they looked up, up, UP at it, and were astonished.
What animal’s skeleton was eleven feet tall? Seventeen and a half feet from its bony tail to the tips of its giant, curving tusks? It was a mastodon.
No one had seen a live mastodon in more than ten thousand years. So how did one’s bones get to Philadelphia? Mr. Peale and other naturalists such as Thomas Jefferson, the new President-elect, wrote to one another about their studies, collections, and the latest discoveries, such as like these huge, mysterious bones in southern New York state. Some of North America’s long-gone mastodons ended up there, by the Hudson River. As soon as he heard about them, Peale hurried to see them. Then he not only figured a way to dig up the bones, but he also painted a picture of the huge excavation!
Peale’s son, Rembrandt helped to draw and assemble the bones:
For years, people paid to marvel at the enormous, sensational skeleton. Later on, after Mr. Peale’s death in 1827, his museum slowly went broke. P.T. Barnum, the circus showman, bought a lot of his exhibits. Later still, they were destroyed in a fire. And the mighty bones of the mastodon wound up lost for a hundred years, until the skeleton turned up in Germany, where you can see it today.
In Thomas Jefferson, her sixth presidential biography for National Geographic, Cheryl Harness illuminates the many sides of Thomas Jefferson: scientist, lawyer, farmer, architect, diplomat, inventor, musician, philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and third president of the United States. Readers meet this extraordinary man of contradictions: a genius who proclaimed that "All men are created equal" and championed the rights of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," while at the same time living a life that depended on the enforced labor of slaves.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "The Big Deal in Mr. Peale's Museum." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 18 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
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