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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Tyrannosaurus Sue Review

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T-Rex Ever Found: "Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T-Rex Ever Found"

Discovered by Sue Hendrickson and Peter Larson (president of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research) in the wastelands of South Dakota, the largest T-Rex had survived millions of years, Sue’s last meal was some kind of platypus. She was also the subject of multiple lawsuits and a Sotherby’s auction. (She sold for millions and Larson could only participate from his house where remained under house arrest.) Larson wound up in prison, Sioux Indians claimed ownership, the government claimed ownership. Larson had paid the land owner on which Sue was found about $5,000. It was a mess.

Henrickson is a field paleontologist (she’s also the world’s leading procurer of amber) who was searching near Faith, South Dakota. She’s somewhat of an Indianette Jones and has a real knack for finding things. Of the six butterflies in amber in the world, she found 3 of them.

Larson’s problems began soon after the world learned of the discovery and monetary valuations were proposed, many ranging as high as $1 million. The Sioux claimed the skeleton had been stolen from their land, Williams, the land owner, insisted the $5,000 was only for the right to dig, not for anything found, Hill City, South Dakota was building its hopes for economic revival on the presence of a museum in their little town, famous mostly for a large drug store. Because the owner, Maurice Williams, had put his land into a federal trust, the feds got involved. Soon after Williams claimed ownership, the FBI showed up with a warrant to seize all the bones. (I can just imagine the care with which a couple of black shirts treated the bones.) That really pissed off Hill City, an area in which most of the federal government is treated with more than a little suspicion. 

Soon there was a battle royale among the academicians, the feds, and commercial fossil hunters. The academics argued that the commercial hunters were interested only in money, not science, should never be allowed on federal land, and didn’t know what they were doing. The commercial types pointed out that most of the great finds were found by those wanting to profit from their finds and that if it were left to the professoriate, most of the great finds of the past two hundred years would never have been retrieved. Not to mention that many well-known paleontologists lauded the fossil hunters for the care and expertise they showed in handling rare fossils. Cynics took the position that each side just wanted to retain all the rights for themselves. Throw in a D.A. who was thinking of running for office and needed the publicity and you have all the ingredients for a nasty fight.

Larson was eventually convicted of custom’s violations (on the intake form the charge is formally listed as -- “failing to fill out forms” -- and served two years in federal prison in what has to be one of the great travesties and wastage of money. The trial itself was the longest in South Dakota history. Williams was awarded ownership (screwing the Indians again) and he sold Sue to the Field Museum in Chicago for $8.5 million. One interesting, if perhaps depressing element, of the trial was that according to a Supreme Court decision, judges could use evidence presented at trial in sentencingeven if the defendant had been acquitted on charges related to that evidenceThat’s spooky. So Larson was convicted only on failing to report travelers’ checks in excess of $10,000 when he returned from Peru into the United States, a misdemeanor. But because the judge was able to use all the evidence presented, he decided that Larson was part of a largely criminal conspiracy to steal fossils and therefore could be subject to much harsher sentencing. **

Feiffer relates a substantial number of stories and events related to the history of palaeontology. Including some famous hoaxes. I particularly enjoyed reading about the Cardiff Giant. Feiffer identifies the culprit as an agnostic farmer (the Wikipaedia says it was George Hull, a NY atheist tobacconist) who was infuriated by local Methodist revivals claiming giants once walked the earth as noted in Genesis. He build a giant man, let it age for a year, then had it buried on his cousin’s farm and later arranged to have it “discovered” while digging a well. He set up an exhibit and started charging admission. Christian preachers declared its validity and a validation of the Bible. Most scholars declared it a fake but that did not detract from its curiosity and Hull sold his interest in the statue for $23,000. P.T. Barnum wanted in on it and offered the new owners $50,000, a huge sum at the time. They turned him down so he created a replica and declared it the “real” Cardiff Giant. Soon Barnum and the Cardiff syndicate accused each other of having fakes. Hull revealed his hoax and a judge ruled that each could not be sued for calling a fake a fake. The two fakes are now in small town museums, each accusing the other of having the wrong (fake?) fake. Priceless.

**I believe the case referred to but not cited is United States v Watts: “the Court held that a jury's verdict of acquittal does not prevent a sentencing court from considering a defendant's conduct underlying the acquitted charge, so long as that conduct has been proved by a preponderance of the evidence. Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen G. Breyer concurred. Dissenting, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that the additional offense should have been required to have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt for sentencing purposes, where a defendant's sentence was lengthened. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, also dissenting, expressed the view that the cases should have been set for full briefing and consideration.” (seehttp://www.oyez.org/cases/1990-1999/1...)

This, of course, gives a great deal of power to the judge, but I suspect we wold all have applauded such power if used to reverse jury acquittal verdicts in lynching cases decades ago.

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