“The Scientific Wonder of the Age” –Montana’s Petrified Man

Frauds, hoaxes, and curiosities of all sorts have a long history in America. Something about the American character lends us to enjoying a good tall tale, no matter how ridiculous it is. That other, more famous facet of the American character–enterprise–has caused many a showman to fulfill that desire for all things strange. These tendencies have lead to some fairly strange incidents in American history, from the robber whose mummy wound up on the set of a 1970s TV show to a pygmy mummy who some believe could rewrite the history of humanity.

Perhaps the strangest curiosities to grace the American stage were those of the stone giants discovered in the 19th century. The first was the Cardiff Giant, supposedly a petrified man discovered on a farm near Cardiff in New York state. The figure was lauded as proof of the Biblical stories of giants, a fulfillment of the notion that many Americans held that their homeland was the Promised Land. The giant turned out to be a hoax, of course, but even when the Cardiff Giant was outed as a fake the stone giant fad lost little steam. For about 50 years, it seemed every town was home to some sort of ancient remains.

Even among this weirdness, one story of a petrified man stood head and shoulders above the others. Dubbed “The Scientific Wonder of the Age,” a stone figure discovered in Montana purported not to be an ancient corpse, but rather a famous figure who met his unfortunate end in the modern era.

 

The discovery

Montana’s petrified man was allegedly discovered in the Missouri River, downstream from Fort Benton, in 1897. The man who discovered the figure, Tom Dunbar, claimed to have seen the body wedged in the river bed when the water was low. He hooked a rope around it and dragged it free of the sand, only to bury it in the sandy soil of the river bank a little ways away from the water. He returned eighteen months later with a wagon to retrieve his prize. Like any good stone giant discoverer, Dunbar immediately began to exhibit his prize, wowing tourists visiting Yellowstone National Park with his tale.

In September of 1899, Dunbar sold the figure to Arthur Wellington Miles, who promptly displayed it in a pine coffin in an empty building near his lumberyard. The curiosity brought in big crowds, eager to pay to see the wonderful sight. Miles raked in a tidy sum of $60 a day ($1500 in today’s money) from curiosity seekers. The hefty sums made Miles dream bigger. He began to look east, toward New York, where the stone giant craze originally began.

However, neither Dunbar nor Miles had attached any origin story to the figure so far. If Miles was going to make it big in the east, his petrified man would need to have a draw. Conveniently, Miles was struck by a memory of a miner who viewed the curiosity in Butte had said. The miner, whose testimony was recorded in an article published in the New York World on December 31, 1899,  The miner said: “It is the General! God rest his soul! It is the General!”

 

The General

“The General” was none other than General Thomas Francis Meagher. An Irish revolutionary, Civil War General, and Governor of the Montana Territory in 1867, Thomas Meagher died under mysterious circumstances on the Missouri River, not far from where the statue that allegedly bore his likeness was found. The then governor disappeared the night of July 1, 1867, falling over the side of a steamboat into the Missouri River. Some suspected foul play, while others thought the fall might have been an unfortunate accident.

The petrified body seemed to indicate homicide. The statue seemed to have a hole in the head, which was concluded to be from the arrow of an Indian attacker. This same attacker bound the governor’s wrists after having dragged the stunned man out of the river. When the Indian heard Meagher’s friends hew and cry on the steamboat, he threw the governor into the river and slipped into the night. Then, by some mysterious process, the body was petrified on the river bottom for Thomas Dunbar to find 30 years later.

With his backstory in place, Arthur Wellington Miles organized a train tour for the petrified governor. Beginning in December 1899, the tour would hit St. Paul, Chicago, and other cities on the way to the ultimate goal: New York.

Unfortunately for Miles and his associates, the tour was not near as profitable as they had hoped. The initial enthusiasm for petrified men had been dulled by the exposure of the Cardiff Giant and the Solid Muldoon as out and out frauds. Crowds were skeptical of yet another stone giant, even if it was allegedly the body of a war hero. The tour flopped, leaving the businessmen in the red.

 

Where is Montana’s Petrified Man?

Montana’s petrified man enjoyed only a brief career in the spotlight. Arthur Miles held on to the figure for a number of years after the failed eastern tour. He sold the statue not long after World War I, and ever since the figure’s fate is murky at best. It popped up in the occasional fair or in the hands of a showman now and then through the early 20th century, but it has since been lost to history.

Unlike the Cardiff Giant, which was undeniably outed as a hoax, no one came forward to admit to making Montana’s petrified man. Skeptics of the day did not debunk the hoax, content to simply poke fun at people’s gullibility. In the wake of the Cardiff Giant fraud, no one but true believers and curiosity seekers took the idea of petrified men very seriously. While it is true that organic materials can become petrified given enough time, 30 years is hardly the time span needed for that to happen. Meaghers, more likely than not, met the fate of any other person lost to the water. There is no reason to think his fate was anything special. The petrified man was a hoax, an odd bit of flim flam now consigned to the junk drawer of history.

 

Sources:

Kemmick, Ed. “‘Petrified’ man was big attraction in turn-of-the-last-century Montana.” BillingsGazette.com. March 13, 2009. Billings Gazette. February 28, 2015. http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/montana/article_4d6a8de1-67da-5325-8d52-91015cf3d968.html

“The Petrified Man Fake.” The Reading Eagle. December 25, 1899. pg 2. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1955&dat=18991225&id=G8MhAAAAIBAJ&sjid=Yp0FAAAAIBAJ&pg=2184,5390411