The Megatherium Club

B.J. Hollars


In 1857, a war was brewing, but in the Smithsonian Castle—less than two miles from the White House—a group of like-minded naturalists busied themselves with classification, instead. The recent discovery of the megatherium—a sloth the size of a mammoth—had reaffirmed their faith that the unknown was everywhere, that America was in need of taxonomy. Although they worked for the Smithsonian, they called themselves the Megatherium Club, a fraternity of mostly twenty-somethings, all of whom slipped in and out of expeditions, traversing the unexplored regions of the world in search of species in need of names. They, too, had names; men like zoologist William Stimpson, naturalist Robert Kennicott, ornithologist Henry Bryant, and artist Henry Ulke. 

Throughout the club's nine-year existence, membership expanded to include many other young men—a nomadic tribe of wonderers who often took refuge in the warm beds in the towers of the Smithsonian Castle—though Stimpson, Kennicott, Bryant and Ulke remained the four most recognizable members; this, the result of their presence in the club's sole surviving photo. The photo depicts Stimpson, Bryant and Ulke staring hard at the camera, while a playful Kennicott drapes an arm around Ulke, studying his face like a fossil. The photo reveals them for what they were—three-fourths grown-up and one-fourth child.

When they weren't busy reclassifying the world, members of the Megatherium Club were rumored to drink deep into the night, occasionally organizing competitive sack races up and down the Great Hall of the newly constructed Smithsonian Castle. It's easy to envision their debauchery—a smattering of half-grown men with one eye tipped to a magnifying glass and the other rolling round in their heads. Boys with their hands buried in bone fragments, while nearby, on a battlefield, other boys were buried quite differently.

 "Much has been written about the excesses in drink and revelry that attended the informal meetings of the club," explains Jerry Cates, director of the twenty-first century Megatherium Society. "And those stories are probably all true." But according to Cates, the alleged "raucous behavior" of the club's early members was simply a side effect of their true purpose—reinvigorating their scientific spirits through socialization.

What little we actually know of these men speaks to our own failure as preservationists. While they dedicated their lives to protecting the past, we refused to return them the favor. They are just names now, though they ensured their own legacies by attaching their names to the natural world. At the time of his death in 1872, William Stimpson had twelve species named in his honor, while Robert Kennicott secured his own to a glacier, a valley, a river.

Stimpson's Megatherium Club disbanded a year after Lincoln's death and the preservation of the Union. Secretary of the Smithsonian Joseph Henry had tired of their antics. One too many pints, perhaps, or too many muddy footprints tracked inside the castle. There were still bones in the ground, but now there were also bones atop it; the megatherium no longer seemed such a marvel compared to the body of a dead president and two hundred thousand others lying still in their blues and grays. 

When the war was on, these scientific-minded boys peered out the castle windows at other boys but could not classify what they observed: young men not unlike themselves broken to pieces by the teeth of a bone saw, their bodies only half their bodies now.

How could a species hope to maintain order in such disorder? they wondered. Without a phylum or a family?