William Temple Hornaday’s War

Pop quiz for all taxidermy enthusiasts! Who is the father of modern taxidermy? Carl E. Akeley, right?

Well, technically, yes. But can you name the pioneer who came before Akeley and developed many of the techniques that Akeley built upon? And if you continue to trace taxidermy history back to its origins far enough, who was the man who wrote the instruction books that heavily influenced J. W. Elwood, which eventually lead to the Serious Sportsman Taxidermy for Beginners booklets that I wrote in the 1990s?

In the earliest history of taxidermy organizations and competitions: who helped to establish the first national taxidermists association (note the lower case letters) over 130 years ago? Who won Best of Show at the very first taxidermy competition in 1881 with an orangutan group fighting in the treetops with artificial foliage?

And if that’s not enough, who nearly singlehandedly saved the American bison from extinction? Who was the one of the first real conservationists who helped his friend Teddy Roosevelt establish our national park system? Who shot and mounted the bison which became the model for the buffalo nickel and who is responsible for the fact that you can’t shoot and sell hummingbird skins today?

One complex man, William Temple Hornaday.

William Temple Hornaday working on a lion model in 1880.

William T. Hornaday learned his craft while apprenticing in 1873 with Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York, which at the time was the center of the world of taxidermy. Propelled by his natural talent and enormous ego, he was promoted to Chief Taxidermist in his mid-twenties, where he traveled the globe collecting specimens, wrote the first substantial book on taxidermy procedures, and helped to organize the Society of American Taxidermists in 1880. By the time he left Ward’s in 1881 (two years before Akeley would start to work there), he was arguably the best and most famous taxidermist of his time. He went on to become Chief Taxidermist at the Smithsonian National Museum in Washington, and later founded the National Zoo in Washington and served as the Director of the Bronx Zoo for thirty years.

I already knew the story of the early life of Hornaday as a taxidermy pioneer, but I did not know about his combative later life, in which he became the first to recognize that market hunting could lead to extinction, and he lost most of his friends by waging a war against poachers, scandalously lax game-protection laws, and the vast apathy of the American public. He waged the “Plume Wars” against the feathered-hat industry and is credited with having saved both the Alaskan fur seal and the American bison from outright extinction.

On Sunday afternoons while working on my tractor, I like to listen to National Public Radio through headphones to drown out the noise of the Bush Hog. Even though the NPR shows usually lean heavily to the left, I still find most of them thoughtful and interesting. Last week, my ears pricked up when I heard a segment on the PRI series “Living on Earth” talk about William Temple Hornaday. I got excited thinking that taxidermy would be the main subject of the program, but instead, I learned about another side of Hornaday that I was unaware of. You can follow this link or click the player below to listen to the program, where biographer Stefen Bechtel tells host Steve Curwood how the 19th century taxidermist and hunter transitioned into an outspoken defender of the natural world on last week’s edition of the PRI series “Living on Earth.”

Living on Earth: Mr. Hornaday’s War

Air Date: Week of June 1, 2012

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

In this new biography by Stefan Bechtel, Hornaday’s passion about conservation, and his role in the passage of wildlife protection laws is explored in detail. Here is a promotional video for the book:

“Mr. Hornaday’s War” is a long-overdue biography of William Temple Hornaday. He was complex, quirky, pugnacious, and difficult. He seemed to create enemies wherever he went, even among his friends. A fireplug of a man who stood only five feet eight inches in his stocking feet, he began as a taxidermist and an adventurer who tracked tigers in Borneo with friendly headhunters, lead crocodile-hunting expeditions in the Orinoco, and scouted the last remaining bison in the Montana territories.

William Temple Hornaday (1854-1937) was also a man ahead of his time. He was the most influential conservationist of the nineteenth century, second only to his great friend and ally Theodore Roosevelt. When this one-time big-game collector witnessed the wanton destruction of wildlife prevalent in the Victorian era, he experienced an awakening and devoted the rest of his life to protecting our planet’s endangered species. Hornaday founded the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., served for thirty years as director of the renowned Bronx Zoo, and became a fierce defender of wild animals and wild places.

“Mr. Hornaday’s War” restores this major figure to his rightful place as one of the giants of the modern conservation movement. But Stefan Bechtel also explores the grinding contradictions of Hornaday’s life. Though he crusaded against the wholesale slaughter of wildlife, he was at one time a trophy hunter, and what happened in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo, when Hornaday displayed an African man in an “ethnographic exhibit,” shows a side of him that is as baffling as it is repellant. This gripping book takes an honest look at a fascinating, enigmatic man who both represented and transcended his era’s paradoxical approach to wildlife, and who profoundly changed the course of the conservation movement for generations to come.

Below, you can read an excerpt from this book. Here is Chapter 5, “The Last Buffalo Hunt”:

Chapter 5, Mr. Hornaday’s War

You can order the entire book, “Mr. Hornaday’s War: How a Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife That Changed the World” by Stefan Bechtel by following this link:

Hornaday’s bison bodies had a hollow wooden framework with the head and legs wrapped in tightly bound wood wool over cleaned bones.

The buffalo collected in that chapter were later mounted by Hornaday for the US National Museum in 1888. The Hornaday Bison Group, as it was known, became famous and the big bull was the model for the artwork on the 1901 ten-dollar bill as well as the buffalo on the Indian head nickel. The group was displayed in the Smithsonian until 1957 when it was dismantled 21 years after his death. When the plaster groundwork was broken up, workers discovered a time capsule placed in a metal container buried within the habitat. Inside was a magazine account of the buffalo hunt written by Hornaday as well as a personal letter to his successor, the unknown future chief taxidermist of the museum. The letter read:

“Dear Sir,
Enclosed please find a brief and truthful account of the specimens which compose this group … killed by yours truly. When I am dust and ashes, I beg you to protect these specimens from deterioration and destruction. Of course they are crude productions in comparison with what you [now] produce, but you must remember at this time (AD 1888), the American school of taxidermy has only just been recognized. Therefore give the devil his due and revile not.

To honor his request, the group was saved from destruction and sent to Montana, where they were placed in storage. After many years of neglect, they were rediscovered, restored, and placed on display in 1996 at the Museum of the Northern Great Plains in Fort Benton, Montana, where they stand today.

The 1901 ten-dollar bill, as well as the Indian head nickel featured an image of Hornaday’s bison mount.

A year after his death, in 1938, at the suggestion of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the National Park Service named a peak, Mount Hornaday, in the Absaroka Range in Yellowstone National Park for him.

Some people devalue their actions by saying, “What will it matter in 100 years?” In William Temple Hornaday’s case, much of what he accomplished still matters and influences all of us a century later. He saw a problem, devised a solution, and overcame countless obstacles to accomplish what he set out to do. We can all thank William T, Hornaday not only for his taxidermy legacy, but also for the fact that we still have wild American bison, white rhinos, Alaskan fur seals, and thousands of bird species alive and thriving on planet Earth.

I really shouldn’t end this by trivializing, but we also would not have the absolute funniest series on You Tube, “Guy on a Buffalo”, if it wasn’t for the efforts of WTH. If you can watch this without laughing out loud, there is something seriously wrong with you. Thanks, Mr. Hornaday.

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