Saturday, December 8, 2018

Dr. Joseph Barratt: an eccentric fossil hunter from Connecticut

I recently wrote an article for the Winter 2018 edition of Tracks and Trails, the newsletter for Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut where I work.  Presented here is the article in full with some extra illustrations that wouldn't fit in the newsletter.

You can check out more of my articles for the Dinosaur State Park newsletter in the following links:

Go here to read about the crocodile relatives that ruled the East Coast in the Triassic.

Go here to read about long-necked tanystropheids from North America.

Go here to read about a Triassic reptile from New Haven, CT with an unusual jaw.  

Here's an article about a mastodon skeleton found in Connecticut.

Here's an article about Professor Edward Hitchcock, the first person to scientifically study the dinosaur tracks of the Connecticut Valley. (Also, here's an article I wrote for Atlas Obscura about Hitchcock).

And Here you can read a poem Professor Hitchcock wrote expressing his frustration at his inability to find bones of the Valley trackmakers

Anyway, here's my latest article.

by John Meszaros

Is it possible that the fossil footprints found throughout the Connecticut Valley were made not by dinosaurs but by an ancient species of four-toed humans? Well, no. Not really. But such was an idea proposed by  Joseph Barratt, a 19th-century doctor and polymath from Middletown, Connecticut. In his heyday, Dr. Barratt was a significant contributor to the study of the Valley’s tracks and also a close friend to Professor Edward Hitchcock, the first person to study the tracks scientifically.

Joseph Barratt's portrait in the possession of the Middlesex County Historical Society.

Dr. Barratt was born in 1796 in Derbyshire, UK. He acquired two medical degrees in 1819 and subsequently emigrated to the United States, settling first in Phillipstown, New York, then in Norwich, Vermont. In the Green Mountain State he became a surgeon and a professor at the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy established by Captain Alden Partridge. Dr. Barratt followed the Academy when it relocated to the then bustling port city of Middletown in 1824. The school returned to Vermont just a few years later, but Dr. Barratt chose to stay behind to practice medicine in his new home. When Wesleyan University took over the old Academy buildings, Dr. Barratt taught a number of botany classes at the fledgling school, though he was never formally part of the staff. Botany was a major interest of Barratt’s early in his career, and he made several major contributions to the study of North American flora. Over 3,000 mounted plants that he collected make up a significant portion of the herbarium at Wesleyan University. Many of his duplicate specimens were later given to the New York Botanical Gardens and constitute an important component of their collections as well. In addition to botany, Dr. Barratt also studied the history of the local Native American peoples and published a number of pamphlets on their languages.

Eventually, Dr. Barratt’s focus turned towards geology and Connecticut Valley footprint fossils in particular, due in no small part to his proximity to the Portland brownstone quarries just across the river from Middletown. His extensive studies of the prints brought him into contact with Professor Edward Hitchcock with whom he became close friends. Barratt provided Hitchcock with a number of quality trackway specimens for the latter’s growing Ichnological Cabinet at Amherst College in Massachusetts (now housed at the Beneski Museum). One of these slabs- which had previously been used for 60 years as a paving stone in Middletown- was described by Hitchcock as “the gem of (his) collection”. The professor even named a species of footprint, Chimaera barratti, in honor of his friend (today this species has been reclassified as a type of Anamoepus).

The tracks that Professor Hitchcock referred to as the "gem of the Cabinet", which he purchased from Dr. Barratt. Photo taken by me during a visit to the Beneski Museum.

Newspaper articles from the 1800s provide tantalizing hints that Dr. Barratt may have actually found fossil bones in the Portland quarries. There is little concrete information about these alleged fossils, however, and  It’s possible that he was merely describing regular rocks that he perceived to be bones. Still, the idea that he had collected real bones- sadly lost to modern science- is fascinating considering how rare fossil skeletons are in New England.

Like Hitchcock, Barratt also speculated on the identity of the trackmakers. He initially agreed with the Amherst professor that the largest prints had been made by gigantic birds. Over time, though, his ideas grew increasingly strange. He concluded that many of the prints had been made by a three-fingered, four-toed archaic human that he dubbed Homo tetradactylus. He also believed that alleged “bones” found in the Portland Quarry belonged to several species of ox and elephant that had been domesticated by these four-toed people. His belief in the human origin of the tracks led him to conclude that the sandstone beds of the Connecticut Valley were not of Mesozoic age but instead from a much younger time period that he dubbed the Kalorimazoic or “Age of Warm-Blooded Animals”. In 1874 Barratt compiled his theories into a self-published pamphlet titled “Fossil Wonders of a Former World”

Barratt became increasingly stubborn in his convictions and eccentric in behavior. He constantly ridiculed Professor Hitchcock’s ideas, souring the relationship between the two men and eventually alienating himself from other geologists as well.

Professor Edward Hitchcock. Public Domain.

A memorable example of Dr. Barratt’s eccentricity occurred in 1859 when he applied to present his work at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Springfield, Massachusetts, but was rejected-  in no small part due to the fact that Professor Hitchcock, with whom he had become estranged, was head of the Association. Undeterred, the night before the event he gained access to the building where the meeting was to be held and hung drawings and diagrams of his research all over the walls. Association members arriving the next day were highly amused by the display. Dr. Barratt circulated among them, pontificating about his theories and apparently unaware that he was the object of their amusement, assuming instead that they were laughing at Hitchcock for being such a fool as to dismiss his geological theories.

A modern reader may find Dr.Barratt’s beliefs laughable, but it’s important to remember that dinosaurs had not been discovered when he began studying the Connecticut Valley tracks. Even when the Terrible Lizards were formally named in 1842, they were believed to be lumbering, quadrupedal behemoths not at all like the graceful, bipedal creatures that had clearly made the prints. As mentioned before, Professor Hitchcock himself believed that the tracks had been made by giant birds like the moa of New Zealand and stubbornly stuck to his own convictions even as evidence for their saurian nature began to mount.

Sadly, as Dr. Barratt aged he grew increasingly senile and obsessive. He eventually ended up living above a drugstore in a small apartment that was a veritable wizard’s laboratory of botanical specimens, stone slabs, stuffed birds, brains in alcohol, minerals, skeletons, microscopes, and other curiosities. His mental condition deteriorated to the point that he was unable to take care of himself. In 1880 he was committed to the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane, where he died of a stroke two years later.

Though Barratt may have alienated many of his peers in his later years, he must still have had some staunch, caring friends, for his tombstone is a work of paleontological art. Cut from two slabs of Portland brownstone, the vertically standing portion features a set of well-defined Grallator footprints while the horizontal piece bears natural molds of two felled tree trunks. The front of the tombstone bears salient information about Dr. Barratt- though his name is unfortunately misspelled as Joseph Barrett. On the back of the base, between the trunk molds, is carved the phrase “Testimony of the Rocks”, the title of a book by Scottish geologist Hugh Miller. The creativity of Dr. Joseph Barratt’s headstone is a fitting final tribute to such a colorful figure in the history of New England paleontology.

Dr. Barratt’s grave can be found in Indian Hill Cemetery in Middletown on the western slope of the titular hill.

Dr. Barratt's grave in Indian Hill Cemetary, Middletown, CT. Portland sandstone crumbles over time so parts of the grave have, unfortunately, broken away.
Dinosaur footprints on the back of the grave.

Molds of fallen logs on the back of the grave. The log on the left has been badly eroded. 

"The Testimony of the Rocks"
While researching and writing this article, I developed quite an affection for Dr. Barratt. His wide-ranging curiosity and diverse hobbies are traits I can strongly relate to. Unfortunately, he was never able to focus on any one subject and thus never saw any single project to completion- another trait I can relate to on a deep level. It saddens me that a lot of the things written about him- both in modern times and during his own lifetime-  dismiss him as a quack and laughingstock. Dr. Barratt deserves better and I hope my article brings at least a little more awareness to him.


Pemberton, S. George 2015. History of Ichnology- Ichnological Eccentrics: The Curious Case of Dr. Joseph Barratt of Middletown, Connecticut. Ichnos 22: 57-68

Thanks also to the Middlesex County Historical Society for providing documents related to Dr. Barratt.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Two Sentence Autumn Horror Stories

Autumn is an eerie season. The nights get longer, the air colder. The ground becomes wet and boggy. The leaves turned to skeletons reaching for the void above. Autumn is a season when spirits are out, most prominently around Halloween. But even the more festive Yule season has quite a creepy edge itself.

In celebration of the spookier side of Autumn, I've been taking pictures of appropriately seasonal scenes and using them as inspiration for some two-sentence horror stories. Here are five of them, with the pictures that inspired them. You can check out more of my two-sentence horror stories here, here and here.

Glastonbury, CT 1:34 PM
Their anger only grew each day that their faces remained uncarved and their interiors unlit by the soul-candles of the Returned Dead for whom they’d been grown. Now they have found a place with plenty of fresh souls and they will claim them all, whether or not the original owners are actually dead.

Rocky Hill, CT 9:30 AM
They found him lying in the fallen leaves under his great-grandmother’s magnolia, quite dead and covered in thousands of tiny, ring-shaped bites. So preoccupied were they with his body that none noticed the crimson droplets glistening on the tips of the tree’s winter buds.

Middletown, CT 11:34 PM
Peering out the frost-edged windows, I saw a mote of green phosphorescence bobbing over the tall marsh grass and assumed it was just the ghost of Mr. Jameson out for a midnight stroll. Only when the glow moved closer did I see that it emanated from a collection of human heads trapped within the transparent belly of a beast whose own head and limbs were hidden by the darkness.

Cromwell, CT 1:23 PM
No matter where we move, the water tower always finds us eventually. It still believes we are its children, and it will not sleep until it has absorbed us all into its rotting wooden womb.


East Hampton, CT 12:48 PM
When I finally worked up the courage to peer into that ruined tower, I saw only a carpet of ferns and nothing more. Not until I went to sleep that night did I see what lay beneath them and realize the fate of that thing that we’d chased out of the little door under the cellar stairs last autumn.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 15

Another day of weird monsters by Nicholas Cloister!  Believe it or not, this freaky slug/lamprey/naked mole rat, the Bhorda,  is a gigantic, monstrous seal. It’s inner, circular mouth can extend out like the proboscis of a priapulid (or a certain infamous biomechanical extraterrestrial), an ability that it uses to snatch prey from icebergs- and the occasional ship.

This monstrous pinniped also boasts another power that’s particularly creepy. According to the RPG creatures blog: “In areas where the ice is too thick for the Bhorda to penetrate, the creature can apply a deep and extended bellowing roar to create cracks in the ice and break it open. The vibrations of this sound are powerful but must work on the ice for some time before it comes apart. Surface instability can be felt from above, and a deep eerie song is audible even through thick layers of ice.”  

I’ve always found polar environments particularly haunting. The cold and quiet. The sense of isolation. The strange, beautiful shapes of icebergs. The endless white plain of the Antarctic interior. The Bhorda's low, rumbling call- perhaps detectable only as a faint rumbling deep in one's bones-  adds the perfect eerie element to a story set on the ice. 

I doubt it was intentional on Cloister’s part, but the Bhorda reminds me a little of the giant stop-motion walrus created by Ray Harryhausen’ for the 1977 movie “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” 

I couldn't find a video of the walrus scene on Youtube, so this picture of it will have to suffice.

You can read the Bhorda’s full description at the RPG Creatures blog

Friday, October 26, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 14

Another creature from Nicholas Cloister. This one's a particularly creepy and tragic monster. The Enjirach were a race of feathered reptiles (so, dinosaur people?) that were hunted to extinction by humans who coveted their beautiful plumage. However, these feathers had the ability to restore life, so Enjirach corpses that were not completely plucked bare rose from the dead and continue to wander the world, kept in a perpetual undying limbo. To quote Nicholas blog:

"The remaining Enjirachs cannot naturally die. What few feathers they retain keep them alive, but are not enough to restore them to a life of breathing. A long time ago their flesh fled their bones, and cold blood dripped out of dissolving veins. Flies and worms took care of the sinews and left-overs while their hardy skeletons stayed erect and mobile, enforced and animated by the magical power of the feathers." 

This actually sounds like the plot to a gothic novel. I could totally see the Enjirach fitting in perfectly with the old D&D Ravenloft setting. Or even the 90s World of Darkness series.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 13

Finally back with a new creature artist. Nicholas Cloister is a Swedish artist who does a lot of fantasy- and especially RPG-related- art. A few years ago he created a series of "system neutral" monsters that could be fitted into any role-playing game. The creatures each had detailed, unusual histories and habits and were very much unlike most other typical RPG monsters.

Nicholas posted his monsters on a blog and eventually combined them into a book that you can get at RPGNow. I'd highly recommend the book even if you don't actively play RPGs. It's great for casual perusing.

Marine Biology is one of my favorite subjects, so naturally, I chose one of his aquatic monsters for my first post.

Ghords are giant mollusks that filter-feed using six huge siphons. They can also use these intakes to defend themselves by biting, making ghords a sort of marine invertebrate hydra. Like hermit crabs, these huge invertebrates seek out the shells of other mollusks- in this case, giant clams- to serve as protective housing for their soft, vulnerable bodies. You can read the Ghord's full description here.

From an RPG standpoint, I really like the fact that ghords are not automatically a threat. In many roleplaying games, creatures often seem to exist only to immediately attack the party. Just a collection of stats and special abilities. But I've always tried to give my own gaming worlds a full ecosystem of fantastic creatures that have their own behaviors and biology unrelated to how they interact with an adventuring party.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 12

Two more monsters from Arlin Ortiz, You can find all of Arlin's Monsters on his Tumblr.

I love slimey things in all their myriad forms. Cellular and acellular slime molds (which are very different organims). Placozoa. OphrydiumNostoc. I could go on. So what could be better than slime people? I want to play one!

I also love creatures made from inanimate objects, like Japanese karakasa obake and other tsukumogami. Worms made entirely out of magical ink are exactly my kind of critter.

That's it for Arlin Ortiz' monsters. Next time I'll be featuring some particularly unusual beasts from another one of my favorite creature creators.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 11

Another critter from Arlin Ortiz!

As you may have noticed, I'm fond of small, fairly innocuous monsters in my RPGs. I particularly love the idea here that a couple of wizards just made a simple little animated thing out of sticks on a bet. These are almost as great as those living dust bunnies from 2nd edition D&D.  I want a whole army of little walking stick men and crawling inch-worm dust bunnies.