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.

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