8 Hilarious Historical Feuds
By Lucas Reilly
Some feuds make—and change!—history. The Hatfields and McCoys. Edison versus Tesla. Coke and Pepsi. Here are eight tales of petty jealousy and downright spite that were made for the history books. (And we’ve determined the winners!)
1. Hate Mail // Mark Twain vs. the Postal Service
Mark Twain hated basically everything to do with the post office. Stamps? “When England in 1848 invented stamps, my feelings were decidedly anti-English.” The cost of sending mail overseas? “Downright robbery.” The requirement to write a full address on envelopes? “[W]ords utterly wasted; and, mind you, when a man is paid by the word … this sort of thing hurts.”
Twain’s hatred was long-running. When he was young, he lived in Nevada and held a job ask a clerk for Senator William Stewart. He had this to say when a constituent wrote asking the government to build a new post office: “What the mischief do … you want with a post office? … If any letters came there, you couldn’t read them. … No, don’t bother about a post office … What you want is a nice jail.”
When, in 1879, the private secretary to the Postmaster General tried to respond to some of Twain’s criticism, the novelist shot back: “You are not the Post Office Department, but only an irresponsible, inexpensive, and unnecessary appendage to it.”
The post office responded by merely doing its job—sometimes under impossible circumstances. One time, when Twain forgot the address of a friend, he wrote on the envelope: “To MR. C.M. UNDERHILL, who is in the coal business in one of those streets there, and is very respectably connected, both by marriage & general descent, and is a tall man & old but without any gray hair & used to be handsome. BUFFALO N.Y. from MARK TWAIN P.S. A little bald on the top of his head.”
The post office successfully delivered the letter.
Winner: All the couriers swiftly completing their appointed rounds.
2. Vulturegate // John James Audubon vs. Charles Waterton
In the 1820s, John James Audubon—the American ornithologist and future author of the world’s most expensive book, The Birds of America—was obsessed with vultures. He was particularly fascinated by the bird’s eating habits: Audubon believed the scavengers didn’t find rotting meals with their sense of smell, as commonly believed, but rather used their eyesight.
When Audubon lectured on his theory in 1826, he made the British conservationist, Charles Waterton, deeply upset. Waterton had written extensively about the turkey vulture’s ostensibly excellent sense of smell in one of his books and was so offended by the new theory that he suggested that Audubon “ought to be whipped.” Waterton’s pro-smell cronies encamped in a group called “Nosarians” and tried to smear Audubon’s credibility, making pointed attacks at his abilities as a writer: “Its grammar is bad; its composition poor; and its statements are so unsatisfactory.” According to zoologist Lucy Cooke in her book The Truth About Animals, Waterton kept at his crusade for years:
“Over the course of five years, Waterton wrote no less than nineteen letters to the Magazine of Natural History attacking Audubon and anyone in his orbit. When the journal finally stopped publishing his letters, he reportedly continued to print and distribute them himself. His efforts were futile. His impenetrable, rambling diatribes, punctuated with sardonic ad hominems and obscure Latin phrases, won him few allies. ... The louder Waterton shouted, the more he was ignored. In the end, he was forced to give up.”
Experiments would later support Audubon’s position, and today, it’s generally agreed that all vultures use sight. But in the 1960s, new research found turkey vultures do actually use smell [PDF]. So while Audubon was right about most vultures, he was wrong to call out turkey vultures for not being able to smell (he likely confused them with the non-smelling black vultures). Nowadays even the Audubon Society says the turkey vulture “has a well-developed sense of smell.” That’s got to sting.
Winner: Charles Waterton and turkey vultures.
3. The Race to the North Pole // Frederick A. Cook vs. Robert E. Peary
In 1908, Frederick A. Cook and Robert E. Peary were in a bitter race to the top of the world. Cook would insist he had reached the pole first, but an act of possible sabotage would damage his claim.
On his return trip, Cook had stopped in Annoatok, Greenland, and ran into an American hunter named Harry Whitney. Looking to offload some weight for the next leg of his journey, Cook entrusted Whitney with his supplies—including his navigational records and sextant—under the impression that Whitney would safely take them to New York City. They would meet later.
Months later, Robert Peary—fresh from his own expedition north—would appear in Annoatok with a boat. Whitney was thirsty to leave Greenland, and Peary agreed to help take Whitney home under one condition: That he leave all of Cook’s supplies behind. Whitney accepted. Cook, with his equipment lost somewhere in Greenland, would never be able to defend his claim. The New York Times, which had helped sponsor Peary’s trip, would say that Cook's claim was “The most astonishing imposture since the human race came on earth.”
Seventy-nine years later, in 1988, the newspaper would issue a correction. It remains unclear if either man actually reached the pole.
Winner: The tourism office in Annoatok, Greenland.
4. Gravity Grievances // Robert Hooke vs. Isaac Newton
In 1665, Robert Hooke looked through a microscope at a piece of cork and was immediately reminded of a monastery. Believing the latticework of small structures he saw resembled a monk’s chamber, he decided to give them a familiar name: Cellula, or cells.
The discovery of the cell is just one of Robert Hooke’s many accomplishments. He did “pioneering work in optics, gravitation, paleontology, architecture, and more,” according to Alasdair Wilkins at io9. He was also an influence on Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity—he wrote to Newton about the idea around 1680—and was convinced that Newton would have never cooked up with theory without his help. So why isn’t Hooke a household name?
Newton might be at fault. For years, the two scientists quibbled over credit for a slew of discoveries, and it irked Newton. In one letter, Newton wrote to Hooke, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” As Wilkins explains, this may not have been a compliment. Hooke was short and hunchbacked, and it’s possible that Newton was taking a swipe at the scientist: Your influence is as small as your stature. When Hooke died and Newton became the president of the Royal Society, Newton’s acolytes wrote off Hooke as a footnote. In fact, under Newton’s leadership, the only painting of Hooke in existence went missing. Some argue, without evidence, that Newton had it burned.
Winner: Isaac Newton, conspiracy theorists, fans of mitochondria.
5. The Bone Wars // Othniel Charles Marsh vs. Edward Drinker Cope
Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope would discover around 130 dinosaur species in the mid- to late-19th century, introducing the world to big names such as Triceratops and Stegosaurus. You’d think that these two heavyweight paleontologists, with all of their shared interests, would have worked well together, right?
At first, they did. But in 1868, everything changed. For years, Cope had been classifying fossils discovered in the marl quarries near Haddonfield, New Jersey. When Marsh visited Cope to take a tour of the pits, he secretly made an agreement with the quarry owners stipulating that he was entitled to the fossils they found. Cope was furious. Later, Marsh discovered that Cope had reconstructed one of his dinosaur skeletons backward, mistaking the animal’s tail for its neck. The information went public and deeply embarrassed Cope. A toxic rivalry was born.
For the next three decades, the two men spread toxic smears as they raced to collect the most fossils—what is now known as the Bone Wars. According to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, “Cope’s rushed work was plagued by careless errors. Marsh often resorted to bribery and bullying in the pursuit of specimens.” The ruthless feud would transform both men into legends of paleontology—and would lead them to financial ruin.
Winner: Michael Crichton's bank account.
6. The Astor Riots // William Macready vs. Edwin Forrest
If you think the Oscar fight for “Best Actor” is fraught today, it was much worse in 1849. Back then, the race for the best Shakespearean actor fell to two men: William Macready, a British critical darling, and Edwin Forrest, one of America’s first great homegrown stars. For years, the British and American press debated who was the better actor, and the two men attracted a loyal—and occasionally belligerent—following. (Once, Forrest went to one of Macready’s performances and hissed from the seats.)
But the rivalry became more symbolic in the 1840s, as America’s sentiment for the British soured. (An influx of Irish immigrants, who despised all things British, amped up the vitriol.) So, in May 1849, when Macready appeared in the role of Macbeth at the Astor Opera House in New York City, he was greeted with boos and volleys of garbage.
Macready continued his performances at the urging of the New York literati, prompting political opportunists at Tammany Hall to paste posters across the city asking WORKING MEN, SHALL AMERICA OR ENGLAND RULE IN THIS CITY? Soon, the question of who was the better actor took on a larger meeting. Thousands of protestors congregated outside the theater, the militia was called, and a riot broke out. At least 22 people died, making it, according to JSTOR Daily, “the deadliest civic insurrection in American history up to that time.”
7. Life After Death // Arthur Conan Doyle vs. Harry Houdini
Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were fascinated by spiritualism, albeit for different reasons. Houdini was a professional illusionist who made a living fooling people. Before he was a household name, he earned a small income by hosting séances and pretending to speak to the dead. As badly as he wanted to believe in the afterlife, he was skeptical of anybody who claimed to have the power to communicate with the other side.
Houdini’s friend Arthur Conan Doyle, however, sincerely believed that he could access the afterlife. In fact, his wife Jean moonlighted as a medium. One day, she claimed to summon Houdini’s dead mother and received a 15-page message from beyond the grave. There was one problem: The ghost wrote in impeccable English. Houdini’s mother was Hungarian, and spoke almost no English at all.
For Houdini, it was a breaking point. The two men never reconciled their differences. Houdini would go on to describe mediums as “human leeches,” charlatans who exploited people’s grief, and would dedicate great energy to exposing fraudulent mediums. His crusade to debunk these con artists was so great that some have theorized that Houdini may have been poisoned by angry psychics.
Winner: Rationalism and sucker punches to the gut.
8. A Puzzling Philosophical Problem // Dr. Karl Popper vs. Ludwig Wittgenstein
At Cambridge University, it was tradition to hold a weekly discussion for the university’s philosophers and their students. On one such evening, in 1946, the guest was Dr. Karl Popper with Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein in attendance. It would be the first—and last—time all three philosophers were in the same room together.
Popper presented a paper called “Are There Philosophical Problems?”, a jab at Wittgenstein, who argued there were no such problems—only linguistic puzzles. Wittgenstein grew so impassioned as he argued with Popper that he picked up a red hot fireplace poker and began waving it around for emphasis. When Russell demanded that Wittgenstein put the poker down, Wittgenstein stormed out of the room.
At least, that’s one version of events. Some say Wittgenstein was physically threatening Popper. Others suggest Popper was ready to take a literal stab at Wittgenstein himself. Whatever the case, it’s fitting that nobody has been able to verify what, exactly, occurred: Popper’s most famous contribution to philosophy was, after all, a critique of verificationism.