Cincinnati Curiosities: Dr. Goforth’s Collapsible Lion

Did monstrous lions prowl prehistoric Cincinnati? (And do they still exist?)

Did gigantic lions, 25 feet tall and 60 feet long, really rampage through Cincinnati in ancient times, gobbling up mastodons like so much popcorn? That’s what scientific authorities believed at one time. In fact, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson instructed the Lewis & Clark expedition of 1804-06, to look for living examples of such beasts.

Doctor William Goforth’s gigantic “Collapsible Lion” appeared in an English geology text ten years after Goforth’s death. Scientists still held out hope that living examples survived in Wyoming or Idaho.

Illustration by Granville Penn

Reports of these enormous carnivores originated from a Cincinnati doctor who got swindled by a greedy British charlatan. The doctor in question was William Goforth, who is mostly known today as the teacher of young Daniel Drake.

Before Daniel Drake became his student, Goforth built a thriving practice as a frontier doctor around Maysville, Kentucky. People in that area knew about Big Bone Lick and Goforth would have heard about the gigantic bones found there. Shortly after he moved to Cincinnati around 1800, Goforth mounted his own expedition into the wilds of Boone County, where he excavated a large collection of bones.

Word of Goforth’s discoveries reached naturalist (and artist) Charles Wilson Peale in Philadelphia. Peale had a museum in which a mastodon skeleton was first displayed in America. Peale told his friend Thomas Jefferson about Goforth’s collection and Jefferson told Meriwether Lewis – on his way to meet up with George Rogers Clark at Louisville – to stop in Cincinnati to see what all the fuss was about.

Lewis informed Jefferson that Goforth had compiled quite an impressive display of gigantic bones. He procured a few, including teeth of the mastodon and the mammoth as well as a mammoth tusk, and sent them by riverboat to New Orleans for shipment to Jefferson. Those specimens were lost in an accident at Natchez.

Goforth’s discoveries also inspired the imagination of one “Captain” Thomas Ashe (aka Arvil, aka d’Arville, aka Ash) who was ex-military, ex-con, Irish passing as English, and certainly on the make. Ashe arrived in Cincinnati having heard that Goforth had shipped 10 large boxes of bones to Pittsburgh, on their way to Charles Wilson Peale in Philadelphia. Ashe convinced Goforth that a much better market for such outstanding specimens was New Orleans and got himself designated as Goforth’s agent to transact a sale there.

Ashe grabbed the bones from Pittsburgh and ferried them down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, where he made a pretense of selling them. He turned down offers as high as $7,000, then had the bones shipped to England, where he presented them as his own discoveries. Ashe eventually sold Goforth’s specimens to a Liverpool museum.

To accompany this 1806 museum display, Ashe wrote an 80-page book titled “Memoirs of Mammoth, and Various Other Extraordinary and Stupendous Bones, of Incognita, or Non-descript Animals, Found in the Vicinity of the Ohio, Wabash, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Osage and Red Rivers, &c., &c.” Pretty much the whole of this slim volume is plagiarized from various authors, including Doctor William Goforth, who is undoubtedly the source for Ashe’s description of a gigantic paw:

“It is the foot of a clawed animal, possibly of the order of ferae, for the claws are sheathed and retractile, in the manner of the cat, tiger, and lion. When this paw was dilated on its prey, filled with muscles, flexors, and cartilage, clothed with flesh, turgid
skin, and hair, it must have covered a space of ground four feet by three.”

Just as impressive were the beast’s ribs. According to Ashe, this ferocious lion had:

“ . . . the powers, from the formation of his ribs, of extending and contracting his body to a great degree, in order to make more prodigious bounds . . . “

In other words, this lion could scrunch up like an accordion and then spring forth to attack its prey; a “collapsible lion,” as it were.

Based on the claws, ribs and segments of spine recovered, both Goforth and Ashe estimated this lion stood 25 feet tall and was 60 feet from nose to tail.

“His length 60 ft. his height 25; his figure magnificent; his looks determined; his gait
stately; his voice tremendous! In a word, his body must have been the best model of
deadly strength, joined to the greatest agility. And, from the force expressed by the visible seat of his muscles, his bounds must have been prodigious, enabling him to fall upon his prey, to seize it with his teeth ; tear it with his claws, and devour it.”

Most amazingly, Ashe, Goforth and Thomas Jefferson all believed that this giant, collapsible lion (as well as mammoths and mastodons) might still inhabit the unexplored deserts of the American West.

Ashe proposed naming this giant lion “Megalonyx” which is Greek for “giant claw.” This is another plagiarism. Thomas Jefferson had already suggested that name based on some bones found in West Virginia. At least Jefferson knew his Greek. Ashe thought “Megalonyx” meant “giant lion.”

Doctor Goforth complained about the theft, but Ashe was beyond the reach of the law. Goforth eventually abandoned Cincinnati and moved to New Orleans – he was enamored of French culture – where he invested the last decade of his life as an important political figure, helping Louisiana achieve statehood.

Ashe expanded his 80-page booklet into a three-volume memoir of his travels in America. Some of it was original; most was plagiarized. A lot of it was made up or just wrong. He followed his travelogue with a few novels and died in reduced circumstances.

The Megalonyx, scientists later discovered, was actually an herbivore, a giant ground sloth, ten feet long. It went extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago.

The story of Dr. Goforth and his collapsible lion was told in a delightful 1940 book published by the Ohio Writers Project titled “Tales of Old Cincinnati.”

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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