Digging up bones: Children’s Museum ‘trial’ features real-life rivalry

You know the famous rivalries: Hatfields versus McCoys, Coke versus Pepsi, Colts versus Patriots. But do you know Marsh versus Cope?

Renowned – but not always in a good way – paleontologists during the 19th century Great Dinosaur Rush, O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope were friends-turned-rivals who made significant strides in the collection of fossils in America. But their scientific work is often eclipsed by their bitter feud, which will be on display during a mock trial event at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum on Saturday.

“The Verdict: Bone Wars” will mark the second time The Children’s Museum has hosted a mock trial event. Litigated by real attorneys and presided over by an Indianapolis judge, this year’s “trial” will feature a libel lawsuit between the two historical figures, who were known for using the press to damage each other’s reputations.

“This whole thing is based on real events,” said Todd Norris, associate vice president of interpretation and family programs at The Children’s Museum. “It really was like a soap opera.”

After they became rivals, Marsh and Cope took to the New York Herald — a “scandal newspaper,” as Norris puts it — to publicly air their grievances against each other. Now, at “The Verdict,” Cope has sued Marsh for libel, and it’s up to the audience members to render a verdict.

The stakes will be high — if Cope wins, he’s looking at a $50,000 damages award.

“The audience becomes the jury,” Norris said. “They vote on the outcome.”

Last year’s jury included members of the legal community, law students and the general public. The same groups are invited to hear this year’s trial, which includes one hour of continuing legal education credit.

Marion Superior Judge Tim Oakes will preside over the case, which will be tried by four Indianapolis-area attorneys: Alex Pittman of Ice Miller, Alissa Wetzel of Barnes & Thornburg, Greg Pottorff of the NCAA and Steve Caltrider of Eli Lilly & Co.

Though the event is not scripted, the attorneys and judge are given a historically accurate outline to use as a reference. Children’s Museum actors will serve as the witnesses.

“We want people to come here and have a good time,” Norris said. “… Some legal cases lack for much entertainment value, so we try to present these in a lighthearted way to really find some fun in it.”

The idea for “The Verdict” came from a similar program Norris attended in another city. At the inaugural event last year, the jury acquitted the infamous Captain Kidd, whom Norris said received a real-life kangaroo court trial before his execution in 1701.

This year’s paleontology theme was chosen to align with The Children’s Museum’s recent work along “The Jurassic Mile” in Wyoming. Registration is not required for “The Verdict: Bone Wars.” Tickets are $75 for admission, beverages and heavy appetizers.

The event begins at 6:30 p.m. Saturday with a cocktail reception, followed by the “trial” at 7:30 and an after-party celebration at 8:30.

More information about “The Verdict,” including tickets, is available here.

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