Men removing Mastodon head from ground in Johnstown (photo courtesy of City of Johnstown)
Ohio Life

The Discovery of the Johnstown Mastodon

In August 1926, a farmer in Johnstown, Ohio, unearthed the skeleton of a prehistoric mastodon. It went on to have a second life at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

When tenant farmer James Bailey of Johnstown went out to bury a hog on Aug. 12, 1926, he never expected to discover a relic from the prehistoric age. The Times Recorder in nearby Zanesville reported in its Aug. 14, 1926, edition that Bailey discovered something was already buried where he was digging.

“Bone after bone was uncovered and they were bones somewhat out of size compared with animals known to Bailey,” the newspaper reported. “Some appeared to be rib bones 3-4 ft. in length.”

It was believed the creature he uncovered at the farm owned by Friend Butt was the skeleton of a mastodon. A distant cousin of the mammoth and the modern elephant, the animal had been extinct for at least 12,500 years.

The Dayton Herald reported on Aug. 16, 1926, that rumors were circulating that some locals believed the bones, known as the Johnstown Mastodon, were the remains of a common circus elephant.

“Mr. (A.) George declares the bones look very much like those of a large elephant, and he recalls hearing his mother tell of the death of a famous elephant ‘Old Hannibal,’ the prize attraction with a circus that visited Zanesville more than 50 years ago,” the report noted.
Fortunately, the discovery caught the attention of experts in the field of prehistoric animals, including Kirtley F. Mather, head of Harvard University’s geology department.

“He pronounced the mastodon one of the most perfect specimens he ever had seen, stamping at once false the story the bones were that of a mere elephant,” The Cincinnati Post relayed in its Sept. 1, 1926, edition.

The Johnstown Mastodon was soon donated to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History through the generosity of M.F. Bramley.

Ben Hoover wrote in the May 2, 1934, edition of The Newark Advocate that, “Visitors come from foreign lands, scientists from different cities, students from educational institutions everywhere, to view what is admittedly the finest and most completely preserved remains of the giants of the Ice Age.”