Bob (aka Cranky Media Guy
) sent me a link to an article about "Scientific Hoaxes"
scanned from the Dec. 1931 issue of Modern Mechanix
magazine. I love old popular-science magazines like this. They're a great source of strange information.
Unfortunately whoever scanned this article missed two pages, so you skip from a discussion of the Central Park Zoo Escape
straight into a discussion of the Cardiff Giant
. Nevertheless, the image of a "petrified foot" on the front page caught my curiosity. The caption reads: "A water-worn stone was once offered to the Smithsonian Institute as a petrified foot. Note the striking resemblance."
The article offers no more information about this unusual gift to the Smithsonian. So I did some research in the Google News Archive and was able to find a reference to the petrified foot in a July 18, 1908 Washington Post
article titled "Nature as a Faker":
To the Smithsonian Institution not long ago somebody sent from the Bad Lands of Nebraska what purported to be a fossil ham. It did in very truth look like a ham, and, to render the verisimilitude complete, the bone was actually sticking out at one end of it. Nevertheless, an investigation showed that the alleged bone was in reality a "vaculite" -- an extinct mollusk's shell, rodlike in form -- and the rest of the "ham" was a mere accidental agglomeration of stony stuff.
One day, quite recently, a young man walked into the National Museum at Washington and presented to the anthropologist in charge a petrified foot. It was received with many thanks, though recognized at a glance as a water-worn fragment of rock which had accidentally assumed a shape resembling a foot.
Such chance imitations as these frequently occur in nature. Another one, deposited in the same institution, was supposed by the finder to be a petrified oyster. It looks as if on the half shell: all its parts are wonderfully distinct, and there is even a small pearl in it seemingly. Yet it is not an oyster at all.
Nineteenth-century newspapers were full of reports of animals and body parts found petrified in their entirety, perfectly preserved, which reflected a popular misunderstanding about the process of petrifaction. Soft tissue is almost never petrified, because it decays long before the petrifaction process can occur.