How an exotic game hunter collected live animals from throughout the United States and convinced Congress to give him a prime plot of land
On the morning of May 6, 1886, an intense-looking young gentleman with a jet-black beard vaulted up the stairs of a westbound train at Washington's Union Station. He was a small man -- all of five foot eight in his stocking feet -- but lithe, compact, and powerfully built, like a predatory animal. He was wearing a new bowler hat, a slightly uncomfortable-looking tweed suit, and scuffed alpine walking boots. The young man's whole body seemed to follow the forward thrust of his chin as he mounted the stairs into the railway car.
The young man, whose name was William Temple Hornaday, was 32 years old. Born on a hardscrabble farm in Indiana, he'd risen to become chief taxidermist at the U.S. National Museum -- later, in 1911, part of the Smithsonian Institution -- when he was only 28 years old. He was considered one of the most masterful taxidermists in the country at a time when mounting skins for museums was considered the highest form of "nature art." As a hunter and tracker, he was fearless. In India, where more than eight hundred people had been killed and eaten by tigers in the single year 1878, he stalked an immense Bengal tiger into a bamboo thicket and shot it at 30 yards with such a small-bore rifle that it was practically a toy. Because of his deft artistic touch and his intimate acquaintance with living animals, Hornaday was able to bring a wildebeest or an African lion to life with an almost spooky realism.