The Dog and the Dinosaur
The epic true story of a war hero, his rescued dog, and their improbable quest to find a living brontosaurus in the Congo
Two days before Christmas in 1919, a British military officer and his German war dog set off from London on an extraordinary adventure. Their journey began at Waterloo Railway Station, where the pair were delayed by a bustle of newspaper reporters and photographers. Captain Leicester Stevens was 35 years old, tall and strongly built, with clear blue eyes and a mustache. He wore a winter overcoat, gloves, and a fedora. Standing faithfully by his side was Laddie, a large, muscular dog with pointed ears and a bushy tail. Thought to be about three or four years old, Laddie was a breed known in Britain as an Alsatian Wolf Dog. Laddie appeared unperturbed by the press attention or the prospect of accompanying his master on a ten-thousand-mile expedition into the unexplored heart of Africa.
The station’s clocks showed the time was approaching 11:30 in the morning. Passengers lined up at ticket booths and dragged baggage across crowded platforms. Clouds of engine steam and the smells of coal, oil, and grease hung in the air. Among the passengers were demobbed service personnel in khaki uniforms returning home for perhaps the first time since the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front a little over 12 months earlier. Leicester had been at the Front. He had fought with distinguished bravery and experienced unforgettable horrors. It was on the battlefield during the worst of the fighting that Leicester had found and rescued Laddie — now a beloved companion with a shared understanding of the traumas of war. Since completing his service, Leicester had struggled to find a purpose in civilian life. But now, he told the reporters who gathered around him with their notepads and pencils, he had found a suitable undertaking.
Leicester and Laddie were traveling by train to Southampton, where they would board an ocean liner for a 33-day voyage to Cape Town, South Africa. From there, they would travel north to Kafue in Rhodesia, a journey of almost 1,500 miles as the crow flies — and substantially more by rail, river, and trail. Then, from a base in Kafue, they would track up into the Belgian Congo, in the heart of what many Westerners knew as “deepest, darkest Africa.” With his faithful war dog and a trunk full of weapons, Leicester Stevens was hunting for a creature that was thought to have been extinct since the late Jurassic age, which ended 145 million years ago. There had been a flurry of reported sightings in the Congo of a huge monster, which witnesses had identified as a brontosaurus. In an impossibly intriguing quest, Leicester and Laddie were setting off to hunt for a dinosaur.
Philip Stevens must reach deep into his mind for memories of his father. Philip was just 18 when Leicester died. He is now in his 80s and lives with his wife, Maggie, in the rolling countryside of Somerset, England. He occupies his spare time in his workshop restoring and making furniture, using skills he honed as a boatmaker. Philip was not born when Leicester set out for Africa. His father never spoke to him about the dinosaur hunt. He never spoke to him about much. When I reach out to Philip, armed with century-old newspaper clippings, he learns the full story for the first time. Although he thinks it was a pretty improbable quest, he is not entirely surprised. “He would have been up for that,” says Philip. “A bit of an adventurer, you might say.”
Philip shows me a photograph of a grand vine-covered mansion named Knapdale in Tooting Bec, southwest London. This was his father’s family home. Leicester (pronounced Lester) Bradney Stevens was born in London in 1884. Leicester’s father owned a successful engineering firm, Stevens & Sons, that built railway semaphore signals — an invention his grandfather had patented in the 1840s. Leicester had four sisters and a brother. His siblings called him ‘Leck.’ As a boy, Leicester was sent away to a Catholic boarding school, where he exhibited a rebellious streak. Philip recalls his father was expelled after punching a priest.
Despite this interruption to his education, Leicester went on to study at the prestigious University of Cambridge. He became regarded as one of the University’s outstanding athletes — in the then-prominent sport of billiards. Varsity newspapers said Leicester was a ruthless player who outclassed and “completely demoralized” his opponents. After graduating, Leicester went to Glasgow to become assistant manager at his father’s engineering works. He also began his military career in the British Army’s Royal Field Artillery Territorial Force — a volunteer reserve battalion.
Around this time, Leicester found fame in the sporting press as a talented golfer. He developed a prodigiously long drive and, in 1911, blazed his way to the British Amateur Golf Championship semi-finals at Prestwick, Scotland. Although he was eliminated, in contentious circumstances, newspapers said Leicester was “distinctly the better player” and described him as “a person of enormous vitality, keenness, and knowledge… He is an excellent type.” (One newspaper, The Sphere, published photographs from the golf championship above pictures of the launch at Belfast of a new White Star ocean liner named Titanic.)
Leicester never told his son about his golf exploits. “He was not a boastful man,” Philip tells me. “You would never hear my father say ‘I did this’ or ‘I did that.’” Philip describes Leicester as a dynamic and domineering figure who could be jovial but never suffered fools. He has fond memories of his father taking him boating and fishing, but there were few deep conversations. “I was pretty frightened of asking him things,” Philip says. “He might be in a bad mood, or he might be cross. He was a large, angry, impatient presence.”
Philip does not doubt the robust personality of the father he knew was largely forged in the furnace of the Great War. Characteristically, Leicester never spoke about the war. When Philip did pluck up the courage to ask his father what it had been like, Leicester simply replied, “I was frightened for four years.” “I’m sure he was,” says Philip. “It must have been a foul experience.” Philip knows his father was awarded the Military Cross for bravery, and he has a handful of letters and cards sent from the Western Front that hint at the ordeal. To get a fuller picture of his father’s experiences, we obtain copies of Leicester’s war records from the UK’s National Archives — a torn, folded, scribbled-upon ream of notes and forms.
Leicester was working as a consulting engineer in China in August 1914 when Britain declared war on Germany. He made arrangements to head home, traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The journey took about six weeks, and Leicester later told Philip he had never been so cold in his life. After several months of training in England, Leicester was shipped to the trench-scarred fields of the Western Front. He would be involved in the war’s toughest, longest, deadliest battles — at Ypres, the Somme, and Passchendaele. And he received a hellish welcome to the front line.
Early one morning in July 1915, Leicester’s division was embedded at Hooge, near Ypres, when its front-line defenses exploded in a wall of liquid fire. The Germans were using a terrifying new weapon — the flamethrower. Leicester and his men remained under sustained attack for six days. Philip has a brief note Leicester wrote to his family. It says: “We’re having a hell of a fight.”
A week later, records show Leicester was sent home on sick leave, suffering from neurasthenia — a nervous breakdown related to shellshock. “I had no idea,” says Philip. “It’s hard to imagine a more nightmarish situation… but he was a tough old bugger.”
Despite his trauma, after just 30 days of recuperation, Leicester was declared fit for service and reassigned to the front line. In the spring of 1916, he found himself in a desperate losing battle near Loos, France, and received a letter of appreciation from his Brigadier General for “a very good show.” Then came the muddy hell of the Somme, where more than a million men lost their lives. Leicester was mentioned twice in despatches from the British Army’s senior officer General Sir Douglas Haig for “gallant and distinguished services in the field.”
There was more trauma to come, at Messines and then Passchendaele, in unrelenting rain, amid mortar-blown tree stumps and crater-pocked minefields, as miserable, trench-footed men were shot down and blown to pieces with desperate, futile abandon. In January 1918, Leicester was awarded the Military Cross for an act of “exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy.”
During the final advance in August 1918, Leicester found the war dog he named Laddie. The opposing armies used more than 16 million war animals, including horses, camels, mules, donkeys, pigeons, canaries, and several thousand dogs. Laddie was a German barrage dog used to carry messages between the front-line infantry and the artillery. According to the story Leicester later told to newspaper reporters, he found Laddie on the battlefield sitting on the dead body of his German master. Attached to the dog’s collar was a message requesting urgent help.
Laddie was described as “partly sheepdog, partly wolf” and “about the size of a Great Dane.” Photographs indicate — and Philip agrees — he was a German Shepherd. Known for their strength and intelligence, German Shepherds were widely used as messengers, sentries, and guards. However, the British did not want to consider their four-legged allies to be German, so they referred to the breed as the Alsatian Wolf Dog.
While Leicester never spoke to his son about the war, he did occasionally speak about Laddie. “He simply mentioned he was a wonderful dog, the best dog he ever had,” Philip tells me, before adding, “I think probably the only dog he ever had.”
Leicester remained in Europe at the end of the war to help organize the demobilization. He completed his service in June 1919, retaining the rank of Captain. At home, he returned to the golf course, taking Laddie with him. Laddie squatted on the edge of the green, eyeballing Leicester’s opponents as they attempted their putts. Reporters sought out the decorated golfer and his rescued war dog. “Laddie, in spite of his half-savage parentage, is a very gentle, loveable dog,” said the Yorkshire Evening Post, “but he is not an animal that any burglar would wish to meet.”
After the war, Leicester seems to have been something of a lost soul. His father had recently died, and none of the siblings wanted to run the family business, so they sold it and split the proceeds. Philip suggests his father’s share would not have lasted long. Leicester had no job and perhaps no purpose. For so many of his generation, it was difficult to return to civilization after living through the savagery of the Great War. “I think he wanted more excitement,” says Philip. And there seemed no more exciting opportunity than the one he decided to take.
On November 17, 1919, five weeks before Leicester and Laddie set off from Waterloo, the Times of London — Britain’s newspaper of record — published an extraordinary “TALE FROM AFRICA.” According to a South African Central News Agency correspondent, a railway engineer named Monsieur Lepage had reported a remarkable encounter in the Belgian Congo. Lepage was hunting in the Congolese swamp forests when he came upon an “extraordinary monster.” The huge creature charged at Lepage, who fired a shot and fled. Once at a safe distance, Lepage observed the creature through binoculars. It was, he said, about 24 feet long — around the length of a London bus.
Later, the correspondent reported, the creature charged through the village of Fungurume, killing some villagers and destroying their huts. “A hunt was at once organized,” wrote the correspondent, “but the government has forbidden the molestation of the animal on the ground that it is probably a relic of antiquity.” The correspondent went on to quote the unnamed head of a local museum, who said the location of Lepage’s sighting was a “wild trackless region” with many swamps and marshes where “it is possible that a few primeval monsters may survive.”
A few weeks later, both the Times and the Daily Mail — Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper then and now — reported a second sighting from the interior of the Congo. A Belgian big game hunter and prospector named Monsieur Gapelle claimed to have found a strange set of spoor (footprints), which he followed for 12 miles. Then, from a distance, he sighted a very large unidentified creature. As western hunters were inclined to do, he fired several shots. The creature “threw up its head” and “disappeared into a swamp.”
Although Gapelle characterized it as “certainly of the rhinoceros order,” the Mail firmly identified the creature as a brontosaurus in its headlines and a vivid illustration of the animal. The brontosaurus, whose name — to the delight of newspaper headline writers — means “thunder lizard,” was a four-legged sauropod with a long neck, small head, and heavy tail. Estimates suggest the huge creature could have been up to 72 feet long and up to 17 tons in weight — about the size of a semi-truck and trailer. “It is easy to dismiss the reports as travelers’ tales,” commented the Mail. But it seemed certain, the newspaper said, that Congolese locals were terrified of “some unusual and formidable creature.”
Another London newspaper, the Daily News, noted an appealing similarity to the mysterious creatures in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, the hugely popular 1912 novel about an expedition that discovers living dinosaurs. The newspaper said the reports strengthened a belief held by many experts in the survival of “certain monsters of the prehistoric age” in unexplored regions of Africa. It noted the late Carl Hagenbeck, the well-known German big game hunter who supplied African animals to PT Barnum, had been “almost convinced” that a huge monster, “half elephant, half dragon,” and “seemingly akin to the brontosaurus,” was still in existence in Central Africa. Hagenbeck launched his own expedition to find the creature but died after being bitten by a poisonous snake.
The brontosaurus story quickly percolated through the British and European press and then crossed the Atlantic. New tales of strange encounters with apparently prehistoric creatures emerged from the Congo, stirring up a worldwide dinosaur mania. The excitement grew after newspapers reported the Smithsonian Institution and Universal Pictures had sent a joint expedition to the Congo, officially to capture movie footage and photographs of unusual zoological species, and unofficially — according to the New York Times — “in search of the monster.” Several other outlets reported the Smithsonian was posting a $5 million reward for the dinosaur’s capture.
The Daily Mail was the first to report the reward, adding that the announcement had fired the imagination of “hundreds of young men with a taste for adventure.” According to the newspaper, a cavalcade of adventurers and explorers packed their pith helmets and hunting rifles and booked passage to Africa. “If I were younger, I should be off after them,” commented 67-year-old Walter Winans, the famous American big-game hunter and Olympic deer-shot champion. Winans thought it was not impossible witnesses had encountered a living prehistoric animal.
The celebrated explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett also suggested, in a letter to the Mail, that there might be a living dinosaur in the swamps of the Congo. “A friend of mine, a trader in the rivers and for whose honesty I can vouch, saw the head and neck of a huge reptile of the character of the brontosaurus,” wrote Fawcett. “It was a question of who was scared most, for it precipitately withdrew with a plunging which suggested an enormous bulk.” (Fawcett was more concerned with finding an ancient lost city, which he called “Z,” in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. He disappeared during an expedition to the region in 1925.)
Another well-traveled adventurer, John Daniel Hamlyn, the London-based naturalist and exotic animal dealer, said he firmly believed “a giant creature, half as old as time” was alive in the unexplored depths of the Congo, and he had heard tales from local hunters of this “fearful monster.” “When you hear stories from three or four widely different sources, I believe there is some truth in them,” he said. “It is not a fairy tale, I am certain.”
Many in the western world regarded Central Africa as a savage and mysterious place. Imperial Europeans, in their ignorance, referred to Africa as the “Dark Continent” — now recognized as a racist term rooted in the slave trade. However, they knew Africa was rich in mineral deposits and agricultural output. Prospecting and mining for copper, gold, and diamonds became a hugely profitable industry for European colonists, who carved up the continent and renamed their claimed territories. The British claimed Zimbabwe and Zambia and named the combined territory Rhodesia after the imperialist mining magnate Cecil Rhodes. France and Belgium divided up the region known as the Congo, in the basin of the 2,900-mile-long Congo River. The French Congo was effectively the territory now known as the Republic of the Congo, and the much larger Belgian Congo was the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
At the heart of Africa, the Belgian Congo was the continent’s least explored — or least exploited — area, which only increased its enigmatic allure in the minds of European travelers. The Congo basin contains several of the world’s largest tropical rainforests and vast swathes of swampland. It is home to an extensive catalog of wildlife, from the aardvark to the zebra, including such rarities as the lowland gorilla and the okapi forest giraffe. The gorilla was unknown to outsiders until its discovery in 1847, and the okapi was considered a myth until the British explorer Harry Johnston obtained a skin and a skull in 1901. (Many Europeans continued to doubt the okapi’s existence until a live specimen was presented to the Prince of Wales in 1935.) Was it possible, in 1919, that the Congo was also home to a very large dinosaur?
Scientific observers were skeptical. Arthur Smith Woodward, a paleontologist and curator at the Natural History Museum in London, said he believed the brontosaurus was completely extinct and had been for 145 million years. However, Sir Sidney Harmer, the museum’s keeper of zoology, left the door of possibility open. “Much has been left undoubtedly for us to discover,” he said, “and the Natural History Museum staff always welcomes tangible evidence.”
The Natural History Museum was home to Britain’s best-known dinosaur. Dippy the Diplodocus was a 70-foot-long plaster cast replica of the fossilized skeleton of a dinosaur that had been discovered in Wyoming in 1898. (The original is in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum — where a statue of the creature stands outside.) The diplodocus and brontosaurus are closely-related species of sauropod and were considered to be one and the same by the general public. Most newspaper readers believed the dinosaur sighted in the Congo looked like Dippy, and the fevered media coverage sent crowds of tourists rushing to the museum to glimpse the huge skeleton.
Daily Mail reporter Harold Lake joined the crowds and asked a guide at the door for directions: “I only got as far as ‘bront–’ when he told me to turn right and keep straight on. And presently I was surrounded by the remains of those great animals which crawled among the foundations of the world.”
As far as Philip knows, Leicester had no underlying fascination with dinosaurs beyond a general interest in the natural world, but the dinosaur frenzy must have captured his imagination. I show Philip one remarkable advert that appeared in the personal columns of the Times of London in December 1919: “GENUINE OFFER. BRONTOSAURUS — Four ex-infantry officers will UNDERTAKE an EXPEDITION in SEARCH of the ABOVE REPTILE provided expenses are paid by a wealthy interested person.” Certainly, Leicester was not the only military veteran who intended to find the dinosaur.
On Christmas Eve 1919, the Daily Mail published a photograph of Leicester and Laddie, taken at Waterloo Station, captioned: “GOING TO LOOK FOR THE BRONTOSAURUS.” According to the newspaper, Leicester believed the creature was hiding in a “subterranean sea” and seemed confident of finding it and claiming the huge reward. “It is not quite clear whether the Smithsonian wants the beast dead or alive,” he said, “but from the conflicting accounts, he would not appear to be the sort of creature that could be led away to America on a string.”
Leicester told reporters his cache of armaments included a Mannlicher–Schönauer rifle, a Winchester repeating rifle, a 12-bore double-barrel shotgun, a .45 Smith & Wesson revolver, and a set of butterfly nets. He said he believed his Mannlicher rifle would be sufficient to account for the giant beast. “He has one vital spot. Where the spot is is one of my secrets.”
Philip has no knowledge of the Mannlicher or the other weapons, but he does recall the .45 — and the butterfly nets. The .45 was his father’s service pistol from the war. (Newspapers subsequently reported Leicester did not have the required license to carry it on his journey.) In later years, Leicester kept it in the bottom drawer of his desk. As a child, Philip says, he found the pistol and some ammunition. “My mother was terrified,” he tells me, “so she made him take it out and drop it in the sea.”
As for the butterfly nets, they were not an eccentric means of catching the dinosaur. Leicester was a keen butterfly collector, and it was a hobby he later taught to his son. “He was endlessly patient about that,” says Philip. Back in 1919, before he departed, Leicester told reporters he would not be too disappointed if he failed to “bag” the brontosaurus as long as he managed to catch some rare butterflies. They would be easier to bring home. By the time the newspaper featuring their photograph hit the newsstands, Leicester and Laddie were on their way to the Congo.
The SS Llanstephan Castle, a 500-foot ocean steamer, set off from Southampton for the Cape on Christmas Eve, 1919. Philip has a photograph of Leicester and Laddie on the ship’s deck. Laddie is sitting on top of a crate of lifebelts. Leicester is wearing a fedora and smoking a pipe. To the side, and attracting Laddie’s curiosity, is a smiling woman in a white dress and wide-brimmed hat. This is Elizabeth Moolman, who was returning home to South Africa after working as an ambulance driver during the war. Also among the ship’s 364 passengers, traveling with her banker father and family, was May Smart. Leicester would find time during the leisurely month-long voyage to get to know both women. Both would go on to play important roles in his life.
Back at home, the eccentric tale of a war hero and his faithful dog and their hunt for a prehistoric monster proved irresistible to newspaper readers. The story was retold and resold across Britain, into Europe, and across the US, where headlines referred to Leicester as “A Modern St George Off to Hunt the Dragon.” Several US newspapers syndicated an article featuring an illustration of Leicester, with a pith helmet and rifle, chasing down a large dinosaur under the caption: “His Job is to Bring in This Dead or Alive.” Others ran a cartoon showing Leicester and Laddie searching with a rifle and butterfly net while a long-necked brontosaurus peers unseen from the bushes behind them. Leicester and Laddie were famous across the world.
With Leicester and Laddie at sea, newspapers filled their columns with opinions and advice from other adventurers. John Daniel Hamlyn said the best way for Leicester to find the creature would be via an aerial search with an airplane. When asked what a hunter should take to catch such an animal, he replied that he could not say but “certainly not a dog.” Walter Winans said Leicester would need a heavy-duty gun and explosive shells to take down the brontosaurus. And Brigadier-General Reginald George Burton, an experienced African tiger hunter, said Leicester should have taken “a tank instead of his barrage dog.”
Other interested parties suggested Leicester should be armed with nothing more than binoculars and a camera. “Why shoot the brontosaurus?” wrote a correspondent to the Daily Mail. “He seems to be doing nobody any harm.” Another correspondent suggested forming a society to protect ancient animals: “I should be happy to join it. Why on earth should the brontosaurus be killed?”
Leicester and Laddie arrived in South Africa toward the end of January 1920. However, despite the considerable interest in their quest at home and abroad, little news was forthcoming. Their journey from South Africa to their initial destination in Rhodesia was likely rather difficult. In 1915, the Methodist missionary Reverend H J Taylor undertook the same journey and wrote a book about it, From Capetown to Kafue. Taylor rode part of the way on the incomplete Cape-to-Cairo Railway in a stop-start crawl, ascending through snow-capped mountains, traversing barren plains, and crossing with wonder over Victoria Falls. Then he trekked on foot, with teams of locals carrying his kit on poles, stopping at waterholes and passing through villages, watching hippos and listening to exotic birdsong. He traveled up the Zambezi River in a dug-out canoe and along the Kafue River in a small steamboat before finally arriving in Kafue. It was a journey that must have taken several weeks.
According to Leicester’s plan, he would use Kafue as his base and head north from Rhodesia into the Belgian Congo. It was the region’s dry season, and conditions were uncomfortably warm and tropically humid. Fungurume, the site of the Lepage sighting, is almost 500 miles north of Kafue and, in 1920, likely represented another two weeks of trekking. Communications from the area were sporadic — partly due to the remoteness of the region but also due to a post and telegraph strike. “No mails are being sent to or received from the Congo,” reported one newspaper. There was no known contact from Leicester and Laddie, who effectively disappeared into the wilderness.
In the absence of news from Leicester and Laddie, there were more reports from other travelers of strange creatures and encounters. A correspondent named W Cross wrote to the Daily Mail to say he had observed a large, strange animal in the Congo that could have been Monsieur Lepage’s brontosaurus. British linguist Muriel Dayrell-Browning said she had been paddling in a canoe up the Zambezi when the native “boys” told her about an enormous beast, 20 times larger than a hippopotamus, which roamed the northern swamps, and which they called “gakulu-gakulu.” Dayrell-Browning also heard tales of a “flying dragon,” which she took to be a pterodactyl. Another correspondent said he had been told by a Belgian explorer that there was a huge lizard-like creature, larger than any other animal ever seen, living in the Congo.
Military officer Lieutenant H Louw wrote that he had encountered an animal resembling the brontosaurus during a hunting trip in the area. According to Louw, several of the hunting party saw the creature and followed it through thick swampland for about a mile. “The beast was very heavy, long in the body, and with a sweeping tail which left its marks on the ground as the animal went along,” said Louw, who added that the party shot at the creature but “no bullet found its billet.” And John Alfred Jordan, a noted adventurer and big game hunter, said he had encountered a huge unidentified creature in the Congo. “My further observations were cut short by the animal charging at us,” he recalled.
Meanwhile, there was news regarding the Smithsonian and Universal expedition, fronted by Hollywood leading man William “Bill” Stowell, a handsome matinee idol who had starred in almost 120 silent movies. Shockingly, the expedition was returning to the US due to a terrible tragedy in which several members were severely injured, and Stowell and expedition business manager Joseph Armstrong were killed. Initially, reports were vague, and it was wrongly implied that the party might have been attacked by a dinosaur. Eventually, it was revealed there had been a horrendous rail accident in the Congo. A detached railroad car had smashed into the expedition’s carriage. According to the Los Angeles Times, the death of Bill Stowell, the “immensely popular screen player,” “saddened the world.”
Back in Britain, a correspondent to the Daily Mail named F A Allen wrote, “While great interest seems to be shown in a useless saurian (the brontosaurus), no one seems to care what happens to the African elephant.” The elephant was being hunted on a devastating scale by western hunters. Another animal that did exist at the time in the Congo, although it was scarcely observed, was the black rhino — now classified by the World Wildlife Fund as “critically endangered.” Back in 1919, Monsieur Gapelle said the creature he witnessed was “certainly of the rhinoceros order.” Assuming witnesses in the Congo were seeing something, could it have been a rhinoceros?
A further dose of reality came from J Rousseaux, the Belgian correspondent for London’s The African World magazine. Far from being an unexplored lost world, the district of Fungurume, where the initial sighting had reportedly taken place, was a thriving copper mining area that had been extensively surveyed. “Furthermore, there is a Benedictine abbey,” wrote Rousseaux, “but so far neither the missionaries, railway engineers, prospectors, nor the officials, all of whom have traveled over this country, have ever talked about gigantic creatures.”
Did Leicester and Laddie really go hunting for the dinosaur, and if so, did they find it? Captain William Hitchins, a British administrator in Africa, wrote in 1927 about “a madcap fellow” who had “trekked up from the Cape and plunged into the Congo forests to catch it.” “He declared that he saw it crashing through the reeds of a swamp and that it was the brontosaurus — a huge marsh animal, ten times as big as the biggest elephant.” Was this Leicester? Hitchens does not say, although he does add that the fellow was discredited upon his return: “In the Cape Town clubs they called him a liar.” One subsequent American author, during his own trip to the Congo, wrote that Congolese natives insisted both Leicester and Laddie had been eaten by the monster they called “Mokele-Mbembe.”
Of course, that was not true. In April 1920, the Bulawayo Chronicle announced an engagement between Leicester Stevens and Elizabeth Moolman — the former ambulance driver he had met on the voyage to Africa. The couple were living together on a farm in Northern Rhodesia. If Leicester had not found a dinosaur, he had instead found a wife.
Leicester and Elizabeth were married in July 1920. Records show one of the witnesses at the ceremony at Claremont, Cape Town, was May Smart, the other woman from the voyage to South Africa. May would subsequently become Leicester’s second wife — and Philip’s mother. “How amusing that my mother should have been a witness at my father’s marriage to her predecessor,” says Philip.
He has photos of Leicester and Elizabeth on their farm in Rhodesia, and of the house that Leicester built to his own design. It was a large brick farmhouse with two chimneys and a thatch grass roof. Employing local labor — who he ensured received fair pay — he also did the necessary road and irrigation work to make the place habitable. According to his brief written resumé of his time in Africa (which does not mention the dinosaur hunt), the farmhouse was “very satisfactory.”
Unfortunately, Elizabeth did not seem to agree with that assessment. She very soon returned to Cape Town, where she gave birth to Leicester’s first daughter, Constance. Shortly after, Elizabeth took Constance to England. “It doesn’t surprise me that Elizabeth left him after a few weeks,” says Philip. “He liked being out in the middle of nowhere. He always had the wanderlust. It doesn’t suit everybody, that kind of thing.”
By then, the dinosaur frenzy was over. A headline in the Rhodesia Journal summed things up: “THE BRONTOSAURUS MYSTERY: Nothing but a Yarn.” According to a letter from a correspondent in the Congo, the Belgian railway engineer and dinosaur witness “Monsieur Lepage” was actually an Australian railway engineer named Dave Le Page. Further details soon emerged. Le Page, “well known for his elastic imagination,” was engaged in railway works at Fungurume. When a missionary arrived at Fungurume, Le Page invented the monster story to “pull his leg.” The missionary (or, according to some reports, an American engineer) relayed the tale to the press, and it became a worldwide sensation. As for the Belgian hunter and prospector “Monsieur Gapelle,” his surname was (almost) an anagram of “Lepage” and another pseudonym of the prankster Le Page. “The story has caused a lot of amusement up here,” wrote the correspondent.
When news of the hoax reached the Daily Mail, the newspaper insisted it was still possible that the animal did exist in Central Africa because “native reports are extraordinarily persistent regarding the presence of such a beast in almost untrodden districts.” Meanwhile, the hoaxer Dave Le Page became known to his associates throughout Central Africa as “Brontosaurus Dave.”
Then, in February 1920, the Times of London printed a letter from Wentworth D Gray of the Smithsonian Institution, who denied that members of the fateful Smithsonian and Universal expedition had gone to the Congo to hunt the brontosaurus. “There is no foundation for this statement,” he wrote. And the Smithsonian had never offered $5m dollars for the capture of the creature. According to Gray, there had been no brontosaurus, and there had been no reward. Leicester and the other hunters had been searching not for a dinosaur but for a ghost.
Leicester remained on the farm in Rhodesia until 1922. “Getting drunk, drinking whiskey all night, out in the heat, having malaria a lot, putting up with that,” says Philip. Later, Leicester worked a series of engineering and mining jobs across Southern Africa. He worked in the East Rand Gold Mine, which was then the deepest mine in the world, and ran convoys of lorries carrying tobacco up and down Nyasaland, now Malawi. Then, in 1929, Leicester left Africa and sailed back to England. Laddie did not return with him. Philip does not know what happened to Laddie, but we can hope he had enjoyed a full and happy life in Africa.
Back in England, Leicester married May Smart. May’s father was the wealthy London manager of the Standard Bank of South Africa, allowing the newlyweds to live in financial comfort. But Leicester struggled to settle into family life. “I think he liked being a long way from civilization,” says Philip. He moved with May far from London to the seclusion of Cornwall, where he filled his time with fishing, boating, and butterfly collecting. He was always active, always looking for something to do. According to Philip, Leicester put his constant search for adventure above everything else: “I would say probably above marriage and family.”
In later life, troubled by a persistent cough that he attributed to being gassed during the war (although May suggested it was the roll-ups he smoked), Leicester became a frustrated figure. “Growing old didn’t suit him at all,” says Philip. “Not that he got very old.” Leicester died in Cornwall in 1958, four days before his 74th birthday.
When Philip was in his late teens, he followed in his father’s footsteps by traveling to Rhodesia. “I went to Africa because my father had filled my head with stories,” says Philip. “And I thought, well that’s the place to go.” These were stories not of dinosaurs but of hunting for food, building your own home, and living by your means far from the rest of civilization. While there, Philip met a local man who had known Leicester during his time in Africa. The man told Philip: “We regarded him as a god.” Philip found that odd because “by the time I knew him, he wasn’t very godlike.”
I ask Philip how exploring his father’s story after so long has made him feel. He says he is pleased to have found things he did not know. “Very enjoyable and fascinating,” he says. But he remains skeptical about the dinosaur hunt. “Do you imagine they were that ignorant back in those days?” he says. “I would be surprised if there was ever a serious thought about actually finding a live dinosaur.” In any case, if I want to talk about dinosaurs, I should talk to his daughter Lil, who is Leicester’s granddaughter. “She lives in London,” says Philip. “She works at the Natural History Museum. She’s a fossil specialist.” Oh wow, I say, registering the magnitude of this coincidence. Does she know about the dinosaur hunt? “Probably not.”
It’s a sunny day in July, and Dr Lil Stevens is wearing rubber boots and crouching in a quarry near Malmesbury in England’s Cotswolds. She is scrubbing mud from a limestone slab as part of an effort to uncover a lost world. She calls it “treasure hunting.” Lil is a paleontologist and senior curator at the National History Museum. She regards field trips as the best part of her job. Like her grandfather, Lil is searching for prehistoric creatures from the Jurassic era. Unlike her grandfather, she has found lots of them.
Within just a few days at the quarry, Lil and the museum team have found more than a thousand fossilized marine animals, including starfish and sea urchins — plus a few crocodile teeth. She describes it as a “quite extraordinary” discovery that ranks among the best hauls of marine life fossils found anywhere in the world. Lil knew nothing about her grandfather’s hunt for a brontosaurus before my approach. She went straight into the museum and said to her colleagues: “Guess what my grandfather did?”
Lil never met Leicester. “What I knew about him was not necessarily positive,” she says. “I think he was quite a strict man, and not a particularly kind or warm, loving person. So learning that he went over to hunt for a brontosaurus… it’s changed my opinion of him.” She wonders now if her career choice might have been unknowingly influenced by her grandfather. “My dad definitely had a big influence on my interest in the natural world,” she tells me. “And I think his dad imparted some of that to him.” She recalls the tales she has heard of Leicester teaching Philip to collect butterflies. “I think that was my grandfather’s way of being a dad to my dad.”
Now the story of a century-old dinosaur hunt has provided Lil with a connection to a man she only knew from photographs. But she doesn’t think her grandfather and his war dog were ever going to find a living dinosaur. “I am a scientist,” says Lil. “From my standpoint, over 100 years later, you can say with reasonable confidence that there isn’t a brontosaurus in the Congo jungle.” But, she says, “I just quite like the idea. And I really do understand the excitement of going on a hunt. Because it is the absolute best thing. I think a lot of paleontologists would love to find a real live dinosaur.”
Dippy the Dinosaur is still owned by Lil’s Natural History Museum. Billed as “the Nation’s Favorite Dinosaur,” the exhibit is regularly loaned to museums around the UK but is back in London for a few months. While I appreciate that Dippy is a diplodocus and not quite a brontosaurus, and its skeleton is a plaster cast reproduction of the Carnegie Museum original, I’m still drawn to wander the halls in search of it.
Back in the 1920s, the hunt for the brontosaurus never quite ended. In early 1926, the British-born editor of the Johannesburg Sunday Times launched an effort to find the brontosaurus and other dinosaurs in the Congo. “I have a theory that in the heart of Africa quite a lot of prehistoric animals are alive,” said J Langley Levy, also a novelist and screenwriter. “I am anxious to secure two pterodactyl eggs, which could be hatched out by the electric incubator in the Johannesburg Zoo.”
Then, in November 1926, newspapers around the world reported the discovery of a cache of fossilized brontosaurus eggs in a previously-unexplored canyon of the Rio Yaqui in Sonora, Mexico. Remarkably, the name of the man who discovered the eggs was Lester Stevens. Lester Volney Stevens — no relation to Leicester Bradney Stevens — was described as a mineral engineer and geologist from Harrison, New York. Stevens had been searching for mineral deposits when he found the eggs. As far as records reveal, they were not hatched out in electric incubators.
Over the ensuing century, folk have continued to search for an elusive dinosaur in the Congo. In 1985, Scottish cryptozoologist Bill Gibbons led an expedition to find the creature known to locals as Mokele-Mbembe. Gibbons went back in 1992 with the author Rory Nugent, who wrote a book about their adventures. Gibbons continues to search for the creature, and maintains the Crypto Hunt YouTube channel. In 2012, Missouri biology enthusiast Stephen McCullah created a Kickstarter campaign to fund an expedition to the Congo to search for Mokele-Mbembe. More recently, efforts by a Japanese TV crew, US TV’s VICE, and — for the 2020 movie Explorer — French documentary makers have all failed to find their singular objective.
In London, the sounds of children running and laughing echo across the museum’s halls. We pass through the Dinosaur Zone and the Dino Store, past Mammals and Marine Life, and Amphibians and Reptiles. Then Creepy Crawlies, Birds, and Fossils. And, of course, the T-Rex Restaurant. Finally, we are here at the Waterhouse Gallery, a dark, hushed space where the bustle and noise of the rest of the museum seem to melt away. Spotlights cast long skeletal shadows across the walls. And there it is. Eighty-five feet long and 14 feet tall. This is Dippy, tall and proud, its neck and tail stretching the length of the hall, its head towering up toward the arched ceiling. Our necks crane and our eyes bulge. There is what feels like a respectful hush. We have found it: a dinosaur. ◆
With thanks to Philip Stevens, Lil Stevens, Roger Stevens, Sarah McNair, Jeff Maysh, Rory Nugent, and staff at the British Library and UK National Archives. Header image by Paul Brown with DALL-E.
In February 2023, Dippy was removed from London’s Natural History Museum to begin a long-term loan at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry. Dippy is replaced in London by a cast skeleton of the even larger Titanosaur.
Copyright © Paul Brown 2023, all rights reserved.
Agent: Richard Pike @ C&W
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