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Turtle Heist

July 31, 2009

We’ve all been told that anthropologists have no right to intervene in the lives of their subjects — does it make a difference if their subjects are small, green, and promise not to tattle?

Frank Goldsmith Speck, near the end of his career at Penn, befriended John Witthoft, a young colleague of his. The two had much in common — both were interested in Native American people, and neither were terribly interested in the fashions and pretenses of their peers in academia.

Speck came to the University of Pennsylvania in 1907 as a Harrison Fellow in anthropology, and received his Ph.D. in 1908. Considered one of the founders of anthropology at Penn, Speck organized the department of anthropology in 1913, and for forty years he was the senior member. John Witthoft studied with Speck; he joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in 1966 and retired in 1986 as associate professor emeritus, specializing in the archaeology and ethnology of Native Americans.

One day, near the end of Speck’s career and the beginning of Witthoft’s, the two decided that the turtles under the care of the Philadelphia Zoo were longing for the outside world. The two snuck into the zoo one night, loaded them into a truck, sprung them, and transported them to what they thought would be a more congenial environment — a pond in Swarthmore, Pa.

Unfortunately, the always-intrepid Philadelphia police were able to trace the truck to the two turtlenappers, who were then asked to either reimburse the zoo for the two turtles — to the tune of $600 — or return them to the zoo.

This is where I would like to take a minute to imagine these two important names in the history of anthropology wading in a pond in the middle of who-knows-where, trying desperately to remember which were the turtles they stole and which were run-of-the-mill pond turtles.

Upon their return, the zoo director produced a receipt for their return and promised to upgrade the turtles’ environment.

“All the thoughts of a turtle are turtle” Ralph Waldo Emerson. I can't believe that I'm saying this, but this is probably not the turtle that Speck and Witthoft rescued. Courtesy of flicr user ricmcarthur.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Albert Lecuyer permalink
    August 1, 2009 12:54 pm

    Were these turtles native to Pennsylvania?

  2. August 1, 2009 4:01 pm

    You know, I actually have no idea. The anecdote was from Witthoft’s obit in the American Anthropologist, and they didn’t mention the turtles’ particular species. I wonder if the zoo has any records of this…

  3. December 15, 2009 1:44 pm

    Loved the story – particularly the quote!

  4. Kim Mollah permalink
    December 3, 2010 5:56 pm

    John Witthoft was my grandfather. According to a biography he wrote himself it was more than two turtles and they did do it because they felt their enclosure was substandard. The Zoo threated criminal charges if they did not return the turtles and agree to do community service at the Zoo. They found and returned the turtles and did community service at the Zoo which my grandfather enjoyed. The Zoo sent them a letter thanking them for the return and for the extra addition. They mistakingly brought one too many turtles back. Fornunatly the turtle enclosure was improved after that.

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