MARCUS ROBINSON sets out to learn more about the eccentric gay dinosaur hunter who wished to become the first king of Albania.
WITH name like his, plus the fact that he was born in Transylvania, Franz Baron Nopcsa von Felso-Szilvás sounds like a character in a 19th-century Gothic horror novel. But there was nothing sinister about him, unless you think his passion for digging up bones of long-dead creatures was somewhat creepy.
I had never heard of the man until this autumn when he featured in a BBC Radio 4 Natural History Hero episode in which Professor Paul Barrett, a world-renowned expert on the evolution and biology of dinosaurs and other extinct reptiles, revealed that Nopcsa (also known as Baron von Nopcsa) was among the first people to study what fossils might tell us about how extinct animals lived.
Nopcsa, Barrett said, is today considered the father of palaeobiology. The baron provided the first fossil evidence that Sauropods had gone through a process of island dwarfism – shrinking body size over generations to adapt to living on islands. Barrett also pointed out that Nopcsa was “a flamboyant character and was unafraid to make his more wacky and outlandish theories public and was also one of very few openly gay men in the early part of the 20th century.”
I was captivated by the broadcast, and the moment the episode ended, I dived into the Internet to discover more about the Nopcsa. The first article I discovered about him was published on the Radio Romania International website in November, 2013, and this revealed that “the non-conformist” Nopcsa is considered the founder of two disciplines: palaeobiology and Albanian studies.
He was born in 1877 in the area of Hunedoara, in the south-eastern part of the then Austro-Hungarian Empire and today’s western Romania. One of his grandparents was reputedly another infamous and eccentric character in the Hateg region. When darkness fell, the nobleman known as “Fata Neagra” (Black Face) would don a hood and rob travellers. Local legends depict him as an outlaw, who stole from the rich to give to the poor.
Nopcsa’s career as a man of science began early. When he was 18 he left for Vienna to study palaeontology and geology. He took with him several strange bones his sister had discovered in the Retezat Mountains in 1895. He later discovered that the bones were fossils of the dwarf dinosaurs who had populated the Hateg region several hundred millions of years ago. He earned his PhD in sciences and published almost 150 science articles related to palaeontology and geology.
In November 1906 in Bucharest Nopcsa met Baiazid Doda, an Albanian who was a resident in Romania’s capital city. The two started a professional relationship as well as a love affair. According to Nopcsa, Doda was the only one who, as his secretary and lover, truly loved him, and one whom Nopcsa completely trusted.
After the First World War, the Romanian state seized Nopcsa estates and the Baron, taking Doda with him, had no choice but to settle in Vienna. Yet he would not give up his assets without a fight, and in a brawl he suffered a severe head injury when a gang peasants flung stones at him and beat him.
On April 23, 1933 in a hotel room in Vienna Nopcsa shot his lover as he was asleep and then he shot himself. In the farewell letter, the adventurer baron explained that his action was forced on him by poverty and misery.
Some of the fossils discovered in the Hateg region are were given Nopcsa’s name. The vertebra of a Sauropod got the name Nopcsaspondylus. Other dinosaurs also received the Baron’s name: Elopteryx nopcsai, Thethysaurus nopcsai, Hyposaurus nopcsai, and Mesophis nopcsai. A six-meter long sauropod Nopcsa had studied was given the name Magyarosaurus by the baron himself.
One of Baron Nopcsa’s contributions to evolutionism, which became accepted by the experts only in the 1960s was the theory that birds evolved in an area dominated by dinosaurs. Another scientific hypothesis put forward by Nopcea and shared by the scientific community today was that Mesozoic reptiles had warm blood.
A blog called Gay Influence, set up to celebrate gay and bisexual men of influence, provides more information about the baron, and reveals that he had made an unsuccessful bid to become the King of Albania.
He had travelled south to Albania, then part of the Ottoman Empire, to conduct some digs for more dinosaur fossils. Whilst there he became enchanted by the countryside and culture of the Albanians, and he soon dedicated himself to liberating Albania from the Ottomans in an effort to establish it as an independent country.
Using his personal fortune to acquire weapons, he organised rebellious forces and led the Albanians in fighting against the Turks. At the end of the First Balkan War, Albania became an independent state in 1913 under the Treaty of London.
This new Albania was to be a kingdom, but there was no native dynasty. In order to secure the recognition of the nation by other European countries, the Albanian Congress of Trieste was convened in 1913 to choose a nobleman to become king.
According to Gay Influence Nopcsa “put forth the proposition that he would be an ideal choice as king, because he was of noble birth and had strong ties to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, the fact that he was homosexual and made no effort to hide it thwarted his dream from becoming reality. He flounced around in a black velvet cape and made his attention and interest in men obvious.
“The Albanians quite naturally expected their king to marry and produce heirs, but Nopcsa tried to use his sexual orientation to advantage. He suggested that Albania sell the title of ‘Queen of Albania’ to the highest bidder, since he did not care which woman he would marry and sleep with. He agreed to produce an heir with whomever paid the highest price and use the money for badly needed infrastructure, such as building roads and hospitals.
“Although the Albanians were grateful for his role in liberating the people from the grip of the Turks, he was passed over as their king. Instead, the European powers installed a minor German prince, Wilhelm von Weid, who was deposed and expelled from Albania six months later.
“The impoverished Nopcsa lapsed into severe fits of depression. His financial humiliation was so extreme that by the end of his life his household servant had not been paid for four months. To cover his debts, he sold his fossil collection to the Natural History Museum in London, which caused his depression to worsen.
“Finally, after selling many of his prized books in 1933, he drugged Doda’s tea and fatally shot his lover and then himself. In a letter left for the police, he explained that his decision to commit suicide was the result of a nervous breakdown. His letter stated: ‘The reason that I shot my longtime friend and secretary, Mr. Bayazid Elmas Doda, in his sleep without his suspecting at all is that I did not wish to leave him behind sick, in misery and without a penny, because he would have suffered too much.’”
Baron Franz von Nopcsa left his detailed observations of the Albanian people and landscape to fellow scholar Norbert Jokl, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1942.
The documents, which give a valuable account of the Albanian culture before modernization, were then transferred to the Austrian National Library in Vienna, and Nopcsa’s palaeontological manuscripts went to the British Museum, where they languished in storage.