Celebrating 90 Years of AMNH: William Werner

William H. Werner played a crucial role in the foundation of the Anniston Museum of Natural History’s collection, though he died well before Anniston Museum was ever thought of. William Werner was born on January 18th, 1842. As a child and young adult, Werner expressed an interest in taxidermy and the natural world. In 1863 at 21 years old, Werner began to create his bird collection. His goal was to preserve birds for viewing in a way that would prevent damage to their native habitats. Because of his early efforts, the museum has preserved specimens of endangered or extinct birds such as the passenger pigeon (extinct), the Carolina parakeet (extinct), and the ivory-billed woodpecker (endangered).

Werner’s dioramas were the first of their kind. Taxidermy as we know it began in the eighteenth century, and preservation methods were wildly different from those we use today. Though potentially lethal to human beings, arsenic protects animal skin from bio-degradation and pests. Utilizing this method, Werner crafted the dioramas still on display in the Birds of the Americas hall today. He posed his birds in natural positions, crafted nests (sometimes complete with eggs), and hand painted scenic backgrounds. His first diorama was completed in 1870. Werner gained national notoriety after displaying pieces of his collection at the Philadelphia Centennial, Jamestown, Buffalo, and a college for educators.

At home, Werner and his wife Lucetta welcomed two children. His daughter, Elsie Elizabeth Werner, died young in 1884 of pneumonia brought on by a boating accident. His son, William B. Werner, regularly accompanied his father on expeditions to collect birds to further enhance his bourgeoning collection. By 1892, Werner had a large enough collection to open his Wonderland Museum on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, New Jersey. The museum featured Werner’s bird collection, preserved reptiles, and religious scenes. During the museum’s operation, Werner continued to taxidermy specimens for his collection. In 1910, he took ownership of a bald eagle that had attempted to attack a three year old boy. After pairing the eagle with his mate, Werner created yet another diorama that can still be viewed today in Birds of the Americas hall.

Werner passed away at 70 years old in 1912. After his death, his collection passed to his son, William B. Werner. Preoccupied with his own wife and children, William B. sold the collection to H. Severn Regar in 1914. The collection was adapted to yet another museum, creating the next era of our collection’s history.