The Great Meddler

On an unseasonably warm evening in April, 1866, a well-tailored gentleman with a drooping mustache and a long, thin, face, obviously a member of the “upper ten,” stood at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-third Street in New York City, watching the tangle of traffic where Broadway slants across Fifth Avenue. A wilder individualism than we know today prevailed among the horsecars and omnibuses, the struggling carriages, drays, vans, and butchers’ carts of New York. Every wheel was turned, of course, by horsepower. Suddenly the observer stepped off the curb and threaded his way toward a teamster who was giving his weary workhorse an unmerciful beating.

“My friend,” he said, “you can’t do that any more.”

“Can’t beat my own horse,” the teamster shot back, “—the devil I can’t,” as he fell to again.

“You are not aware, probably, that you are breaking the law,” said the interloper, “but you are. I have the new statute in my pocket; and the horse is yours only to treat kindly. I could have you arrested. I only want to inform you what a risk you run.”

“Go to hell,” snapped the teamster, amazed. “You’re mad!”

Thus Henry Bergh began, quietly and politely, but firmly, a twenty-two-year effort to arouse the American conscience to the plight of fellow creatures who could not defend themselves or explain their predicament. Earlier that day, the nineteenth of April, the New York state legislature had passed a bill punishing an act, or omission of an act, that caused pain to animals “unjustifiably.” It was a historic step forward in the nineteenth-century movement toward animal protection.

It became one of Bergh’s most effective arguments to stress the cost of cruelty to the more than eighty-five million animals “contributing in one way or another to the daily support and enrichment of the people of this country.” Cruel treatment of cows resulted in contaminated butter, cheese, and milk. The horrors of the cattle train endangered the meat supply. The aphorism “horses are cheaper than oats” lost its specious appeal when in 1872 two-thirds of all the horses in New York City were stricken with a deadly respiratory disease, producing, said Bergh, “a panic among the human inhabitants”; thousands walked, and the flow of urban life slowed to a trickle.

Cruelty to animals was not an offense under common law unless it carried with it a public nuisance factor, i.e., was observable and offensive to humans or violated a property right. There were animal-protection statutes in certain states, including New York, but they were narrowly drawn, usually for the purpose of protecting some property interest. Machinery for enforcement was lacking; the laws were largely ineffective.

Just a few days before the New York legislature passed the animal-welfare act of 1860, it had chartered an animal-protection society. The new organization, the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, was called the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The A.S.P.C.A.’s sponsors were prominent New Yorkers, leaders in the city, state, and nation in finance, commerce, the law, and politics. But the driving force behind the anticruelty idea was Henry Bergh. He was the founder, president, inspirer, advocate, diplomatist, lecturer, writer, administrator, fund raiser, and tireless protestant against the abuse of animals and against indifference to man’s effect upon their condition and environment.

“To plant, or revive, the principle of mercy in the human heart,” Bergh said, would be “a triumph … greater than the building of the Great Pacific Railroad.”

The cause became known as “Bergh’s War.” The A.S.P.C.A. was the “Bergh Society,” its agents were “Bergh’s men.” Henry Bergh’s tall, muscular figure and long, sad-eyed face—as he patrolled the streets, appeared in courtrooms, or stopped in at the American Museum to see how Barnum was treating his menagerie—became as familiar to New Yorkers as William Cullen Bryant’s magnificent white beard or Horace Greeley’s long white duster and old white hat.

There was little in Henry Bergh’s heritage or earlier life to suggest his remarkable ability to see the human world through the eyes of a wounded bird, a cat stuck in a drain pipe, the animals pacing their cages in the Central Park Zoo, or the biblical Balaam’s ass, which, when the Lord opened her mouth, reproached her master: “What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?”

The descendant of a notable family that had emigrated in the eighteenth century from the Rhenish Palatinate to the mid-Hudson Valley, Henry Bergh was the youngest of three children of Christian Bergh, a stern Jacksonian Democrat and prosperous shipbuilder in New York City during the first forty years of the century. Henry was born on August 29, probably in 1813, in a two-story frame house at the northeast corner of Scammel and Water streets. There is some confusion about the date of Berth’s birth, to which he himself contributed by treating the event, in his later years, as a movable feast. The house stood within the sound of the axes, adzes, saws, and hammers at the family shipyard at Corlear’s Hook, where Manhattan shouldered out into the East River toward Williamsburg and the Navy Yard.