The Great Meddler

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Before leaving London for New York in June of 1865, Bergh was introduced to the Earl of Harrowby, president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, then in its forty-first year. Stimulated by what he learned of the service rendered by the R.S.P.C.A., Bergh decided to found a similar society in the United States, modelled upon the English pattern. The advancement of “merciful principles,” he assured Lord Harrowby, was the “long cherished dream of my heart.”

After careful preparatory work, Bergh unveiled his proposal on the stormy night of February 8, 1866, at New York’s Clinton Hall. He had assembled a small but impressive audience which included the mayor (later the governor of New York), John T. Huffman, and the department-store king A. T. Stewart. Frederick A. Conkling, soldier and merchant, occupied the chair while Henry Bergh spoke.

“Last evening,” read the New York Times ’s one-sentence report, “Henry Bergh, Esq., delivered a lecture on ‘Statistics Relating to the Cruelties Practised upon Animals,’ before the members of the American Geographical and Statistical Society, with a view to the establishment of a society kindred to that so long in successful operation in London, and in the other cities of Great Britain and Ireland.”

Noting in a quick historical survey what had happened to animals (and humans too) in the Roman arena, the tortures inflicted in the Spanish bullring, and the brutalities of modern French vivisectionists, Bergh denounced the blood sports popular in New York, the abuse of horses by street railway and omnibus companies, and the barbarities that accompanied the transportation and slaughter of food animals.

“This is a matter purely of conscience,” he concluded. “It has no perplexing side issues. … It is a moral question in all its aspects. … It is a solemn recognition of that greatest attribute of the Almighty Ruler of the Universe, mercy, which if suspended in our case but for a single instant, would overwhelm and destroy us.”

Support came at once from Mayor Huffman and Stewart, from Peter Cooper, manufacturer, inventor, philanthropist; from John Jacob Astor, II; Henry Clews, the banker; James Lenox, inventor and book collector; John A. Dix, soldier, cabinet officer, and future governor of New York; the publishing Harper brothers, and two Roosevelts—C. V. S., a wealthy merchant, and his brother, James J., attorney and jurist. Hamilton Fish, Bryant, and Greeley also endorsed a paper Bergh circulated outlining the objectives of the proposed society, and James T. Brady, leading New York attorney, drew up its charter. Ezra Cornell had a hand in the passage of the law that made it a misdemeanor to abuse “any horse, mule, cow, cattle, sheep or other animal.” (italics supplied). Bergh was elected president of the A.S.P.C.A., and other prestigious names were added as officers, board members, and financial supporters. Bergh forwarded the names of his colleagues to the Earl of Harrowby, commenting with satisfaction that “the social and political rank of these gentlemen in their own country, correspond with that of the distinguished men who grace the record of the Parent Institution.”

Bergh now had at his disposal an effective law and a private society clothed with public authority. Bergh himself was empowered by the attorney general of the state and the district attorney for the city to represent them in all cases involving the law for the protection of animals. In later years, as conditions improved, educational activities and relief work for disabled, sick, injured, or unwanted animals became more important than arresting and punishing offenders. This gain was due in part to the same influences that led to the emancipation of the slaves, prison reform, the temperance and woman’s-rights movements, minimum-wage laws, the organization of the Red Cross, protection of women and children against economic exploitation, and concern over the plight of the insane. Another circumstance helped: the A.S.P.C.A. was able to secure convictions in over ninety per cent of all cases that reached the courts.

Bergh hoped that the word “American” in the title of the society would come to stand for a national organization. But the charter, under New York laws, was not appropriate elsewhere, and the idea of branches outside New York state proved impractical. The A.S.P.C.A.’s influence, however, was national, for many state and municipal societies quickly came into being; those in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and San Francisco were among the earliest. They adopted the A.S.P.C.A. seal (behind a teamster flailing a fallen horse stands an angel with a drawn sword and an upraised hand) and applied the humanitarian experience gained in New York. Within five years, an astonishingly short time for the penetration of a new idea, nineteen states and the Dominion of Canada had established societies of similar character.

From a little upstairs room at Broadway and Fourth Street, plainly furnished with a Manila carpet and a lew chairs, Bergh readied out to enlist support—to former President Millard Fillmore in Buffalo, urging him to establish a branch there; to Mrs. William Appleton in Boston and her associate in reform, George T. Angell; to Mrs. Caroline Earle White in Philadelphia. “Keep continually before the public,” he counselled Angell. “Let us strive to excel one another.” The president of the A.S.P.C.A. thought his task in New York the hardest. New York, he said, was in effect a foreign city, “composed of the refuse of European barbarism.”