- Historic Sites
The Great Meddler
In Henry Bergh—a reformed dilettante who founded the A.S.P.C.A.—many saw a latter-day Saint Francis of Assisi. But others, especially the cruel or the thoughtless, regarded him as The Great Meddler.
December 1967 | Volume 19, Issue 1
There was a coarseness in New York life a hundred years ago that gave the A.S.P.C.A. no small range of activity. Wealthy sportsmen held pigeon shoots in which live birds were first damaged in a wing or blinded in one eye, to create interesting flight patterns. At the other end of the social scale, the low-life sporting fraternity flocked to the dog and rat pits. At Kit Burns’s Sportsmen’s Hall at 273 Water Street, bulldogs fought black bears in the tradition of medieval bearbaiting. Terriers, competing against time, killed a hundred brown wharf rats in a zinc-lined enclosure, and as a special finale, Kit’s son-in-law, Reddy the Blacksmith, would for the price of a glass of beer bite a live rat in two.
Henry Bergh seemed to be everywhere, fearlessly raiding the dog and rat pits and cocking mains, and working boldly in the streets. He made his first arrest when he sighted a butcher named Mans transporting live calves roped tightly together and stacked up like cordwood (sometimes the animals’ heads hung out over the sides of transport carts and were crushed against passing vehicles or were ground against the wheels of their own cart). Bergh chased the cart all the way from Broadway to the Williamsburg Ferry and got a conviction. The president of the A.S.P.C.A. carried a cane that could be used as a weapon of defense, but usually a lifted finger and a glimpse of his official badge were sufficient to stop the carter with an overloaded dray or the butcher caught plucking live poultry. In addition to nabbing offenders, Bergh spent long hours in the Court of Special Sessions, where he was formidable in cross-examination, or atop the bleak hill at the Capitol in Albany, appearing before legislative committees. Meanwhile, he carried on the routine business of the society, cajoling the editors of New York’s fifteen daily newspapers, writing tracts on vivisection and the care of the horse, lecturing, and raising money. “My time by day and night,” he wrote to a correspondent, “is devoted to the Institution which I have founded.”
Yet his life was not without its rewards. Bergh was an authoritarian at heart. Some of his contemporaries would have chosen the harsher word “despot.” But there was no doubt that the A.S.P.C.A. was Bergh and Bergh was the A.S.P.C.A. He clearly enjoyed the exercise of his considerable power, and had in his temperament that certain element of fanaticism necessary to the success of a great reform movement. Said one newspaper editor, saluting Bergh, “He who doeth one thing is terrible!”
One blustery winter night at the rush hour, with slush ankle-deep in the streets, Bergh concentrated his forces at Chatham Street (now Park Row), where a half dozen car lines converged. Bergh and his men ordered every horse that was lame or sick out of the traces. The condition of the wretched street-railway horses was notorious: it was not uncommon then to find parts of the harness embedded in an animal’s flesh. That night there was plenty of work for the A.S.P.C.A. men. The result was a virtual blockade. Thousands of New Yorkers had to foot it uptown, growling, cursing, hungry, wet, arid fighting mad. “Who did this?” was asked on all sides. And the answer came, “Bergh.”
In the face of such criticism, Bergh was always urbane. But there was a hint of menace in his letters to indolent or uninterested judges, to newspaper editors careless of their facts, or, as an instance, to Tiffany & Company, whose wagon, he pointed out, the night before at about seven o’clock, on Fifth Avenue below Twenty-third Street, was drawn by a horse unfit for service. Bergh was precise. When he wrote to the police captain in West Thirty-fifth Street about a horse that had been abandoned in the gutter to die, he gave the name of the owner, the name and address of the man who committed the act, and the name and address of a witness. When Bergh complained to William H. Vanderbilt about a “dead lame” horse owned by the New York and Harlem Railroad, he gave the date and identified the horse as being attached to Fourth Avenue car No. 30. “I have adopted a habit through life,” he wrote to a justice who was delaying unreasonably on a horse-abandonment case, “of always pursuing a subject until it is brought to its legitimate conclusion.”
Applying to his animal-welfare objectives P. T. Barnum’s operating philosophy about publicity—“I don’t care much what the papers say about me, provided they will say something”—Henry Bergh undertook to overcome apathy through developing a spectacular case: the amelioration of torments visited upon green turtles. The turtles, the source of soup and succulent steaks, were transported by sailing ships from the tropics to the Fulton Fish Market in New York; they lay on their backs for several weeks, without food or water, held in place by ropes strung through holes punched in their flippers. Bergh boarded a schooner engaged in the turtle trade, arrested the captain and crew, and marched them off to The Tombs. He reinforced his position with a letter from Professor Louis Agassiz, the famous Harvard zoologist, assuring him that turtles could feel hunger, thirst, and pain and had, besides, certain minimal rights. A skeptical judge acquitted the defendants by holding that a turtle was not an animal within the meaning of the law. The case was a nine-day wonder, with the newspapers making extensive facetious comments on the nature of turtles and aggressive humanitarians.