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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
Finances of the society were markedly improved by a timely bequest from a dying Frenchman, Louis Bonard, who, ironically, had made his fortune by trading with Indians for the furs of animals caught in steel traps. The Bonard will was hotly contested on the ground that Bonard was a Buddhist and believed in the transmigration of souls. Therefore, it was argued, decedent had given his property to the A.S.P.C.A. only with a view to his own protection in case he found after death that he had been absorbed into the body of an animal—a theory the court rejected. The money enabled the A.S.P.C.A. to expand its activities and move to its own building on the southeast corner of Fourth Avenue at Twenty-second Street. There was a drinking fountain at the door, a gilded horse over the portico, a stuffed Newfoundland dog in the vestibule, and a permanent display in the office of captured instruments of torture, many still smeared with the dried blood of the victims.
Bergh opposed vaccination and took on the medical profession in a sharp controversy over vivisection. But a bill of protest failed of passage in the state legislature, “both houses,” as he expressed it sadly, “refusing to interfere with the torments of experimentation … inflicted … on mute defenseless creatures.” Bergh’s A.S.P.C.A., and indeed all humane groups taking a general approach to the field of animal protection, later left the subject of experimentation upon live animals to organizations that addressed themselves specifically to the issue.
In 1874, a case of flagrant brutality toward a child known as “Little Mary Ellen” aroused widespread interest and sympathy after the emaciated child, clothed in rags, appeared in court displaying a mass of scars caused by repeated beatings with a pair of shears. As a result, Bergh and his associates (independently of their animal work) launched the first organized movement for child protection in the United States through a body known then, and now, as the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Henry Bergh’s power and prominence, his frequent entanglements with commercial interests, and his peculiar physical appearance—he was one of the oddest sights on Broadway—all served to keep him and the A.S.P.C.A. in the news. Because of his idiosyncratic temperament, his rueful countenance, and, to some among the press, the unreality of his objectives, cartoonists of the day frequently delineated him as a nineteenth-century Don Quixote, mounted upon a bony Rosinante. To his active antagonists, and to those who simply preferred to let well enough alone, Bergh became known as “the Great Meddler.”
Numbered among his tormentors was the Eden Musée on West Twenty-third Street, New York’s answer to Madame Tussaud’s waxworks in London, which exhibited an effigy of the president of the A.S.P.C.A. under the title “Henry Bergh in Bangs.” The New York Sunday Mercury, often responsive to the special interests of sporting gentlemen, castigated Bergh editorially as “An Ass That Should Have His Ears Cropped,” while the comic newspaper Wild Oats indulged in hyperbolic ridicule: “Cockroaches … insist on sharing the best,” the paper said. “Rats insist on having a chair at the table … goats put on airs … hogs grunt delightedly … [as] unlimited sway is given to the very humane Bergh.”
Anecdotes had it that as a child Bergh had manifested a special sensitivity to the welfare of animals: once he jumped off a pier near his father’s shipyard, one story went, and nearly lost his life when he attempted to rush to the rescue of a dog that some older boys were about to drown. Other unsubstantiated items were that young Bergh once persuaded his parents to give up mousetraps and flypaper, and that he had cured an aged mouse of neuralgia with Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup.
It was often asserted that Bergh was a vegetarian, which conceded him a theoretical consistency while neatly labelling him a crank. But it was not true: Bergh’s philosophy made allowance for “necessary killing.” At one time he tried to introduce horse meat as an article of diet. Characteristically, the move was attempted in the interest of the horse, a quick and merciful death being preferable to the fate that awaited the victims of the horse markets.
Bergh’s courage was tested on many occasions. He received numerous anonymous letters, embellished with crude skulls and crossbones and scrawled with BEWARE’S, advising him to leave town. One post card named the day and the hour when he would be assassinated. A drayman, arrested for overloading his horse, took a cut at Bergh with a piece of iron; fortunately he missed. Once Bergh pulled two large men off a heavily laden coal wagon that a single horse was straining to drag through the snow. Always he was accused of choosing the wrong target. The “dairymaids” thought he ought to confine his attentions to the butchers. The butchers favored vigorous action against cockfighting; while Kit Burns, the entrepreneur of the civilizing institution of dogfighting, warned: “Your society is doing a noble work, sir, yes, a magnificent work, but let me tell you, when it interferes in dogfighting, it digs its own grave.”