- 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
The A.S.P.C.A. was also charged with bearing down on the poor while excusing the rich. But the truth was that Bergh had difficulty when he tried to call to account members of the business and social elite; the courts held, for example, that unless an officer of a corporation personally hit a horse on the head with a shovel or left it to die in the street he could not be held responsible.
Although Bergh was derided and defied, the annual reports of the A.S.P.C.A. demonstrated that humanitarian sentiments were taking hold. Humane societies were multiplying, and in some states (Colorado and Wisconsin are examples) animal-welfare activities were carried on by government agencies or bureaus. The press, on the whole, came to support Bergh, for the good work of the A.S.P.C.A. was self-evident. By the 1880s, the cartmen of New York were tipping their hats respectfully to President Bergh, and the Fulton Fish Market men, who had once spattered his clothing with chicken viscera and fish heads, were giving their old adversary a courteous salute.
New York City, always Bergh’s special domain, came to regard indulgently and even affectionately the tall old gentleman with the kindly yet dyspeptic face and the courtly manners who, when he stopped a teamster for some offense and saw a crowd gathering, would deliver a little talk on Americanism and kindness. The speech became known as Bergh’s curbstone address. It always included the appeal to free men to obey laws of their own making. And in all he did, he always had a further objective in view, which he wrote out in French just three years before he died: Les hommes seront justes envers les hommes, quand ils seront charitables envers les animaux.
Henry Bergh kept bachelor hall during his later years in a brownstone house at 429 Fifth Avenue, with two nephews in residence, with his clutter of curios, his objets d’art, and his many memories. His wife had been an invalid for years, confined in a home at Utica, New York, where she died in 1887. The Great Meddler died in his home during the Blizzard of Eighty-Eight, and was immediately applauded as a man who had carried on a unique work compassionately, if at times imperiously, and who had created a profound alteration in the moral climate of nineteenth-century America. Mr. Bennett’s morning Herald, which had gotten so much mileage out of Bergh’s foibles, eulogized him, and the New York Citizen, an old antagonist, announced that “the man who loved his fellow animal is mourned by his fellow man.”
Recognition took many forms. Milwaukee, like Bridgeport, erected a monument. Columbia University became the seat of a Henry Bergh Foundation for the promotion of humane education. Elizabeth Chase Akers’ poem Two Saints compared Bergh to Saint Francis of Assisi, and Barnum, while observing that “no man is perfect,” saluted Bergh’s work in behalf of the animal world.
It is a success story quite outside the rags-to-riches convention of the nineteenth century that Henry Bergh, born to affluence and leisure, achieved his fulfillment in the role of “mediator,” as he himself once said, “for the upper and lower animals.” Although there is a long and fascinating history in both Oriental and western cultures of men’s ideas about their relations and obligations vis-à-vis the animal world, there is no evidence that Bergh was especially grounded in the speculative origins of humanitarian feeling. He was not a zoologist, anthropologist, theologian, or thinker absorbed in theoretical questions; he resembled, rather, the “righteous man” of Proverbs who “regardeth the life of his beast” because that was the simple way of the just and good man. Bergh’s concern for animals in distress elevated his life above dilettantism and inspired an enduring movement toward a higher conception of humanity.
A more imposing monument than the one over Henry Bergh’s grave is the flourishing network of anticruelty societies that exists today in North America, along with the many federated humane societies, the specialized auxiliaries such as animal-rescue leagues, shelters, defenders of wildlife, and placement services for homeless animals. They testify to the power of a man whose ideas gave kindness a new dimension.