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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
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.
Bergh entered Columbia College in 1830 with some thought of a career in law. As a collegian he was a young man of fashion, enjoying the balls and the company of the town wits. Preferring the pleasures of travel to the life of study, he dropped out of Columbia and, after tasting Europe, turned his thoughts to marriage, In 1839, he wedded Catherine Matilda Taylor, daughter of an English architect practicing in New York. With Christian Bergh’s death in 1843, the shipyard was closed, and Henry and his wife, childless and well off (contemporaries put their wealth at several hundred thousand to a million dollars), travelled and lived extensively in Europe. They also built an elaborate residence on Fifth Avenue and, when stateside, moved in the social circles of Saratoga and Washington, as well as New York.
In Europe, Bergh reacted rapturously to the right things—the Parthenon, the Tirol, the cathedral at Cologne. Nor did he neglect the pleasures of the palate: he savored the great white wines of the Rhine Valley and the fine pate of Strasbourg. A hint of the future came in Seville, where the Berghs attended a bullfight and were revolted as some eight bulls were killed and twenty horses eviscerated.
Sometimes Bergh carried official dispatches, which entitled him to a “cabinet passport” and immunity from prying customs officers. The couple was in favor at various American legations, and attended soirées at the Elysée during the presidency of Louis Napoleon. The American minister at the Court of St. James’s, Abbott Lawrence, presented Bergh to Prince Albert, and later he was escorted to the House of Commons, where he saw Sir Robert Peel and Lord John Russell. In 1850, he visited Russia and was shown through the Kremlin. He liked the country, especially the nobility and the people’s attitude toward Americans. “There are many points of resemblance between Russia and the United States,” he wrote, noting in particular two of the less flattering—slavery and widespread corruption in high places.
Bergh turned to literature and diplomacy, since the American government was dispatching a number of literary envoys—this was the era of Washington Irving in Madrid, George Bancroft in Berlin, Bayard Taylor in St. Petersburg, and John Bigelow in Paris. Moreover, Bergh was critical of many American diplomats he had met, considering them less accustomed than himself to the ceremonious side of diplomatic life.
As an author Bergh was, unhappily, a poet manqué and an unsuccessful though persistent playwright (he often attempted humor, a trait in which he was extraordinarily deficient). He was, briefly, more fortunate in diplomacy. Early in 1863, President Lincoln named him to succeed Taylor as legation secretary at the court of Czar Alexander II, and there he served under the colorful southern abolitionist, Cassius Marcellus Clay (see “The Roar of the Aged Lion” in the June, 1960, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). Bergh dreamed of a ministerial position in Europe, but disillusionment was quick in coming.
“Because of Clay’s apprehensions that one of his underlings would become more popular with the Russians than he,” wrote his most recent biographer, Professor David L. Smiley. “… he mistreated them all. Clay’s jealousy erupted, and Bergh soon returned to the United States.” He did so reluctantly, lingering in London for five months while he maneuvered for a new appointment. He appealed to a number of men in power at home, and finally to Lincoln himself—all to no avail.
But his one diplomatic assignment had left Bergh a lasting legacy. While in Russia, he had watched the peasants beat their horses and had, from the legation carriage, directed his splendidly liveried Vladimir or Alexander to order the droshky drivers to stop it. “At last,” he commented, “I’ve found a way to utilize my gold lace.” This was the turning point in Bergh’s life toward his true mission.
Yet he admitted that he had never been particularly interested in animals. Once when he was calling on Miss Clara Morris, a leading emotional actress of the period, he drew back when her small dog put a friendly, inquiring paw on his knee. And he had even been capable of actions which, in his later years, he would have been the first to condemn. An entry in an early Bergh diary tells of an evening in Athens when, “as every other amusement had been exhausted, we gentlemen sallied out and stoned the dogs with which the city abounds.”
Not as one devoted to pets, then, nor again out of a sentimental flinching at happenings that caused animals pain, but rather because of a kind of abstract concept of justice, Bergh seems to have undertaken his lifework as spokesman for those who could not speak for themselves. Yet one wonders if that quite covers it. Horses, one feels, must have been his secret passion. His speeches, lectures, and reports were filled with affectionate praise of “that generous and faithful servant, the horse” and “that noble creature, the horse.” Why else did this reserved New Yorker, who looked like a blend of Quaker and French count, wear a gold horse’s-head scarfpin in the folds of his black satin cravat and recall, in one of those classical allusions of which he was so fond, how Darius owed his crown to the neighing of a horse? “What struck me most forcibly,” Bergh declared, “was that mankind derived immense benefits from these creatures, and gave them in return not the least protection.”
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.”
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.
“The day following,” Bergh told a lecture audience, “the Herald devoted six columns to an account of the trial … and to the funny fellow who wrote that account I have always felt grateful, for his ridicule awakened the public from its apathy. Next day one million people understood my purpose and in a week, twenty millions knew there was a society for the defense of inferior animals.”
Bergh tried on several subsequent occasions to come to the rescue of Florida turtles. It was one of his few failures. Even his best friends were embarrassed. Americans were not ready to extend their concern about animal welfare to a cold-blooded species. Nor, though they could get excited about cruelties practiced upon such domestic friends as dogs, cats, and horses, could people work up much sympathy for those forms of sentient life which they had decided were vermin—the woodchuck, the English sparrow, spiders and flies, the rattlesnake. The popular attitude was slightly different toward wild animals torn from their natural environment for human amusement.
Henry Bergh was a constant annoyance to Barnum in the latter’s zoological activities, although Barnum usually extracted valuable publicity out of their clashes. An incident occurred when the A.S.P.C.A. learned that the boa constrictors in the Broadway menagerie were being fed living animals in the presence of paying customers. The resulting pressure from Bergh was so heavy that at one time Barnum had to send his snakes to Hoboken to feed them, beyond the reach of the A.S.P.C.A., whose writ did not run in New Jersey.
Barnum found a way to punish Bergh. He obtained from Agassiz a letter saying that snakes required live food and expressing doubt that the active members of the A.S.P.C.A. “would object to eating lobster salad because the lobster was boiled alive, or refuse oysters because they were cooked alive, or raw oysters because they must be swallowed alive.” The president of Barnum & Van Amburgh’s Museum and Menagerie thereupon demanded an apology from the president of the A.S.P.C.A. and released to the newspapers the complete correspondence concerning the controversy.
Some years and several incidents later, Barnum embarrassed Bergh again when he announced that Salamander, the Fire Horse, would jump through fire as one of the main attractions of the Barnum, Bailey & Hutchinson show. Bergh rose to the bait and sent Superintendent T. W. Hartfield of the A.S.P.C.A. with five agents and twenty policemen to stop the act. Barnum entered the circus ring and gained the audience’s sympathy with a clever speech, predicting that, if he were arrested, “I shall place a hoop of fire around Henry Bergh that will make him warmer than he has been in the past and probably than he will ever experience in the future!” The fire hoops were ignited. The impresario himself leaped through the hoops, followed by ten clowns and Salamander. Finally, Superintendent Hartfield himself passed through the fire unsinged. The flames were artificial, produced by a harmless chemical.
Respect and even affection developed between the two extraordinary characters after Bergh defended Barnum on an occasion in 1885 when the latter was attacked for using elephant goads. The showman began contributing to both the New York and Connecticut anticruelty societies and announced from his home in Bridgeport that he was “the Bergh of Bridgeport.” In his will, Barnum bequeathed a thousand dollars to Bridgeport for the erection of a statue to Bergh. The memorial was unveiled October i, 1897; it had water troughs on two levels and was topped by a statue of a horse. In March of 1964 an automobile crashed into the base, toppling the horse and damaging it beyond repair. But the rest of the monument still stands at Main Street and University Avenue.
As the years passed, the A.S.P.C.A. kept a vigilant eye on the market for worn-out horses; on the city dog pound, where strays were executed with revolting cruelty; on the treatment of draft animals along the Erie Canal; on the condition of the stump-tailed cows of Brooklyn and Long Island (the tails dropped off milkers that were diseased). The cows, which were fed on garbage and distillery slops, produced milk that was sold as “Pure Orange County Milk.” In this instance, Bergh’s concern for animals resulted also in a severe arraignment of the dairy business, with beneficial side effects upon sanitation and public health. Bergh is also credited with devising derricks and slings for raising large animals that had fallen into excavations, and with the invention of the clay pigeon to save maimed birds from the guns of trap-shooters. He also put an ambulance wagon into service for New York’s animals two years before Bellevue Hospital introduced the idea for humans.
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.”
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.