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Rats II: Man vs. Vermin

New York's finest hour: the rat-bait.

The attentive reader will recall that last time, we discussed violence inflicted upon animals for fun and profit in New York City. In response, in 1866, Henry Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Among other things, the organization brags that it founded an ambulance service for horses before Bellevue Hospital in New York did the same for humans.[1] Its first achievement, however, was the successful passage of an anti-cruelty law by the New York State legislature. The law forbade every citizen of New York to

maliciously kill, maim, wound, injure, torture or cruelly beat any animal belonging to himself or another.[2]

The penalty for violation was a $100 fine. By the 1870s, arrests for violations usually involved animal fight promoters. Occasionally Mr. Bergh himself would be present as a witness during the trial.

One of the bulldogs engaged in the brutal pastime as so badly cut and bruised that it had to be killed by the officers of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Mr. Bergh had the animal stuffed, just as it appeared, when found by the officers of his society, and was yesterday produced in court as evidence. The dog presented a revolting appearance, being covered with blood and wounds...[3]

A Load of Bull

Such appearances invariably proved successful for the prosecutor. Bergh's renown was such that he was called upon to officiate a legitimate bullfight in an amphitheater in Manhattan, to make sure things didn't get out of hand. They didn't.

The Spanish bull-fight yesterday afternoon ... was a most ludicrous affair, and for an hour and a half provoked derision from those who had seen a genuine bull-fight, and the most uncontrollable laughter from those who had not... there were a good number of Spaniards in the crowd, and they kept shouting to the men in the arena, to the great amusement of those who were not familiar with the language spoken ...
Henry Bergh and several other officers of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were present to see that the animals were not abused or injured... there was an attempt to hiss him, but [police] quickly quieted the noise.

Bergh eventually called for the proceedings to end, but only because the bulls had been terrified of and fleeing from bellicose matadors all afternoon. His presence at such an event (there were some 2,000 spectators) suggests his stature in the city at the time. Editorials in the New York Times bear out this new sensitivity towards animal cruelty, and convey a sense of outrage over the use of animals in medical studies, among other things.[4] Between arrests of dog- and cockfighters, fizzling bullfights, and the ebbing of pugilism, the fighting community found itself in trouble. Gambling commissions in New York busied themselves with busting Faro parlors, Faro being a card game that enjoyed widespread popularity among New York's gaming set. However, for the sportsman, the fan of violence with an aversion to cards, gaming possibilities would appear to have been tapped.

Oh Rats

About this time, New York City was operating thirteen individual garbage dumps clustered around the reedy marshes along the East and Hudson rivers. Legally, refuse could be dumped at sea, but more often wound up in Jersey City (from New York's West Side) or Brooklyn (from the East). The mounds of trash and molding food proved an eyesore to Jersey City and Brooklyn, enough for the latter to petition the city in protest.[5] The explosion of immigration, particularly following the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, had generated refuse such as the city had never seen.

Cologne[6], in its foulest days, could not compare for one moment to New York as it is today. We count our bad smells by the thousand, not by the hundred. Every second house has a barrel or two of abomination in front of the door, and every barrel emits a stench of its own -- distinct, peculiar, disgusting and dangerous. How long the nuisance is to last, it is impossible to say.[7]

An intractable rat problem accompanied these filthy conditions,[8] and these conditions led to this odd, sensational news item:

[A woman] had, during the night, given birth to a full-grown infant, but... the suffering woman had received no attention whatever, and... the child was not only lifeless, but... its body had been mutilated in various places by rats, which the mother asserted she had felt scampering over her in the night, while she was so weak as to be utterly unable to summon assistance or to drive away the vermin.[9]

The city was in an uproar,[10] but the legions of rats underfoot were no secret. On the shores of the East and Hudson rivers, where the garbage scows were loaded, small shanty-towns ringed about housed citizens who picked the heaps clean of bottles, sellable metals, bones, and other articles deemed worthy of redemption. At night, the armies of rats swept into the dung heaps and nibbled on whatever food they might find. The swarms would not only remove scraps of meat from the slag, but also would devour living things unlucky enough to be in the yard after dusk. Cats and the occasional small dog fell prey to the vermin. However, some domesticated animals met with success in this arena: It had not escaped early denizens of the garbage-side shantytowns that, in particular, fox terriers seemed adept at rat destruction. No doubt they took these stories to their local bars. Hearing reports of fox terriers savagely gutting rats by the dozen near the garbage scows surely made some hearts leap, for, however bereft of bears, disappointed with bulls and persecuted for cockfights, New York would never run out of rats.

Rat Baiting

The first account of rat-baiting appears in the January 29, 1855 issue of the New York Tribune. Patrons of McLaughlin's pit were promised

"the evening would commence with bear-baiting, badger and coon drawing, wolf-hunting and rat-killing." The bear was baited by five dogs until he caught them in his paws and crunched them half to death, amid the yells and cheers of the assembled fancy...

When the last matched dogs had been carried out dripping with blood, a bag of rats was emptied in the pit, and men and dogs jumped in, kicking up a general melee.

Dennis Tilden Lynch, author of The Wild Seventies, denies this episode status of a proper rat-bait, and goes into some detail about that:

In describing the event, the Tribune reporter quite properly called it a rat-killing, for it was unworthy of the noble designation of rat-baiting... The journalist neglected to cite either the number of rats or how many men and dogs were pitted against them. The custom was to match two men and two dogs against one hundred rats. Wagers were made on the time it took to kill the rats.

The rat-pits were eight feet square, four feet deep, and lined with polished tin or zinc, so that no rat could escape. In the "rat-baiting classic", one hundred rats were pitted against a single fox terrier.[11] Such classics were expensive ($2.50-$5.00, or $30-$60 in 1998 money) and highly controlled. Two counters made sure that no less than a hundred rats entered the pit. Following the dumping of the rats and the counting, there was a pause for reflection:

For a full five minutes there is a craning of necks as the rats scurry around the bottom of the pit, vainly seeking escape... this five minute period enables all concerned to inspect the rats, for each one must be sound. The occasional weak or injured rat is removed with a tongs and another substituted... the handler [of the dog] watches the frantically weaving mass beneath, for when the word is given, he must drop the dog on the patch of floor where the fewest rats are at that important moment...

And then he pitched the dog in.

... there are moments when the dog is barely visible as rats fasten themselves to his face, ears, head, neck, and legs. Save for an occasional shake, the dog ignores the fang-fastened rodents, for their hold is brief... frequently a dog had to be rescued from the rats.[12]

A typical bout took in between half an hour and forty-five minutes, although the rat-bait champion, Jack Underhill, owned by Billy Fagan, once did it in eleven and a half minutes (roughly one rat every seven seconds). Money exchanged hands. Drunks cheered. It was a raucous scene.

The SPCA Steps In

It also created a bustling business in the rat trade. Boys and young men returned to the trash-swept shores of the Hudson and East Rivers, equipped with tongs and burlap sacks. They darted through the offal, snatching their squirming prey and kicking the occasional full sack lest one prisoner chew a hole in it and disgorge himself and his brethren. One fruitful summer night in 1879 a single boy caught 232 of them. These rats were sold for five to twelve cents apiece[13] and sent on their way to a hall full of cheering men, barking dogs, and clomping boots. Additionally, dog trainers were recruited to produce better and better rat-baiting fox terriers.[14]

Henry Bergh and the SPCA took several of the rat-baiters to court, hoping the cruelty to animals law could put them away. He rounded up about thirty members of the "dog and rat fighting fraternity" from a rat-bait held at the infamous Kit Burns's Sportsmen's Hall.

Mr. Henry Bergh, President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals... procured tickets [to the event], and sent his officers to the spot... Mr. Bergh was one of the first to enter the den, and ordered a cage containing 180 rats to be taken away. Subsequently it was thrown into the river.[15]

The SPCA officers also broke up a dogfight in progress, which the promoters insisted was an "accident", because just prior to Bergh's arrival the dogs sprung loose from their cages. The sportsmen insisted

It was an exhibition for any "gentleman" who paid his quarter, got his ticket, walked in to see a dog kill rats. [The promoter] got up the show to help earn an "honest" living.

Bergh and his men provided additional, lurid details of the hall, blood spattered on the walls, and so forth, generating a firm sentiment of outrage in the court.

[The Judge's] opinion was that rats and mice were vermin, and why should not cats as well as dogs be interdicted from killing them! ...The hosts of friends of the prisoners present were exhilarated over this result, and "Order in the Court" was promptly called by the officers. All the accused were discharged, and hurried down to [Kit Burns's Sportsmen's Hall] for a jubilee and refreshments.[16]

Yeah, we bet.

Out of Sight? Out of Mind.

To hear Lynch tell it in The Wild Seventies, everyone and his brother was into rat-baiting in nineteenth-century New York. Indeed, the mere existence of a rat-baiting fraternity suggests it. However, in twenty-five years of The New York Times (1851-1876) and an additional ten of the Tribune (1875-1885) we were able to find only one story on rat-baiting other than the one cited by Lynch, one bullfight in the metropolitan area (quoted above), and one dogfight. A cockfight was found in Providence. Lynch purports that the high prices of admission to a rat "classic" are indicative of the large numbers of people willing to see them, i.e., "this price kept out the hoi polloi." Additionally, he notes "journalists, in writing of rat-pits and rat-baiting, never even attempted the briefest description of them. Every one was familiar with the sport."[17]

This may have been so, but such a profound silence on the part of the larger dailies in the city of New York strikes us as being rather odd. The Times had no fear of the controversial: it was always publishing stories on murders, poisonings, beatings, shootings, stabbings, drunkenness and whoring. It even called for the removal of the Bible from public schools in 1869, following Cincinnati's lead in 1868 (believe it!). A whole host of articles was devoted to the card game of Faro, which swept the gambling circuit in the 1870s. If rat-baiting was such a phenomenon, it certainly didn't make it into the mainstream press, and there is no great reason why it shouldn't have. Of course, at this time there were dozens of dailies and weeklies in New York that catered to a, shall we say, lower denominator, and no doubt they blew the trumpet sensational at every opportunity. We suspect rat-baiting was probably like dogfighting with pit bulls is today. Does it happen? Yes. Does everyone know about it? Sure. Can you name anyone who's been to one? We can't either.


  1. Silly? Horses were not just entertainment back then.
  2. New York Times, May 11, 1866
  3. New York Times, February 25, 1876
  4. "Torturing in the Name of Science", New York Times, April 30, 1875 and "Concerning Dogs", New York Times, September 27, 1868. We here at History House figure that, following the news vacuum after the Civil War, people had to talk about something.
  5. Brooklyn did so in conjunction with the state of Connecticut, which also had piles of garbage mysteriously appearing on its western shores.
  6. Coleridge professed Cologne had 365 "well-defined and separate stinks"
  7. New York Times, June 15, 1968.
  8. A problem that persists, if a recent visit to a friend's apartment in the city is to be believed.
  9. New York Times, April 25, 1860
  10. The New York Times demanded how such a thing could be "under the sheltering benevolence of the wealthiest, freest, and proudest of American cities."
  11. The dogs were inevitably fox terriers.
  12. Lynch, 303-305. We suspect the incidence of rabies in such dogs was comparatively high.
  13. $1-$2 1998 dollars, which, to us, sounds suspiciously high.
  14. Lynch provides a fairly detailed account of a rat-baiter's training regimen, starting at puppyhood.
  15. Some rescue.
  16. New York Times, February 24, 1871.
  17. Lynch, p.307


  1. Denis Tilden Lynch. The Wild Seventies. Kennikat Press, 1971.
  2. Luc Sante. Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. Random House, 1992.
  3. . "". The New York Times, . 1851-1876.
  4. . "". The New York Tribune, . 1851-1885.

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