“The Youthful Bergh: A Fancy Boy”
Although Henry Bergh is now remembered as the fiery New Yorker who founded the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the majority of his life could not be in starker contrast to his last twenty two years, which he spent patrolling the city’s streets day and night for cases of animal cruelty. As a youth, Henry’s father expected him to follow in his footsteps and take over his successful shipyard business. But it became clear as Henry grew that he was not business minded and preferred the cultural pursuits of poetry, literature, and art. His father was disappointed, but his parents were kind and encouraged him to choose a life direction according to his liking. Henry enrolled in Columbia College with the class of 1834, but he soon dropped out for his detestation of being prescribed which books to read rather than choosing himself. “I’m not going back. I won’t be regimented,” Henry explained to his parents. In fact, it seemed that Henry had a distaste for doing anything according to someone else’s direction. Some years later, Henry and his aristocratic wife-to-be, Catherine Matilda Taylor, eloped on the day of their wedding rather than going through with the elaborate ceremony that had been planned. Catherine mourned the fact that she would not wear her exquisite gown, but Henry was relieved by averting the public show of their nuptials.
After his father passed away, Henry spent his time frolicking around the globe in high style and among elite company, most of the time without a single worry or responsibility. The sizable inheritance he received from his father allowed him to travel lavishly with Catherine, often without returning home to New York for years. During these years abroad, Henry witnessed his first bullfight in Seville, Spain. Henry’s journal reflection of this event is the first recording of his rage evoked by violence towards animals. His journal states, “I never experienced a similar degree of disgust, or such hearty contempt for people calling themselves civilized and Christian.” It was also during this time of aimless gallivanting that he attempted to publish his writings, but with poor success. However, work finally did come Henry’s way one day in New York, although it was outside the literary field.
The Berghs had quite a few friends in the political sphere, given their frequent socializing in Washington. Someone suggested he take over the post of Secretary of the Legation at St. Petersburg. He was the perfect candidate–cultured, well travelled, well connected, and familiar with the Russian territory. Henry accepted the position and he filled the profession splendidly, but Bergh resigned a brief twenty months later. Although Bergh’s formal resignation letter stated that he was stepping down due to the climate, his close friends knew that he was odds with the American minister to Russia, Cassius Marcellus Clay, who is described in Henry’s journal as a ruffian. Yet, it was in Russia that Henry found the true purpose for his life–one that he would dedicate the rest of his days to and fast make up for all his years of haphazard wandering.
I was in a court-room full of men with pale, stern looks. I saw a child brought in, carried in a horse blanket, at the sight of which men wept aloud. I saw it laid at the feet of the judge, who turned his face away; and in the stillness of that court-room, I heard a voice raised, claiming for that child the protection that men had denied it, in the name of the homeless cur of the streets. And I heard the story of little Mary Ellen told again, that stirred the soul of a city, and roused the conscience of a world that had forgotten. The sweet-faced missionary who found Mary Ellen was the wife of a newspaper man–happy augury, where the gospel of faith and the gospel of facts join hands, the world moves. She told how the poor consumptive in the dark tenement, at whose bedside she daily read the Bible, could not die in peace while “the child they called Mary Ellen” was beaten and tortured in the next flat; and how on weary feet she went from door to door of the powerful, vainly begging mercy for it and peace for her dying friend…
The charitable said, “It is dangerous to interfere between parent and child. Better let it alone”; and the judges said it was even so. It was for them to see that men walked in the way laid down, not to find it–until her woman’s heart rebelled against it all, and she sought the great friend of dumb brutes, who made a way.
“The child is an animal,” he said. “If there is no justice for it as a human being, it shall at least have the rights of the cur in the street. It shall not be abused.”
And as I looked, I knew I was where the first chapter of children’s rights was being written under warrant of that made for the dog; for from that dingy court-room whence a wicked woman sent to jail thirty years ago came forth the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, with all it has meant to the world’s life. It is quickening the pulse in this day in lands and among peoples who never spoke the name of my city or Mary Ellen’s.
“The Founding of the S.P.C.A.”
One day before his retirement in Russia, Bergh was riding down the street in his carriage when he spotted a teamster with his wagon stuck in the mud and the driver beating his struggling horse. Henry called out for his coachman to stop and translate: “Tell that man to stop whipping that horse! Tell that oaf if he doesn’t stop I’ll get down there and whip him!” The man was a big, black bearded fellow who did not look like the yielding type, but he was astonished by the orders and meekly bowed while pulling off his fur cap and asking for forgiveness. After this incident, Henry seemed to look for cases where he could utilize the gold braiding on his suit, a sign of nobility in Russia. He found that the Russian peasantry feared authority and were in awe of the gold lace and his shiny top hat. However, this attitude did not cross over to New York City, where he was often mocked during the early days of the SPCA.
After Henry’s resignation, the Berghs took a very fateful trip to England in 1865. Henry spent a great deal of time meeting with and learning from Earl of Harrowby, the head of the British Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Bergh was inspired by the society and was determined to start one in New York. Upon returning he set straight away to organizing and acquired a great many recruits of importance in the New York City scene of wealth and influence. The idea seemed well received by his peers at the initiation, but Bergh was soon to be lambasted by the media for what was seen as absurd extension of a bleeding heart and feeble mind.
On April 10, 1866, the state charter for the SPCA was granted and the fifty year old Bergh became president of the society. Bergh stayed in Albany after the charter was granted to have an anti-cruelty law put through on statute books, which passed just nine days later. Bergh had officially created the society’s weapon with which to fight its battles, providing that “Every person who shall by his neglect, maliciously kill, maim, wound, injure, torture, or cruelly beat any horse, mule, cow, cattle sheep or other animal belonging to himself or another, shall, upon conviction, be adjudged guilty of a misdemeanor.” This law gave Bergh and other agents of the society the power to arrest on charges of animal cruelty, which he needed sorely considering the difference in attitude towards authority in America and Russia.
“Laying Down the Law”
Bergh made it his duty to patrol the streets daily, concentrating first on the abuse of horses. He appeared an odd character–a tall, whiskered man in a shining top hat, spotless suit, and jaunty walking cane–and often received obscene comments on his dandified appearance when scouting more rugged neighborhoods. But if the perpetrators of violence had made the mistake of equating the gentleman’s appearance for gentle behavior, they would quickly find themselves behind bars and sometimes at the mercy of Bergh’s physical strength. In one incident, Bergh first demanded a passenger car driver to bring new horses from the stable to relieve two emaciated, old horses struggling to breathe from pulling an overloaded car of more than twenty-thousand pounds up a steep, half mile slope. The gruff man shook his fist at Bergh and proceeded to whip the tired horses. Bergh then lunged forward, grabbed the driver by the collar, and threw him into a nearby snow pile before having the whole crew arrested and taken to court. His fashion also never stopped him from stooping to the ground to speak gently to fallen horses with food and water on hand. To alleviate the thirst of work horses, the SPCA also installed the first public drinking fountains for horses, from which cups were chained so their humans could also drink.
Swill milk dairies were Bergh’s next big target. In the early days of the distillery industry, the refuse slop from stills were sold to dairies as feed and became a profitable byproduct of the liquor business. Not only were cows fed unwholesome, nutrition devoid still slops, they were kept in dark, crowded, filthy, and unventilated conditions leading to animal suffering and diseased milk that carried the likes of tuberculosis, cholera, and typhoid fever. Bergh was intent on prosecuting key dairymen, and while he succeeded only in some of his battles, the cases were widely publicized and the conditions of cows and dairy were brought to public attention. Swill milk dairies were kept in check by the SPCA in New York City, but it wasn’t until after Bergh’s death that the fight he had put into motion was partially actualized through a sanitary code that made standards of food production stricter. Sadly, conditions for cows in conventional milk production today are not far better than they were in Bergh’s day.
Using animals for sports was also condemned by Bergh and the SPCA, but the cause for animals in non-utility settings perhaps received the least sympathy from the public. Pigeon shooting, fox hunting, ratting, dog fighting, and cock fighting were all battles hard fought, and sometimes with little success. People sympathetic to Bergh’s work for horses and cows turned their backs when it came to interfering with their entertainment. For the activities of pigeon shooting and ratting, people involved in the “sport” retorted that the animals were abundant and that killing them was actually doing a service to the city. But Bergh hardly let the criticism he received for attempting to dampen people’s fun get in the way of his work. He often broke into shoots and rat killings to disperse the crowds with his SPCA agents, putting an end to the events. Bergh also attempted to introduce a bill to outlaw pigeon shooting, but the bill was amended before being passed, much to Bergh’s displeasure. The revised bill stated that if each bird was humanely killed after being shot rather than being left in the field to die a long a painful death, then the shooters were at no fault and could not be held accountable for cruelty. While the enforcement of this law was nearly impossible, Bergh often went to pigeon shoots to loudly remind participants that each and every maimed bird was to be put out of its misery.
Ratting often took place during dog fighting and cock fighting events, which were raided by Bergh with much greater success. In 1875, Bergh introduced a bill giving him power to confiscate dog and cock fighting paraphernalia (including the animals themselves), which led to the compromise in his pigeon shooting bill. The legislature that year favored his opponents, so he was forced to make the unpalatable changes to his pigeon shooting bill to get his dog and cock fighting law through. Nonetheless, the dog and cock fighting bill was passed without alteration and allowed him to make such events hazardous and unprofitable. It was during these raids that Bergh began arresting the crowd as well as the fight organizers. Bergh also persecuted fight orchestrators despite their mobility and attempts to host events in other cities. By now, other chapters of the SPCA had begun to pop up across the country. When Bergh would learn of the travel plans of New York dog fighters, he would immediately alert the SPCA chapter of the destination city. The destination city’s SPCA members would then locate the dog fighter and block the event from ever taking place. Dogs confiscated from fights were rehabilitated, if possible, at the SPCA office and adopted out to caring individuals, along with other animals either surrendered or rescued from cruel situations.
“For the Children”
During the early years of the SPCA, the media often ridiculed Bergh for extending compassion to animals while forgoing the needs of humans, accusing him of a degree of misanthropy. Bergh’s rationale was that many organizations for human protection existed already, and no such protection was offered to animals– he was simply filling the gap in need. But he was unaware when he started the work that he would indeed be filling the legal protection gap for animals both human and non-human. Children would be his next sphere of advocacy, although he vehemently opposed combining the two causes into one society for fear that children’s concerns would always override the needs of animals. On April 9, 1874, Bergh founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) with the closing of little Mary Ellen Wilson’s child abuse case.
Jacob Riis, activist, journalist, and photographer, was in court the day Mary Ellen was carried in for trial. Riis eloquently wrote of his experience that day and chronicled the beginning of child welfare (see quote to the left).
The “great friend of dumb brutes” Riis wrote of was, of course, none other than Henry Bergh. Although it is easy to construe that Mary Ellen was protected by animal cruelty laws by Riis’ words, the child’s step mother was actually prosecuted and convicted for assault. Nonetheless, the connection between children and animals should not be downplayed in Bergh’s knack for protecting those whom rights had been denied. Marietta Wheeler, the woman who sought out help on behalf of Mary Ellen, had gone to the police and several other people who all denied her aid, when finally her niece convinced her to go to Bergh. “You are so troubled over that abused child, why not go to Mr. Bergh? She is a little animal, surely,” proposed her niece. Wheeler had thought of it earlier, but she was afraid to pursue the SPCA’s assistance for fear of being seen as ludicrous. But Wheeler finally made her way to Bergh’s office, and but 48 hours later, little Mary Ellen was rescued from her home and brought before a judge. After the successful closing of her trial, Wheeler asked if there could not now be a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. By her own account, Bergh simply took her hand and emphatically said, “There shall be one,” and he kept his word. Bergh served on the board of the SPCC but refused the position of president, deciding to dedicate the greatest of his efforts and time to the animals. Instead, Elbridge T. Gerry, lawyer to the SPCA, later took over the SPCC and made great advances for the cause of child welfare.
After twenty-two years of leadership to the ASPCA, during which he fought many additional injustices to animals not listed here, founded and served on the board of the SPCC, and also served on the board of the Audubon Society for the protection of wild birds, Henry Bergh died in his home at seventy-two years old during the great blizzard of 1888. He was laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY, adjacent to the island that he had so shaken and where he started the long, enduring fight for the rights of animals and their welfare. Today, the ASPCA is one of the largest humane societies in the world and is a national animal welfare organization with over one million supporters across the country. The ASPCA continues its mission “to provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals throughout the United States,” as Henry Bergh intended, and it continues to do so with his tireless passion and conviction.
For more information on this colorful character, we recommend:
Harlow, A. F. (1957). Henry Bergh: Founder of the A.S.P.C.A. New York: Jullian Messner, Inc.
Lane, M.S., & Zawistowski, S. (2007). Heritage of Care: The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
Shelman, E. A., & Lazoritz, S. (2005). The Mary Ellen Wilson Child Abuse Case and the Beginning of Children’s Rights in 19th Century America. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.