19th Century

Henry Bergh

Have a drink with: Henry Bergh
The Great Meddler, mustache aficionado, friend to animals

Ask him about: Aquatic rhinoceros*

Salamander the Fire-Horse

Today I’m over at The Atlantic writing about Henry Bergh, America’s first animal rights activist and a relentless crusader for the early animal rights movement. Through an unlikely and yet genuine friendship with entertainment icon P.T. Barnum, the two men advanced their mutual goal to make the world a better place – Bergh through service to animals, Barnum through the joy of spectacle.

Fun Facts:

You occasionally read that Longfellow eulogized Henry Bergh. The 1860s interlude from Tales of a Wayside Inn indeed refers to Bergh:

“That man I honor and revere
Who without favor, without fear,
In the great city dares to stand
The friend of every friendless beast,

And tames with his unflinching hand
The brutes that wear our form and face,
The were-wolves of the human race!”

An actual eulogy would have been especially difficult, though, as Longfellow died in 1882, and Bergh in 1888.

Coverage also often notes that P.T. Barnum was a pallbearer at Bergh’s funeral. Newspaper coverage states that Barnum was indeed part of the funeral procession, but was not a pallbearer – that honor being reserved for notables and close friends (like Elbridge Gerry and Mayor Hewitt) and officers of the ASPCA.

Bergh was significantly involved in the 19th century “Mary Ellen” case, a horrific instance of child abuse that thanks to Bergh’s intervention facilitated not only public awareness on what had prior been a closed-door issue, but the establishment of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (1874) to advocate for children. While he took his fair share of flack from the broad public, in the circles that maintained New York’s political and social structure, Bergh had a meaningful voice and reputation as an advocate for the helpless.

Meaningful, yes; but even the most elite of New Yorkers drew the line when Bergh went after their recreational sports, many of which expressly harmed animals. Dogfighting, cockfighting, rat baiting and pigeon-shooting were all favorite pastimes of the era across class, and no one liked Bergh intruding on their fun. Ira Paine, a champion pigeon-shooter and former minstrel singer, sued Bergh in 1874 for damages over a pigeon-shooting tournament the ASPCA had broken up. Paine claimed a thousand dollars in damages, having spent on advertising, a silver prize cup and $600 for a thousand birds – but the presiding judge ruled that a competitive pigeon shoot was clearly illegal within the meaning of New York law, being a needless mutilation and killing of birds.

Barnum may well be regarded as the Snidely Whiplash of history, but when he said animals were “taught and governed only by kindness,” he wasn’t being duplicitous (at least not entirely). It’s good to keep in mind that Bergh and Barnum were dealing with a concept of animal existence that’s a lot different from ours. As far as exotic animals were concerned, the very practice of bringing them into captivity required harsh action, which was largely ignored in the name of science or wonder. Even activists consistently referred to domestic creatures as “dumb animals,” rather than sentient beings, with protection rooted more in pity than compassion. And care norms were different than they are today: Bergh, for example, was satisfied that the use of elephant bull hooks in training was humane and did no harm to the animal (we now know otherwise).

* To deflate his friend and elevate his own expertise, Barnum loved to teasingly remind people that Bergh had once suggested he put his rhinoceros in a tank of water.

Additional Reading:

Betsy Golden Kellem, “How P.T. Barnum Helped the Early Days of Animal Rights,” The Atlantic, May 10, 2017

Zulma Steele, Angel in Top Hat (1942)

P.T. Barnum, Struggles & Triumphs (1892 ed.)

New-York Historical Society, Henry Bergh: Angel in Top Hat or The Great Meddler?, From the Stacks, March 21, 2012