In my last post about old New York, I wrote about a Newfoundland who almost lost his life while taking part in a swimming race from Randall’s Island to the Harlem Beach Bathing Pavilion in July 1884. Apparently the manager of the Harlem beach, Frederick Kenyon, wasn’t fazed by this close call on the East River, because three weeks later, he invited people to let their goats swim the same race. The prizes included a mammoth cabbage, large turnip, a double-sheet circus poster, and a tomato can.
On August 10, 1884, 11 goat owners led their goats to a float on the East River at 116th Street, where they were to be thrown into the water. The owners struggled quite a bit as the goats butted and kicked and flat-out refused to get into the water.
During all this commotion, a man came rushing out to the float, brandishing a large silver shield. He told the goat owners to desist in the name of Henry Bergh and the law. He then threatened to arrest the first person who tried to throw a goat into the water. The goat owners just laughed at him. But then four more men arrived on the scene and the goats were taken away from the water.
The man who came to the goats’ rescue was Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the other men were some of the first officers of the ASPCA.
One of the goat owners, a Mr. James Gordon, was not happy that the race was canceled. “By thunder, I’ll sue Henry Bergh for damages,” he told a New York Times reporter. “I bought my goat last week and paid 50 cents for it – a good price, too. I put it in my garden, and it ate up all my flowers and plants and paint and oyster shells and the nails out of my house, besides all the corn I gave it. Now, when I come here to get the benefit of my outlay, Mr. Henry Bergh steps in and says he shan’t go in the water. What the devil does the goat care? He can’t think or do anything but eat and butt, and would just as soon swim as not.”
After the main attractions were led away, some of the crowd that had gathered stayed to watch a race for “fat men” and a tub race.
Incidentally, there is a lot more to this goat story, which I’ll cover in a future post.
Henry Bergh and the ASPCA
On February 8, 1866, during a meeting at Clinton Hall on Astor Place in New York, Bergh pleaded on behalf of “these mute servants of mankind.” According to the The Sun, Bergh impressed attendees with his indignant recollection of a family watching a bullfight in Spain and details of inhumane practices in America, including cockfighting and the horrors of slaughterhouses. To his audience, which included some of Manhattan’s most powerful business and government leaders, Bergh stressed, “This is a matter purely of conscience; it has no perplexing side issues. It is a moral question in all its aspects.”
Energized by the success of his speech and the number of dignitaries who signed his “Declaration of the Rights of Animals,” Bergh convinced the New York State legislature to pass the charter incorporating the ASPCA on April 10, 1866. Nine days later, the first effective anti-cruelty law in the United States was passed, allowing the ASPCA to investigate complaints of animal cruelty and to make arrests.
Bergh Meets 9-Year-Old Mary Ellen Wilson
In 1874, Bergh and other officers of the ASPCA were approached by Etta Angell Wheeler, a Methodist missionary who told the men about a child named Mary Ellen Wilson, who was being beaten daily by her foster parents, Francis and Mary Connolly, in their West 41st Street apartment. With the help of neighbors’ testimonies, Wheeler and Burgh successfully removed Mary Ellen from the Connolly home and took Mary Connolly to trial. Connolly was convicted of felonious assault and sentenced to a year of hard labor in the penetentiary.
Following the trial, Etta Wheeler reportedly approached Bergh and asked him why there wasn’t a society like the ASPCA to protect children. Bergh and his legal counsel Elbridge Thomas Gerry worked with philanthropist John D. Wright to gain support for the creation of a Child Protection Society. On December 15, 1874, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formed. Four months later, on April 27, 1875, it was incorporated as the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, with Wright as president and Bergh and Gerry as vice-presidents.