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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Guardian of our Dumb Friends

By Clarence Clough Buel (1850–1933)

[Born in Laona, Chautauqua Co., N. Y., 1850. Died in New York, N. Y., 1933. Henry Bergh and his Work. 1879.]

THE POSITION Mr. Bergh occupies at the head of one of the greatest moral agencies of the time is not more unique than his personal character. Here is a man of refined sensibilities and tender feelings, who relinquished an honored position and the enjoyment of wealth, to become the target of sneers and public laughter, for the sake of principles of humanity the most unselfish. By day and by night, in sunshine and storm, he gives his strength to the cause as freely as he aided it with his fortune. For a few years his person and his purposes were objects of ridicule, in the less scrupulous public prints and on the streets. He was bullied by lawyers in courts of justice, and took his revenge according to Gospel precept. He was called a fanatic, a visionary, a seeker after notoriety, and a follower of Don Quixote. But faith and courage never forsook him, nor the will to shield a dumb animal from a brutal blow and help a fellow-human to control his evil passions. The results and his reward are already proportionate to his labors, for the legislatures of thirty-three States have decided that dumb animals have rights that masters must respect; and the Court of Errors, the highest tribunal in the Empire State, has recently confirmed the equity and constitutionality of the cruelty laws.

Thirteen years of devoted labor have wrought no very great change in the appearance and manner of Henry Bergh. If the lines of his careworn face have multiplied, they have also responded to the kindly influence of public sympathy and the release of his genial disposition from austere restraint. A visitor who had no claims on Mr. Bergh’s indulgence once remarked: “I was alarmed by the dignity of his presence and disarmed by his politeness.” Since Horace Greeley’s death, no figure more familiar to the public has walked the streets of the metropolis. Nature gave him an absolute patent on every feature and manner of his personality. His commanding stature of six feet is magnified by his erect and dignified bearing. A silk hat with straight rim covers with primness the severity of his presence. A dark-brown or dark-blue frock overcoat encases his broad shoulders and spare, yet sinewy, figure. A decisive hand grasps a cane strong enough to lean upon, and competent to be a defence without looking like a standing menace. When this cane, or even his finger, is raised in warning, the cruel driver is quick to understand and heed the gesture. On the crowded street he walks with a slow, slightly swinging pace peculiar to himself. Apparently preoccupied, he is yet observant of everything about him and mechanically notes the condition from head to hoof of every passing horse. Everybody looks into the long, solemn, finely chiselled and bronzed face wearing an expression of firmness and benevolence. Brown locks fringe a broad and rounded forehead. Eyes between blue and hazel, lighted by intellectual fires, are equally ready to dart authority or show compassion. There is energy of character in a long nose of the purest Greek type; melancholy in a mouth rendered doubly grave by deep lines, thin lips, and a sparse, drooping mustache, and determination in a square chin of leonine strength. The head, evenly poised, is set on a stout neck rooted to broad shoulders. In plainness, gravity, good taste, individuality, and unassuming and self-possessed dignity, his personality is a compromise between a Quaker and a French nobleman whose life and thoughts no less than long descent are his title to nobility….

Whisperings of his true mission in life came to Henry Bergh about the time of his appointment as Secretary of Legation at St. Petersburgh in 1862. For years he had taken note of the cruelties practised on dumb animals in European countries, and the brutal sports in which animal life was sacrificed. His strong sense of justice and human obligation led him to regard such cruelty as one of the greatest blemishes on human character. In Russia the common people have, or had, a profound respect for official position. Mr. Bergh’s footman wore the gold lace that served to distinguish members of the diplomatic corps. One day he interfered in behalf of a donkey that was being cruelly beaten, and made the happy discovery that the owner of the beast, as well as the crowd, stood in awe of the gold lace of his equipage. “At last,” he said, “I’ve found a way to utilize my gold lace, and about the best use that can be made of it.” So he formed a society of two for the protection of dumb animals, his coachman, as executive officer, sympathizing in the work to the extent of the wages paid him. This coachman was a rather pompous muzhik, who spoke bad French to his master and prided himself on his command of Russian billingsgate. During his daily drives, if Mr. Bergh saw an animal in the toils of a “cruelist,” he would order his coachman to take the human brute into a side street and give him a “regular blowing up.” This and the gold lace always had the desired effect, though, so far as Mr. Bergh could understand, his coachman might have been reciting pastoral poetry in an off-hand way….

Before leaving Russia he determined to devote the remainder of his life to the interests of dumb animals, and on his way home stopped in London to confer with Lord Harrowby, president of the English society that was afterward Mr. Bergh’s model. He landed at New York in the autumn of 1864 and spent a year in maturing his plans. First of all, he took himself aside, as it were, and scrupulously inquired if he had the strength to carry on such a work and the ability to make the necessary sacrifices. He concluded that he was equal to the task.

A paper now hangs on the walls of the office bearing the signatures of seventy citizens of New York and inspiring almost as much reverence of a kind as the Declaration of Independence. It proclaims the duty of protecting animals from cruelty, and among the signers are Horace Greeley, Peter Cooper, George Bancroft, John A. Dix, Henry W. Bellows, Mayor Hoffman, John Jacob Astor, and Alexander T. Stewart. After procuring this paper, Mr. Bergh next prepared a charter and laws, and successfully urged their passage at Albany. On the evening of February 8, 1866, Mayor Hoffman, A. T. Stewart, and a few other gentlemen came through rain and six inches of slush to listen to Mr. Bergh at Clinton Hall. In the following April the society was legally organized, Henry Bergh being elected president and George Bancroft a vice-president. At the close of his brief address the enthusiastic president cried: “This, gentlemen, is the verdict you have this day rendered, that the blood-red hand of cruelty shall no longer torture dumb beasts with impunity.”

That same evening Henry Bergh buttoned his overcoat and went forth to defend the laws he had been mainly instrumental in securing, aware that on himself more than on any other man depended whether they were laughed at or obeyed. They were a radical innovation, for up to 1865 no law for the protection of animals from cruelty could be found on the statute-book of any State in the Union. The common-law regarded animals simply as property, and their masters, in wanton cruelty, or anger (for which Rozan, the French moralist, says there is no better definition than “temporary insanity”), might torture his sentient chattels without legal hindrance or accountability. Henry Bergh put on this new armor of the law to battle no less for humanity than for dumb animals. A timely arrival at Fifth avenue and Twenty-second street, where a brutal driver was beating a lame horse with the butt-end of a whip, resulted in an indecisive skirmish. He tried to reason with the man, who simply laughed in derision and offered to pommel him if he would step into the street. Mr. Bergh went home reflecting that there was a material difference between brute protection in America, where every man felt that he was something of a king, and in Russia, where there were gold lace and a submissive peasantry. The next day, from an omnibus, he saw a butcher’s wagon loaded with live sheep and calves, thrown together like so much wood, their heads hanging over the edges of the wagon-box and their large innocent eyes pleading in dumb agony. He alighted, and made a sensation by arresting the butcher and taking him before a magistrate; but New York justice was not at that time quite prepared to act without a precedent. Early in May Mr. Bergh succeeded in having a Brooklyn butcher fined for similar acts of cruelty, and numerous arrests, resulting in a few convictions, were made in New York. He visited the market-places and the river-piers and walked the busy streets, searching his brains for some means of bringing his cause prominently before the people. One morning, late in May, he saw a schooner just arrived in port from Florida with a cargo of live turtles that had made the passage on their backs, their flippers having been pierced and tied with strings. Seeing his opportunity to make a stir, Mr. Bergh arrested the captain and the entire crew for cruelty to animals and marched them into court, the judge sharing the amusement of the spectators and the lawyers. The captain’s counsel urged that turtles were not animals within the meaning of the law, but fish, and if they were animals the treatment was not cruelty because painless. The learned judge, in giving a decision favorable to the prisoners, said it was past his belief that cruelty could have been inflicted on the turtles when the sense of pain caused by boring holes in their fins was about what a human being would experience from a mosquito bite. Professor Agassiz afterward came to Henry Bergh’s assistance in the long struggle to “make it legally apparent,” as the latter said, “if not otherwise, to the torturers of the poor despised turtle, that the great Creator, in endowing it with life, gave to it feeling and certain rights, as well as to ourselves.”

Mr. Bennett had already begun in his newspaper to ridicule the society, and Mr. Bergh as the “Moses of the movement,” while a little later he aided the cause with money. He did the greatest possible good to the movement, however, two or three days after the turtle suit, by publishing a satire several columns long, purporting to be a report of a mass meeting of animals at Union Square, Mr. Bergh “in the chair.” Each animal expressed his honest conviction concerning the work, and the article was so amusing and keen that before forty-eight hours had passed Mr. Bergh and his society had engaged the attention of perhaps half a million of people. From that day the cause moved steadily forward….

Henry Bergh and his officers cannot be everywhere at once, but they sometimes think that some mysterious providence leads them to cases of cruelty, so successful are they in being at the right place at the right time. All members of the society have a badge of authority, and frequently supplement the officers’ efforts. Many gentlemen with no authority assume it. In January last a Broad street merchant was seen to rush out of his office into the street and shake his fist at a teamster sitting on fifteen bales of cotton, with his truck fast in the snow, the merchant exclaiming: “You ruffian! Stop licking those horses, or I’ll have you locked up!” The driver stopped. Two ambulances for disabled horses are now kept ready for public use. When the ambulance was first introduced, it was passing Wallack’s Theatre one evening with a noble white horse that had been injured, standing in it. The novel spectacle attracted the crowds that were passing into the theatre. They turned around, waited for the cavalcade to pass, and gave three cheers for the society. A clergyman once said: “That ambulance preaches a better sermon than I can.” Devices for raising animals out of street excavations, and various other appliances, are kept at the principal office.

Every few days the superintendent, with an officer, drives at six o’clock in the morning to the pork-packing establishments on the west side, where horses are made to draw enormous loads; then to the trains at Forty-first street, where live hogs are unloaded; thence down the west side, stopping at all the Jersey ferries to examine the milk-cart horses and truck-horses; thence to Washington Market and Fulton Market to look at the peddlers’ horses, getting back to the office at nine o’clock, ready for the daily routine….

Great as are the material benefits society derives from Henry Bergh’s work, in the economy of animal life, the moral benefits obtained are vastly greater. Indeed, the work was first rendered possible by the liberation of the slave, because a reasonable people could not have listened to the claims of dumb animals while human beings, held in more ignoble bondage, were subjected to greater cruelty and added outrage. He took up the principles of humanity, for which two chief martyrs fell, crowned with human love, and is carrying them forward by teaching men to be noble and strong through pity and self-restraint.