Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan (2005)

Chapter 9. FIGHTS

THE CITY is a place to which people migrate. It is a place where, as was (and still is) the case with rats, citizens-to-be arrived on ships in huge numbers, such that they swarmed ashore, finding homes in hovels and shanties, along dark streets and alleys, taking their place at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, near the settlement's bowels. In the nineteenth century, twenty-five million people came to America through New York. Millions of Germans arrived to escape war, and as New York was becoming America's largest and wealthiest city, the Irish, fleeing their great famine, came looking for work, looking for food. In the 1830s, one thousand people climbed out of the bottom of ships anchored offshore every day, and aside from living in pits, the newly arrived immigrants socialized. For many years, one of the things they did to relax was cram into little saloons, sometimes called sporting men's clubs, and stand around dirt pits and watch rats fight.

The most renowned rat pit was a place down in the seaport called Sportsman's Hall, owned and operated by a sportsman and rat fight impresario named Christopher Keybourn, better known as Kit Burns. Kit Burns was stout and red-faced, portly but muscular. He wore muttonchop whiskers. When he was dressing up, he wore a bright red shirt and suspenders. As more and more immigrants arrived in New York in the mid-nineteenth century, the upper classes tended to look at the working classes as "bestial," as Harper's Weekly put it—with rough hands, rude demeanor, tanned skin, and ragged clothes. People said Kit looked like a rat-fighting dog.

Kit Bums was born in Donegal, Ireland, and he came to New York as. a boy, in a huge wave of Irish immigration—two hundred thousand Irish arrived in New York City around 1830. As a youth, Kit played with the dogs at Yankee Sullivan's Sawdust House, then the most famous dog-fighting parlor in lower Manhattan. Kit opened up Sportsman's Hall in 1840, at 273 Water Street, in a neighborhood described by nonresidents as "a slum of moral putrefaction." Kit's neighbor was a dance hall owned by John Allen, also known as "the wickedest man in New York." As a rat fight impresario, Kit made enough money to bring his parents over from Ireland and then his brother, who became a policeman. Kit made his own alcohol, which he sold in his saloon. He also drank his own alcohol exclusively and considered it a sign of the success of a strict twenty-glass-a-day drinking regimen that, when he fell down a flight of stairs, he was up and about in a matter of days. He was associated with a gang called the Dead Rabbits, a Irish working-class gang that defended the neighborhood from anti-immigrant nativist gangs like the Bowery Boys. Among these men, he was sometimes referred to as a "rodentary magnate."

Upon entering Sportsman's Hall, the rat fight patron first passed through the saloon, which was decorated with pictures of boxers and lithographs of hunting scenes and of people camping in the woods. Two of Kit's favorite dogs hung stuffed over the bar. Jack was a black and tan that had once killed one hundred rats in six minutes and forty seconds, an American record; Hunky was a dog-fighting champion who had died after his last victory. The bar itself was said to hold 250 decent people and 400 indecent ones. The rat pit was just beyond the bar. It was a wooden-walled oval on the dirt floor, seventeen feet long, eight and a half feet wide, with benches and boxes for the patrons. The rats entered in a wire cage the size of a large pail; they came in fifty at a time, rats screaming and hissing. When the dogs saw the rats released, they howled, setting the rats into a frenzy. "They galloped about the walls in different directions, meeting and crowding into a file in one of the corners, where they tried ineffectually to scale the top of the pit," a rat fight attendee wrote. "Then they would separate again and run frightened about the floor, trying every crevice and corner. One or two ran up the trousers and legs of the cage-holder, whence he composedly and carelessly shook them again." Jocko the Wonder Dog, a London-based rat fighting dog, was said to hold the world's record, having killed one hundred rats in five minutes and twenty-eight seconds.

Sometimes, Kit featured ferrets or weasels killing rats, but rat killing without dogs was considered a slower sport, more suited for women and children. On rare occasions, men fought the rats. A New York correspondent covering a Philadelphia rat fight described one such scene: "Then came a horrible spectacle. Quick as lightning the man plunged his hand into the mass of rats, seized one by the back and carried it to his mouth—with a squeak and a crunch, the lifeless carcass was tossed aside with a broken neck." When men fought rats, the man was expected to bite the rat's head off. This often resulted in the man's face being bloodied from rat bites. Even Kit was disgusted by this—he was said to have thrown a man out of his place for trying it. And yet when Kit died, Kit's daughter married a rat killer, Richard Toner, alias Dick the Rat.

The rats themselves came from the alleys around the docks. Jack Jennings was the brother of Harry Jennings, another rat pit owner, and Jack used to set out at night with two large canvas bags, a piece of iron wire, a crowbar, a jackknife, a trap that caged the rats alive, a lantern, and a large bottle of what he described as oil of rhodium, which he claimed kept the rats from biting him. A reporter followed him on a fall evening in 1866. Jennings went into alleys downtown and a stable on Front Street, near the Seaport. In the stable he turned on his lanterns and spotted some rats. Then he set his trap, and while he waited, he rubbed oil of rhodium on his hands and arms; he lay down on the ground and, crawling toward the rats, grabbed one after the other, quickly "giving them the sack," as he described it. He sold rats to the rat pits at fifteen cents a rat. The rats that the rat pits did not buy would often be sold to make gloves. Jack Jennings averaged 150 rats a night. Kit Burns used to say that the man who caught rats for him had "a gift," and that his methods were secret. "Lots of folks have tried to find it out," Kit said, "but 't ain't no use. It'll al'us be a secret."

A RAT, AS WE KNOW, lives in a colony, traversing a discrete range, and so did Kit Burns. And in his own neighborhood, among the boatloads of people immigrating to New York, Kit Burns was well-known and well-liked—full of rat fight stories. Outside of downtown, people were not as fond of him, especially Henry Bergh, the founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Physically, Bergh was the opposite of Kit Burns. Here is a description from Scribner's Monthly Magazine: "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 shouldered and spare, yet sinewy, figure." Bergh lived uptown, on Fifth Avenue, and he had a country house in the Hudson River Valley. He was the son of a shipbuilding magnate who had built warships for the government during the War of 1812. Originally, Bergh had hoped to be a writer. He wrote stories, poems, and plays; a piece called "Human Chattels" satirized the trend of wealthy New York mothers attempting to marry their daughters to European royalty, and "A Decided Scamp" was a comedy that few people thought was funny. In London, the reviews of one of his poems dismayed him. "Look at that!" Bergh said to his publisher. "They have literally skinned me alive." In 1862, he was made secretary of legation at Saint Petersburg, Russia. He wore a uniform, and when he did, he was surprised to see people kowtow to his rank. He began attacking animal cruelty. "At last I've found a way to utilize my gold lace," he said. When he returned to New York, in 1866, he founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Soon, people recognized him in the streets. He was known as "the ubiquitous and humane biped." "That's the man who is kind to the dumb animals," people on the street would say.

Bergh prowled the city for mistreated animals. "On the crowded streets, he walks with a slow, slightly swinging pace peculiar to himself," Scribnefs wrote. "Apparently preoccupied, he is yet observant of everything about him and mechanically notes the condition from head to hoof of every passing horse." Bergh stopped carriage drivers to inspect the horses. If he deemed a horse lame, then it would be sent off in a horse ambulance, a contraption that Bergh had developed. (He also invented animal drinking fountains.) If a horse was suffering, then Bergh would have it put down: today, officers of the ASPCA drive around the city in what look like police cars, and they still carry guns, a remnant of the time when they might shoot a horse in the streets if it was suffering. If Bergh felt a cow's udder was too full of milk while a cow was walking to market, he would then force the farmers to milk their cows on the spot. He often gave impromptu speeches in the street, and if horse drivers or anyone else complained about treating an animal humanely, then Bergh would raise his walking stick or throw the men to the ground. Bergh convinced upper-class marksmen to shoot glass balls instead of live pigeons and exposed the cruel and unsanitary conditions in which milk cows were kept in basements beneath breweries and fed distillery garbage—the swill milk crime, as it was known. During the 1860s, Bergh turned his attention to dog fighting, which Kit Burns also dabbled in, and then to rat fighting, the area of entertainment in which Kit Burns reigned supreme. Bergh's campaign was effective, and by 1867 the Evening Telegram wrote that ratting has been "put down" by that "irrepressible suppressor of cruelty to animals, Mr. Bergh, and now it no longer delights the assembled throngs of Battery Roughs and Bowery Boys." In a letter to an associate, Bergh wrote, "[0]ne of our chief achievements is, the breaking up of all the leading Pits."

The only pit still operating was Kit Burns's Sportsman's Hall.

KIT WAS USED TO RAIDS; he was wary of traps, of anyone new in his club. He'd engineered the exit in the back of his bar like an escape tunnel, a narrow corridor designed so that the police could be blocked by one or two men while the sporting men escaped out the back. But now Bergh was onto him. A policeman came down through the skylight one night, an overhead raid; he caught Kit's patrons in the middle of a rat fight. The men were all brought into court, where the judge complained about the smell of the men from Kit's neighborhood. Eventually they were released. But the raids continued. Finally, Kit was hauled into jail. In court, Kit hired a well-known defense attorney, William F. Howe of Hummel and Howe, who argued, first, that the men did not set the dogs against each other; and later, that the men were only rat fighting. Howe conjectured that if rat fighting was made illegal, then before long oysters would be banned, oysters being the most popular food in New York, until a little while after 1878, the year pollution closed the last oyster beds. Also, Howe made a big show of the pain that an oyster would feel when the oyster was chucked with a knife between its shells; he argued that if the people discontinued ratting, then a man might one day be arrested for consuming oysters.

The judge added, "Only if he chews!"

At this remark, the portion of the courtroom filled with Kit Burns's neighbors broke into hysterics; the portion filled with members of Bergh's entourage later complained to the judge that this remark was not funny.

Kit's own defense of rat fighting was based on his view of the rat as a nonanimal, or non-anything even. "Mr. Bergh calls a rat an animal!" Kit said. "Now, everybody of any sense knows that a rat is a vermin.Bergh takes up for the rat and won't let us kill rats because he thinks they're animals. Wouldn't he kill a rat if he found one in his cupboard? Of course he would. But, would he kill a horse if he found one in his yard, or even in his parlor? Of course he wouldn't. Why? Because a horse is an animal, but a rat ain't. I know rats. I know they're vermin, and they ought to be killed. And if we can get a little sport out of their killing, so much the better."

Henry Bergh continued to hunt down Kit Burns, leading raid after raid on Sportsman's Hall. Meanwhile, all around the Water Street rat pit, religious reformers were taking over the saloons and dance halls for prayer meetings. John Allen, who was known as the Wickedest Man in New York, rented his dance hall out for prayer meetings, and Kit had many offers to do the same, all of which he initially declined. Then he wrote an open letter to Henry Bergh in the Herald, inviting him to come and speak on rat killing at Sportsman's Hall:

Since Johnny Allen closed his crib I've been thinking of myself and my business. I own and train lots of dogs and I kill any number of rats in the pit. A good many first rate fellows, a little rough in speech, may be, but trumps at heart, call in to see the dogs kill the rats, and I've some that are just a little touch above anything in town in that line. You see I trained them pups myself. But what I was going to say is this:—I like everybody to have a fair chance, and I believe Mr. Bergh's on the square from the word go! Now, if that gentleman will just call on me any day, I'll fix it so he can talk to the crowd, deliver his lectures to them—and there are sometimes two or three hundred present—and if he can show us that we are cruel and are doing wrong, why all I've got to say is, I'll burst the pit and give away or sell out my dogs; and I've some of the finest ratters out. I feel kind of dubious about this thing; and yet I can hardly make myself believe it's wrong or cruel to kill rats, however it may be about fighting dogs. But I'd like to talk to Mr. Bergh about these things, and I'm sincere, if he'll only call on me, at my place, No. 273 Water Street.

Respectfully,

Kit Burns

Bergh did not respond to Kit Burns's letter.

Seeing that his neighborhood was going uphill, Kit decided to try renting his place to the religious leaders. Soon, a prayer service was held in his saloon every day for an hour beginning at noon.

"Do you intend to give up your business, Mr. Burns?" a prayer leader asked him, as he waited anxiously near the bar, which—during the prayer services, anyway—was not serving Kit's homemade alcohol.

"Not much," Kit said. "Not if I know myself. No, gentlemen, the games of the house will go on the same as ever. As soon as those 'fellers' leave, we're going to have a rat-killin'—a bully time—and all the fun you want."

The leaders of the prayer service attempted to tell him that the money would eat at his conscience. "Oh, they can't come that over me. I'm too old for that," Kit said.

In December of 1869, Kit's favorite dog, Belcher, died in a fight with a dog from Brooklyn. Kit said that in retrospect he'd thought the dog had been a little off since the prayer meetings. "He was never exactly himself after it," Kit said. "It wasn't so much the praying as the singing that took hold of him." The fight in which Belcher died was to be the last dog fight in Sportsman's Hall. Kit subsequently rented the entire building out for three years. It became a mission and home for wayward women, called The Kit Burns Mission. For a short time, Kit opened a smaller saloon down the street, called The Band-Box.

At last, Henry Bergh got wind of what would be Kit Burns's last rat fight, on November 21, 1870.

THREE HUNDRED RATS WILL BE GIVEN AWAY, FREE OF CHARGE,

FOR GENTLEMEN TO TRY THEIR DOGS WITH

COME ONE, COME ALL!

THERE WILL BE A GOOD NIGHTS SPORT AND NO HUMBUG.

TICKETS 25 CENTS

By eight o'clock four or five dozen dead rats were in a pile and one dog was still going. Bergh, who had been informed of the fight, snuck in and, by some accounts, carried a lantern under his coat. When the police raided, the sportsmen shouted, ''Douse the glim!" Bergh was ready with a lantern, foiling their escape. Their claim that they were merely preparing for a boxing match wasn't convincing enough to prevent thirty-nine men from being arrested. The dogs were taken away, the ones that were fighting destroyed. The surviving rats were thrown in their cage in the East River. The Herald said that Bergh had finally got Kit and his men: "He will make them squall worse than the unfortunate rats which were dumped into the East River by the police." Kit was upbeat upon arrest, but reportedly depressed soon after. He was sued for the value of dogs that the police had destroyed. His family moved to Brooklyn, and Mrs. Burns, in the Sun, invited Henry Bergh to visit her there "provided," as she said, "the gentleman will have the kindness to bring his coffin with him." Though he had survived a knife in his neck at Kerrigan's saloon a few years before, Kit caught a cold and died, before trial.

The sporting men were all acquitted. A man testified that it was not a dog fight but a rat fight, which was still considered less reprehensible. "The blood they tell about were rat blood, that's wot sort of blood it were," the sporting man said. And the judge suggested that if they stopped dogs from killing rats, they would next have to make it illegal for cats to kill mice. There was a funeral for Kit a few days before the trial. A parade followed his body from his home in Brooklyn, all the way to Calvary Cemetery in Queens. "The excitement in the neighborhood was most intense, and crowds gathered around the house for some time previous to the hour set for the funeral," the Herald wrote. "The crowds poured into the place and gazed in the face of the dead with as much apparent reverence as if the deceased were a high-toned, honorable, moral and religious light in the community."

A few tributes to Kit Burns were published in the papers, such as this one, which is itself a tribute to a rodentary man: "Departed from this life yesterday . . . one whose birth was humble, and who did not aspire to congress, a member of no religious denomination; a life-long enemy of the police magistrates; a Fellow of the Metropolitan Society of the Slums; a professor of the art of dodging the penitentiary; an enthusiastic believer in 'Rings'; the subject of much pious objurgation, and the hero of many a newspaper sensation; the beloved of our 'ruling classes,' and the pet of the 'Water Street Warblers'; a genius in disguise; a Democrat by birth, and a 'Dead Rabbit' by association was the dear departed, which is his name, as it shall be forever written on the hearts of New Yorkers, is Kit Burns."

Most newspapers wrote that they were happy that Kit Burns had died. "We are glad of it," wrote the Citizens and Round Table. Henry Bergh was among those well pleased. "I drove him out of New York and into his grave," Bergh said, a few years later.

In addition to preventing an incalculable number of animal tortures, Henry Bergh went on to found the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Thankfully, he did eventually stop rat fights and the like, though such events persisted for some time—people naturally want to gather in crowds and eat and drink and cheer and sometimes get into brawls. Some historians argue that the end of rat fights did not come until the next inexpensive crowd-pleasing sporting event was finally embraced by the growing number of inner-city residents in New York and all over America: baseball.