In late November of 1880, a meeting was called at Cooper Union in New York City, with a panel of church leaders to explain that the criminal element were "depraved because they were deprived", and if only people would come to the aid of prisoners, things might get turned around.
Only there was one little problem.
It seems that all the folks who were invited to speak failed to appear. The result was a small audience, but no speaker.
What to do?
Well, after chewing up a little time rehashing the principles of the Gilbert Library Prisoners' Aid Society, the host flapped around for something else to say, when who should he spy in the audience but none other than Henry Bergh -- the great protector of animals who had started the SPCA in America, and who had spent 14 years denouncing the flogging of horses and all cruelty to animals.
Surely this Great Man would have something intelligent and extemporaneous to say about the abuse of men in the prison system?
And so that is how it came about that Henry Bergh was roped on to the stage at Coopers Union to speak about Capital Punishment.
Only one problem: Henry Bergh was all for it!
In fact, as The New York Times makes clear, he thought there should be whipping posts for people on every block, and that only a fool would spare the lash.
Hang people? He was all for it, and he would even supply the rope!
And here's the best part -- the audience, which had ostensibly come to hear a talk about how to give aid to prisoners, actually clapped and cheered his conclusions!
You can read all about it right here (PDF format of the NYT of December 1, 1880.)
WHAT? How could a man denounce cruelty to animals but at the same time be in favor of a return to public flogging of humans?
Isn't cruelty to humans a type of cruelty to animals?
Well, yes and no.
You see, for Bergh and many other Animal Rights advocates, the cause was never so much about animals as it was about looking down their nose at poor people who had rough manners and a rough way of doing business.
Bergh, you see was a high hat, and very much on the cutting edge of the class wars of the Victorian-era.
In Bergh's mind, the wrong class of people abused animals, and the right class of people did not.
This social perspective came straight out of England, where Bergh lifted his idea of creating an American Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals.
As I note in American Working Terriers, not only did this distinction make sense to sniffing social reformers like Bergh, but it also made sense for fundraising, and meshed well with the social climbers and status-seekers attracted to early Kennel Club dog shows.
At the same time that dog shows were roaring into fashion in Victorian England, another movement was beginning to take hold. This movement began with a push to improve the plight of farm stock and cart horses, but was quickly overtaken by those eager to push past the concerns of basic animal welfare in order to strike a blow at the less educated masses coming into cities and towns.
From the beginning, the animal rights movement blurred the line between animal welfare and class warfare. Sensible concerns about the plight of animals kept by the poor were mixed with disdain for the rural poor themselves.
As the Chairman of the SPCA noted in 1824, the objective of the Society was not only “to prevent the exercise of cruelty towards animals, but to spread amongst the lower orders of the people ... a degree of moral feeling which would compel them to think and act like those of a superior class.”
The first animal welfare law in Great Britain was passed in 1822 and was designed to “prevent the cruel and improper treatment of Cattle.” This law — the Martins Act — was interpreted broadly to include all farm animals, but not bulls or pets.
In 1824 the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) had its first meeting in a London tavern, with the goal of expanding the 1822 Act to encompass nonfarm animals such as racing and hunting horses, draft horses, and cart dogs. The Society also sought to end dog fighting and the fighting of exotic animals such as monkeys.
Despite having a focused agenda, the Society failed to move legislation for the first 10 years of its existence. In 1835, however, they managed to get a ban on bull baiting, badger baiting and cock fighting through Parliament. The same law also outlawed the rat pits.
In 1839 dog carts were banned in London — a major blow to the economic livelihood of small street vendors.
In 1840, Queen Victoria — a fanatical dog collector — associated herself with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and allowed Royal to be attached to its name. The Royal imprint attracted social and political cache to the SPCA, and strengthened its funding base as well.
From the beginning, the SPCA chose its political battles carefully, going after the sport, entertainment and livelihood of those with little political power. The SPCA (now RSPCA) was careful not to go after the field sports of the wealthy and middle class. Coursing deer, hare and rabbit was given a pass. It was not seen as the least bit ironic for an RSPCA supporter to be seen fox hunting. Angling and bird shooting did not raise an eyebrow. The goal, after all, was not to save wildlife or end hunting per se, but to change the base morality of the poor who were “undisciplined” and of “low breeding”.
A moral and disciplined child might hunt animals, but he did not bait them.
A rich man might spur a horse or whip it with a riding crop, but he did not hit a dust cart horse with a stick.
A quality person might own a dog, but it would not be a crossbred mongrel, but an animal with an established pedigree.
And so it went.
At the top of the RSPCA this kind of highbrow reasoning was focused on the bottom line. The RSPCA needed the support of wealthy patrons to underwrite their literature and campaigns. Only a fool would bite the sporting hand that fed it.
Organizers at the RSPCA were quick to realize that the people who attended dog shows had good educations, nice clothes and steady incomes. These were “the right sort of people” who not only cared about animals, but also understood the importance of social rank, moral discipline and Old Money.
In fact, the dog show world attracted the very kind of social climbers that the RSPCA encouraged — people who were trying to emulate the aristocracy. When people attended dog shows, they wore their finest clothes and talked about the value of Good Breeding. Could anything be more perfect?
Dog show attendees and RSPCA supporters often seemed more focused on the plight of turnspit dogs and cart horses than on the plight of scullery workers and drovers’ children. One was a defenseless animal, after all, the other the progeny of illiteracy and an implied moral weakness.
Show ring terrier owners might brag that their dog or breed was descended from “certified fox killers,” but in fact they did not really understand or feel comfortable around shepherds or the rough men who did pest control in the countryside.
This kind of social stratification was a natural element of the aristocracy and the rapidly growing middle class. Gamekeepers and terriermen were required, of course, but they were not the sort of people you had over for dinner, were they?
In the end, the goals of the Kennel Club and the RSPCA were essentially the same — to improve rough stock by setting new standards. For one, the rough stock included dogs. For both, it included men.