Henry Bergh was a softy. A sentimental fool who could not abide to witness the sufferings of animals and small, helpless creatures. And that made him a damned annoyance, and worse, a meddlesome nuisance to honest men who were simply trying to get the most out of livestock that God had clearly given them dominion over. It said so right in the Bible, didn’t it? To make matters worse he was richer than Croesus and had money to burn and spread around courts and newspapers to persecute men for doing as they saw fit with their own damned property! And he was slavishly followed by legions of swooning ladies and lily-livered do-gooders abetting his outrages.
Or so a good slice of public opinion would have it. Just who was the fancy gentleman in a fashionable high hat, and elegant clothes running about the streets wresting whips from the hands of masters?
Henry Bergh was born in New York City on August 29, 1813 with a literal silver spoon in his mouth. His father, Christian Bergh was a ship builder who laid the keels of several ships for the U.S. Navy as well as many a merchant vessel. Like many sons of self-made men he seemed a bit spoiled and unmotivated to seek a career. He was enrolled at Columbia but was an indifferent student and failed to graduate.
Instead of taking a degree the young man left for the Grand Tour of Europe in 1831. He liked what he saw there and lingered. Bergh tried his hand as a man of letters and penned unproduced plays, sentimental melodramas with pointed moral lessons.
In 1836 his father announced his intention to retire and wrote his wayward son that it was time to stop playing and come home to manage the family firm with his older brother Christian, Jr. However reluctantly—probably facing the cut off of support if he did not comply—Bergh came home.
Back in New York the same year he wooed and wed a lovely society belle with her own fortune, Catherine Matilda Taylor.
However a reluctant tycoon, Bergh proved to be a capable administrator. The firm thrived and expanded especially as he helped transition to the age of steam power. His active career in business was not a long one. His father died in 1843 and he felt under no more obligation to continue his business. He sold out his portion of the firm which brought him a large sum of cash. He invested wisely for the long term rather than play dangerous games on the market and was able to retire to a comfortable life of leisure on a dependable income at the age of only 32.
He and Catherine returned to Europe where they traveled and took up residence. He resumed his aborted career as a playwright.
Bergh’s story might have ended there with him idling away his years as a comfortable expatriate had not fate intervened. The Confederacy was stepping up diplomatic activity in Europe. One of their primary targets was Imperial Russia, a society whose dependence on virtually enslaved serfs drew the same moral condemnation in the West as Southern Black chattel slavery. It was also an emerging power with ambition to challenge Britain’s supremacy in international trade, including cotton. Confederate agents had high hopes of gaining Russian recognition of their independence and even possible intervention in the war.
Secretary of State William Seward, a pre-war political powerhouse in New York State was familiar with the Bergh family, who were loyal Republicans and Unionist. Bergh was already in Europe and would not be delayed in a mission to St. Petersburg by an ocean voyage. President Abraham Lincoln appointed him as Secretary to the American Legation to the Court of Tsar Alexander II and Acting Vice Consul in 1863.
In less than two years of service as a diplomat, Bergh learned two things—that he hated the miserable cold of a Russian winter, and that the Russians treated their animals with abominable cruelty. On the streets of St. Petersburg he could observe almost every day animals being savagely beaten, starving horses worked until they dropped dead in their traces, and worse.
After resigning in post in 1865, Bergh stopped in London on the way home to America to consult with the Earl of Harrowby, President of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals which had become famous for its defense of draft and coach horses in London.
Bergh, with the support of his wife, determined to do something similar at home. In late 1866 he began lecturing widely and circulating tracts against animal cruelty. Then he found an important ally, his minister the Rev. Henry Whitney Bellows of the First Congregational Church of New York City, the city’s leading Unitarian clergyman and one of the most influential Protestant ministers and reformers in the city. Bellows was also something of an organizational genius. During the war he founded and organized the United States Sanitary Commission, America’s first great nationwide charity which raised money and collected medical supplies for the Army, organized distribution, established hospitals, and trained and supervised most of the nurses on the Union side. It was a massive job that required the creation and coordination of local units in towns and cities across the Union as well as close logistical cooperation with massive armies in the field. After the war Bellows had re-invigorated Unitarianism with the formation of the National Conference of Unitarian Churches.
Bellows help introduce Bergh to a network of influential reformers and help him develop a strategy of getting an animal protection law passed in New York State that could be a model of the nation. A little later, at Catherine Bergh’s suggestion, Bellows helped recruit women reformers, many of the veterans of the abolitionist movement, the Sanitary Commission, temperance and other reform movements. Energetic women were soon the shock troops of a growing movement.
A public lecture at New York’s Clinton Hall in early 1866 was the beginning of a push for legislation in the state. He was victorious in an astonishingly short period of time—probably faster than any reform movement ever attained its first legislative goals. In early April the state legislature passed bills drafted by Bergh that prohibited cruelty to animals and granted a charter to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Four days later on April 11, 1866 the Society was formally organized in New York City with Bergh as its President—a job he would keep the rest of his life.
Bergh was more than just an administrator and advocate. Under the terms of the state law, he and other ASPCA officers were deputized to enforce the anti-cruelty laws on the street. Among his first targets were the wide spread abuse of horses and draft animals; dangerous but popular public entertainments like bull and bear baiting and dog and cock fighting; and the starvation of many domestic animals. Bergh would personally arrest offenders on the street and haul them before police magistrates. The press ate up these colorful confrontation and Bergh popularity grew in some quarters as did attacks on him from outraged masters and animal owners who dubbed him the Great Meddler.
|A contemporary cartoon mocking Bergh|
The ASPCA was at first funded out of the personal purse of the Berghs. But it soon attracted additional support including a huge $150,000 bequest from Frenchman Louis Bonard in 1871 which enabled the organization to move into more spacious quarters at the corner of 4th Avenue and 22nd Street. In the city the ASPCA was able to fund heavy duty animal ambulances and even a crane rescue horses who fell into open excavations with surprising regularity.
When Bergh turned his attention to the treatment of animals in circuses and menageries he clashed with P.T. Barnum, but Barnum, a noted humanitarian and Universalist lay leader was won over to the cause. He conformed treatment of animals in his circuses and other holdings to the standards of the ASPCA and campaigned with Bergh to get other exhibitors to follow suit.
Bergh was appalled to learn that tens of thousands of pigeons were slaughtered each year in sport shooting competitions. Bergh personally invented one of the first devices to launch faux pigeons as substitute targets, eventually leading the modern sports of trap and skeet shooting and the abandonment of live targets.
He continued to travel and speak widely, the influence of his ideas and organization growing steadily. One important 1873 speech was given to the Evangelical Alliance and Episcopal Convention which led directly to a new Episcopal cannon requiring the church’s priests to preach annually on animal cruelty.
New societies spread across the country, many of the spearheaded by the women reformers Bergh had gone out of his way to cultivate. One by one other state adopted laws modeled on those Bergh wrote for New York. By 1886 36 states had adopted anti-cruelty laws. With the help of ASPCA legal counsel Elbridge Gerry, Bergh got the Federal Government to ban cruelty to animals used for interstate transportation.
But Bergh’s work was not confined to animals. In 1874 Methodist mission worker, Etta Angell Wheeler brought the sad case of Mary Ellen Wilson an 11 year old girl abused by her foster mother, Mary McCormack who daily whipped her with rawhide, used her as a domestic slave, starved her, and kept her locked in a closet. Together Wilson and Burgh rescued the child and the ASPCA brought charges against Mary McCormack. At the time children were considered the chattel of their parents or guardians with no rights of their own and no protections from assault or abuse. Elbridge Gerry cleverly argued that at very least the child was an animal an entitled to protection under those anti-cruelty laws. Mrs. McCormack was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail. Etta eventually became a ward of Mary Wilson and lived happily and safely.
The incident spurred a new round of New York legislation and the charter of a new organization, New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children also headed by Burgh. Similar societies spread to other states starting with Massachusetts.
Bergh continued meddling until he died on March 12, 1888 and was buried in Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn,