The Sad but True Tale, of ‘Man’s Best Friends,’ Both Beaten & Beloved

Growing up in rural and small town Kentucky, I had the opportunity of having many pets during my formative years, from which I gained an appreciation for the ‘animal kingdom.’ One of the saddest memories of my childhood was the futile attempt of my sister and I to save with minature baby bottles, the lives of a number of newly born, hairless ‘flying squirrels’ who’d fallen from their nest, and were thus left to die by their parents who were unable to care for them on the ground.

Animals continue to bring joy and fulfillment to many individuals and families throughout the world, as they’ve done for centuries, but regrettably, there have also been those who see the ‘lower forms of life’ as nothing more than ‘beasts of burden,’ lacking cognitive skills and emotions, and are thus prime candidates for abuse.

One of the earliest accounts of the mistreatment of animals, comes from the Bible, as recorded in the Old Testament book of Numbers, Chapter 28, wherein an erring prophet named Balaam beats his donkey repeatedly, which has stopped in the middle of the road, having seen an angel which its owner failed to observe, standing in the roadway before the man and beast. Given the power of speech, it is recorded:

“And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, ‘What have I done to thee, that thou has smitten me these three times…Am I not thine ass, upon which thou has ridden ever since I was thine unto this day?  Was I ever wont to do so unto thee?” The angel then chastises Balaam for his cruelty.

According to Jewish tradition, Noah was saved in the famous Biblical Ark specifically, because he was ‘kind to the animals’ placed under his care, while Abraham, revered as the spiritual leader and ancestor of over three billion individuals in the world today, is said to have been preserved as well from his enemies, because during times of famine and drought, he built such things as ‘bird-feeders’ to aid the animal life which was suffering as well as mankind.

Cleveland Amory, the late animal activist in 1974, published his seminal work entitled, Man Kind? wherein he recorded many accounts of animals actually saving the lives of human beings and evidence showing their possession of emotions towards their own progeny. One of my favorite books as a child was Beautiful Joe, written in 1893 by Margaret Marshall Saunders, a native of Nova Scotia, whose fictional character had been abused by his master who had ‘cut off his ears and tail,’ a story based on an actual dog that had suffered maltreatment where she lived. Telling her tale as a ‘first person narrative’ from the canine’s perspective, her work became an international best-seller, selling over 800,000 copies by 1900 in the United States alone.

The ‘American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ was founded in 1866 by Henry Bergh of New York, while the ‘Pennsylvania Society’ of the same organization began in 1868.  Here at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, one can read its records, accounts which are filled with sad but true incidents of the mistreatment of animals in Philadelphia during the nineteenth century.

For example, on July 18th, 1868, a Henry McPeak, “was at 4th & Vine Streets,” and was charged with “cruelly beating a mule, first with his fist, and then with a brick over the head.” He was fined five dollars. However, not everyone was ‘let off’ so easily. On January 22nd, 1870, William D. Cassiday was arrested for having cruelly “beaten a cow, with a pitchfork” and for “stabbing her with the prongs.” Cassiday was to spend a month in prison but was pardoned by the Governor. The PSPCA however appealed, and the animal tormentor was sentenced by the Court of Quarter Sessions to four months in jail and was required to pay a fine of $50.00, plus the costs for prosecution.

The records of the ‘Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ are filled with accounts of abuse, more particularly towards horses, which still served in the 19th century as the main means of transportation and labor. For example, one Casebook (1867-1891), has individuals being fined for “beating a horse with the butt end of a whip and punching him with a piece of iron pipe,’ ‘cruelly beating a tame fox with a heavy chain, so that it died,’ ‘cruelly dragging a dog on its back in the street until blood gushed from its mouth & nostrils,’ ‘cruelly scalding a cat,’ ‘knocking an eye out of a horse with a club,’ ‘throwing a small dog on the floor and stomping upon it,’ and ‘driving a horse with badly galled shoulders.’

One account for June 7th, 1871, relates how “a dog given to a man to kill in a humane manner., having shot the dog 3 times,” he then “allowed a number of boys to stone it to death.”

Surprisingly, abuse was not limited only to ‘animals,’ but included insect life as well, since Jacob D. Custer, Mary Custer, and Isaac Custer of Norristown, Pennsylvania, “were arrested on the charge of drenching with water and scorching with fire a swarm of bees,” on May 5th, 1870, and were taken before Squire Thomas of the city and fined ten dollars!

Thus, once again, the resources housed at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania are both rich and diverse in their subject matter and content. The records of the ‘Pennsylania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,’ or Collection #1709, is just one of over 21 million manuscripts available to the public, for examination during your visit to HSP.

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