Though not directly involved in gang activities, Herbert Asbury made sure to devote some pages in The Gangs of New York to another emblematic landmark of barbarity, Kit Burns’ Sportsmen’s Hall, site of the city’s popular dog vs. rat and dog vs. dog fights. The first floor of Burns’ establishment at 273 Water Street housed a small indoor amphitheater, with wooden benches overlooking the “pit.” The floor above housed the saloon, which was described as surprisingly neat and orderly compared to the street’s other notorious dives. Burns catered to the crowd of gamblers and fans of bloodsports that inhabited lower Manhattan. The great majority of 19th-century New Yorkers viewed rat-fighting and dog fighting as deplorable a spectacle as most people do today. By the end of that century, public exhibitions of these were outlawed, but in Burns’s heyday (the 1860s) they were a permitted, though low, source of amusement. Sadly, these events can still be found today in some parts of the United States, though they have long been illegal.
According to Asbury [The Gangs of New York, Chapter III], “Another attraction of Sportsmen’s Hall was Kit Burns’ son-in-law, known as Jack the Rat. For ten cents Jack would bite the head off a mouse, and for a quarter he would decapitate a rat.”
Kit Burns (real name Christopher Keyburn) employed as his head rat wrangler his son-in-law, Richard C. Toner. Toner, known far and wide as “Dick the Rat,” was a tall, somewhat handsome English-born professional rat exterminator. The tools of his trade were a set of long tongs, burlap bags, a dark lantern (i.e. early flashlight), and occasionally, ferrets and terriers. Toner had an instinctive knowledge of rodent behavior, and could capture and kill over a hundred rats in an evening. It was a venerable trade, going back centuries. For several decades he was acknowledged as the best rat catcher in America, and owned the best rat killing dog, a terrier named Old Tom, and another champion named Blanche. Old Tom once killed 100 rats in the pit in less than fifteen minutes. Toner himself admitted that he sometimes bit the heads of rats as the quickest way to kill them, so Asbury’s anecdote was doubtless referring to him, and not a dog.
Though for many years Toner trained dogs for fights against other dogs, he took umbrage over the idea that killing rats could be considered as animal cruelty. In 1896, Toner was invited to Rochester, New York, at the invitation of hotel/saloon owner Jack Turner. However, the trip was a bust, as the Rochester Democrat reported:
“…At 7:30 o’clock last night, and after the rats had been transferred to the upper floor of Turner’s barn, where the fight was to take place, a man of medium height and who, by his general air of mystery, the proprietor immediately recognized as Humane Agent Weitzel, walked into the room. He glanced about, and seeing an unusual air of activity, surmised that things were not as they should be about the Rock Cottage. He motioned to Mr. Turner and taking him into a corner of the room, began a conversation as follows:
“‘What are you fellows going to do here tonight?’ asked Mr. Weitzel in an undertone. ‘I hear there is something on here tonight. I don’t know what it is, but I want it to stop at once. I won’t have any animals suffering while I am around.’
“The proprietor of the place believing that Mr. Weitzel had been informed that rats were to be killed at his place was ready in informing the agent that everything should be done as he wished. At the same moment one of the men was seen to disappear from the room in obedience to a wink from Mr. Turner. He hurried up to the room where the rats had been stored in anticipation of the evening’s sport, and with the assistance of a couple of men carried them to a wagon that stood outside. A horse was hurriedly hitched to the wagon and soon the rats were speeding towards the country. There were over 200 of them in the wagon and they made merry music as they being carried rapidly away.
“In this way the evidence of anything out of the ordinary was removed. The humane agent was on the point of leaving when it occurred to him to ask what kind of a sporting event had been meditated for the evening.
“‘Well, I’ll tell you, ” said Mr. Turner. ‘One of our friends has been engaged for the past week in capturing a number of rats here in the city and he was going to kill them all here tonight. I’m not going to deny it we would have had a good time watching him put an end to them.’
“At the mention of rats, Mr. Weitzel was much mollified, and expressed curiosity to see how it was done.
“‘That’s an impossibility, old man,’ said Dick the Rat, who was standing just back of the agent. ‘We’ve liberated all those rats by this time, and they are scattered all over the Third precinct.’ It must be acknowledged that Mr. Weitzel turned a shade paler when he heard this announcement, and when he remembered that his house was not far from the place where the rodents were to be let loose, his anxiety was not much decreased.
“Meanwhile…the sleigh containing the rats whirled out of Jack Turner’s front yard, and sped past a corps of officers, a laugh escaping them [the drivers]. The sleigh was driven rapidly along, in what direction the driver was later unwilling to state, but he had not proceeded far before a vigorous squeaking from the animals in the rear of the vehicle told him something was the matter.
“He stopped to investigate and found that the rats in the largest box, the one containing 105 of the pests, had become unduly hilarious at the thought of freedom so suddenly thrown within their grasp, and begun to organize a rat fight on their own account. They were making a terrible racket inside the box…He accordingly brought the horse to a halt and dragging the larger box from the sleigh…He tore one of the heavy slats from the top, then they leaped out upon the snow, and how they flew! [The driver] declares that they one and all headed straight for the heart of the city. The snow was black with them.
“Mr. Toner was seen by a reporter soon after the humane agent had left, and said, ‘I am able to prove that killing rats with dogs is far more humane than either drowning or poisoning…When a man proposes to put a trained dog into a pit filled with rats and have them killed in one-two-three order, the people try to make out that he is doing something disgraceful, when in reality he is putting them to death in the easiest way possible.
“‘I have killed rats in all of the principle cities of the country from Maine to California, and whenever it was done it was a considered a benefit to the community…I will catch no more rats in the city of Rochester, however, until there is an understanding that I shall be able to kill them in the manner that I wish to. It looks at the present time as though a person must chloroform an oyster in Rochester before he is to be allowed to open it.
“‘There were enough rats liberated tonight to stock a city the size of Rochester in a year. Rats breed very rapidly, and there is a new litter of them each month. There are a large number in each litter. I shall leave here today and will not return unless it is understood that I can catch them and kill them without interference.'”
Most people today would realize that Toner’s argument in favor of quick deaths for pests ignores the fact that his dog suffered injuries in these fights, and that extermination can be separated from conducting bloodlust spectacles for entertainment and gambling. What he was doing with the rat pit was abhorrent. But if the next pandemic to strike humanity is found to be caused by rats, will people feel differently?