When dog vs. rat fights entertained the city

New York after the Civil War had a feral edge.

Amid the poverty, crime, and gangs that packed the Bowery, Five Points, and waterfront districts, a brutal pastime reached new heights in popularity: rat-baiting—pitting a terrier against a rat until they fought to the death.

And no dive was more famous for its rat-baiting than Kit Burns’ Sportsmen’s Hall at 273 Water Street (illustrated at right and below).

“The pits, at Kit Burns’ and elsewhere, were uscreened boxes, with zinc-lined wooden walls eight feet long and four and a half feet high,” wrote Luc Sante in his must-read account of 19th century Bowery, Low Life.

“Matches typically drew no fewer than one hundred betting spectators, from all walks of life, with purses starting at $125. A good rat dog could kill a hundred rats in half an hour to forty-five minutes….”

But not all New Yorkers considered rat-baiting morally okay.

A New York Times article about 273 Water Street (now luxury apartments, of course) quoted Edward Winslow Martin’s 1868 The Secrets of the Great City:

“Most of our readers have witnessed a dog fight in the streets. Let them imagine the animals surrounded by a crowd of brutal wretches whose conduct stamps them as beneath the struggling beasts, and they will have a fair idea of the scene at Kit Burns.”’

The sport died out by the 20th century, thanks to the new ASPCA.

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3 Responses to “When dog vs. rat fights entertained the city”

  1. Galapagos to drop rat poison; New Yorkers have tradition of fighting rats and dogs | AnimalTourism News Says:

    […] Yorkers have a long, yucky history with rats. They used to fight them in pits and throw in dogs. Ephemeral NY […]

  2. Nabe News: February 4 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle Says:

    […] a post-Civil War New York, a then-new pastime arose in downtown dives. Rat baiting, a death match in which dogs fought rats to the amusement of […]

  3. The evolution of animal rights - VetHub Says:

    […] killed by dogcatchers. Many men spent their leisure hours at 273 Water St. in Manhattan to enjoy an urban pastime of the era: betting on how many rats a dog could kill in a given amount of […]

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