A PRIVILEGED CHILDHOOD
More animals than humans crowded New York City at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Horses were the lifeblood of the city. Nearly 200,000 workhorses plodded down cobblestone streets. They strained to pull carts and wagons towering with goods. Horse-drawn streetcars powered by teams of big workhorses hauled passengers to and from work and errands at all hours, creating a perpetual traffic jam. The horses staggered under the whip to drag double loads along miles of track. They were treated as living machines, and most dropped dead in the streets before their second birthday.
Other animals met an even speedier demise. Thousands of cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep trotted through muddy streets on their way to slaughterhouses. Some escaped and roamed in feral herds, rooting through garbage. Flocks of poultry crammed into carts arrived at the butcher, where they were plucked alive and plunged into boiling water before being sold as dinner.
Domesticated animals were bred to live short and painful lives as well. Dogs were the “workhorses” of big-city kitchens. Hundreds of dogs ran on hollow wheels called turnspits. Bred for short legs and long bodies, these dogs rotated spits that roasted meat over fires. Their struggle was threefold: to stay awake, to avoid getting scorched, and to resist devouring the roast.
The Lower Manhattan streets stank of manure. They echoed with a cacophony of clomping horseshoes, bellowing, squeals, honks, and barks, making conversation almost impossible.
Into this environment was born a boy who would give a voice to the animals of New York City and beyond.
Henry Bergh was born on August 29, 1813, in his family’s home at the intersection of Scammel and Water Streets in Manhattan. He joined a sister, Jane, five, and a brother, Edwin, eleven. The family’s two-story frame house was within earshot of the shipyard his father owned.
The East River waterfront rang with the sounds of saws, axes, and hammers. Native Americans once used this waterfront to load their canoes. Now Henry’s father, Christian, designed and built sailing ships on the busy seaport.
Unlike many of the 97,000 people living on the lower portion of Manhattan Island, Henry entered the world blessed with privileges. His wealthy ancestors had emigrated from Germany to America in the eighteenth century. Henry’s father was born in Rhinebeck, New York, where he first built and sailed small ships on the Hudson River. Later Christian journeyed to Nova Scotia, Canada, spending much of his time on and near the sea. Sailing coursed through his veins like salt water, so it surprised no one when he started designing and building large sailing ships.
When Christian returned to New York, he built U.S. Navy ships for the War of 1812. His brig, the USS Oneida, fought the war on the Great Lakes. The U.S. Congress commissioned his most famous ship, the forty-four-gun frigate christened the President. This famous vessel was faster than any other afloat, and the British Royal Navy sought to capture the fighting ship, which it accomplished in 1815. The frigate was dismantled in order to discover the secret of its superiority.
The U.S. Navy offered Christian a top position at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but he declined. Instead, he aspired to build ships under his own name. After marrying Elizabeth Ivers, of Connecticut, Christian set up his own shipbuilding yard at Corlear’s Hook, the easternmost point of Manhattan. At that time, New York City had started its transformation from a small seaport to an international city. Upper Manhattan, however, was still mainly farms and rolling countryside.
Christian earned a reputation as the “honestest” man in New York. The hard-working marine architect, who stood out for his unusual height of more than six feet, was as demanding and exacting with his craft as he was with his business associates. The prominent shipbuilder’s strong principles extended to his dealings with crew. This prosperous Democrat hired freed black slaves, and insisted on paying them wages identical to those of his white employees.
Elizabeth had a similar reputation. Once, Henry discovered a coin in the street. When he eagerly showed his prize to his mother, she marched him back to the spot of discovery and insisted that he return the coin. Its rightful owner, she explained, might be searching for it.
Henry would inherit his father’s sense of justice, his disapproval of owing money to anyone, and his lofty height. From his mother, he would learn kindness and honesty. “I don’t suppose I would ever have undertaken this work unless fate had cursed me with a very sensitive nature easily moved at the spectacle of cruelty or injustice,” Henry once told a reporter.
Henry, Jane, and Edwin turned the shipyard into a playground. They played among the mast and spars, elbows and ribs, and hemp forests of rigging. They raced along the white sand beach that adjoined the shipyard, and rode the long, rolling waves.
When they tired of the shipyard, the three Bergh children would visit a small zoo nearby, owned by Henry Brevoort, a wealthy landowner. He chained a pet bear in the watermelon patch in the front of his mansion at the corner of Tenth Street and Fifth Avenue. In the back he exhibited deer and tigers, and sold vegetables alongside rare birds.
Some families in the Berghs’ neighborhood also had pets of a more ordinary kind. Dogs and cats lived in the two- and three-story wooden houses and backyards throughout Lower Manhattan. The Bergh children probably asked their parents for a pet of their own, as many children do. However, the family did not invite any animal companions into their home.