Henry Bergh (August 29, 1813-March 12, 1888), a man of great compassion and conscience, founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in April, 1866, three days after the first effective legislation against animal cruelty in the US was passed into law by the New York Legislature. To many owners of animals at the time, he was known as the “Great Meddler,” and he was often referred to as such by some of the newspapers of the day. The inspiration for the organization began on a New York street corner when Bergh gathered his courage and approached a cart driver who was beating his exhausted horse.
This incident ignited two related American social movements: prevention of cruelty to animals and to children. As a young man, he had not shown much interest in animals but in his early fifties, while serving as President Lincoln’s envoy to Czar Alexander II in 1863, Bergh witnessed cruelties in the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia that sparked his compassion. Later, he moved to England to study the British Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—founded after legal scholar Jeremy Bentham asserted that the moral “question is not, Can [animals] reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” In addition, while in England, he met Anna Sewell, author of Black Beauty. Her novel is often considered one of the catalysts for the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. From biographies of the life of Sewell, we know that the two met and that Bergh was influenced by her “Little Book of Compassion”as it was referred to at the time. Sewell is famous for stating this: “My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.” Bergh brought much of this reflection on justice and suffering back from England with him.
Bergh believed that animals needed to be protected by society. Philosophical feuds between Bergh and circus showman P.T. Barnum regarding the rights of animals became legendary; however, Bergh focused on common practices of the day: butchers who bound calves’ legs and stacked the live animals like cordwood for transport over cobblestone streets, or who plucked and boiled chickens alive; sea captains who punched holes in turtles’ flippers, strung the creatures together with twine, then shipped them upside-down for weeks without food or water; dairymen who permanently chained cows to their stalls; and well-to-do gentlemen who shot pigeons for sport.
Bergh’s idea of justice was infused with a sense of roll-up-your-sleeves action. He developed slings for injured horses and clay pigeons for shooting matches. Uninvited, he waded into legislatures in white spats and slaughterhouses in rubber boots. Criticized for tending animals rather than people, he replied that if animals had to await mercy until human affairs were resolved, they would still be waiting at the Second Coming.
In 1874, Bergh learned of a nine-year-old girl beaten daily by her stepmother. No person or agency would intervene in a family matter. Bergh not only affected Mary Ellen’s rescue, but developed the first U.S. law shielding children from domestic abuse. He called for a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; when no one replied, he created it himself. Newspapers called his innovation “preposterous,” under headlines like “Legislation Running Mad!” and “Leave Our Children Alone!” But Bergh’s previous anti-cruelty work accustomed him to death threats, public ridicule, and physical attacks, so this recent barrage of criticism was no deterrent. Top hat firmly in place, he employed his jaunty cane in self-defense when necessary, remaining ASPCA president and SPCC board member until his death in 1888. By that time, his societies had prosecuted over 12,000 cruelty cases.
Long before Bergh’s funeral, his city and nation had claimed him as hero. “It may almost be said of Henry Bergh that he has invented a new type of goodness,” Scribner’s Magazine proclaimed in 1879, “since invention is only the perception and application of truths that are eternal.” The “Great Meddler” had helped to awaken the consciences of his contemporaries. Moral history is forever being created, and we stand in its very midst.