The Animal Rights Movement’s Origins (and still-visible legacy) in Greenwich Village
On the 19th of April in 1860, the New York state legislature passed a bill punishing an act, or omission of an act, that caused pain to animals “unjustifiably.” It was a historic step forward in the nineteenth-century movement toward animal protection. Just a few days before the New York legislature passed the animal-welfare act of 1860, it had chartered an animal-protection society. The new organization, the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, was called the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The A.S.P.C.A.’s sponsors were prominent New Yorkers, leaders in the city, state, and nation in finance, commerce, the law, and politics.
But lo and behold, the A.S.P.C.A. got its start in our neighborhood. The organization’s founding meeting took place at Clinton Hall, located in the since demolished Opera House on Astor Place at Lafayette (an entrance to Clinton hall is, amazingly, still visible from the Astor place Subway Station). On April 10, 1866, a charter incorporating the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was signed. And the ASPCA’s first offices were located in a room in a since-demolished house at 826 Broadway.
Henry Bergh was born on August 28, 1813 in New York City. His father, Christian Bergh was a very successful shipbuilder in the city. Christian Bergh was sometimes called the “honestest man” in New York City. Along with his reputation as an impeccably scrupulous business practices, he was believed to have been among the first shipbuilders in the City to employ freed black slaves, and to pay them the same wage as his other employees.
The Bergh family lived in what is described as “a modest home on the lower East Side of Manhattan.” This could mean that the family lived in what is now known as the East Village, but the address is unverified. What we do know is that the Bergh family vault is located in the graveyard of St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, which indicates that the family were parishioners of the church.
In 1834 Henry Bergh entered Columbia College and subsequently joined his father and brother in the shipbuilding business. When his father retired, and Henry and his brother Edwin ran the shipyard until 1843. The liquidation of the assets left Bergh and his siblings with a substantial fortune—a sum adequate to assure Henry of a comfortable life without the need to work.
Henry Bergh and his wife Elizabeth loved to travel and had the means and the time to do so extensively. During one excursion to Europe, they attended a bull fight in Spain, and were appalled by the blood and death on display. More troubling were the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd as horses were gored and bulls taunted and then killed. This display of, cruelty was the beginning of a life-long mission for Bergh.
Bergh’s social circle included the political elite of his time. He supported abolitionist positions, and shared this conviction with his fellow New York State resident William Seward. When Seward joined Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet as Secretary of State, Bergh gained an appointment as legation secretary for the American delegation to Russia.
Bergh enjoyed the opulence of society in St. Petersburg. He traveled about the city in an ornate carriage, a driver at his call. On one of his trips through the city, he happened upon a Russian worker beating his fallen cart horse. Bergh called for his own driver to stop his carriage, got out and ordered the man to stop beating the horse. It is reported that an altercation ensued and Bergh left the scene shaken. Not long after, he resigned his post, and returned to the United States via England. He met there with the Earl of Harrowby, who served as president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals at that time. Upon his return to the United States he carried with him an understanding of how the RSPCA had been formed and how it carried out its efforts to protect animals. His quest to establish the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals began there.
Shortly after his return, Henry Bergh began the rounds of contacting his wealthy and influential friends and allies, explaining his plan to form a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. When he felt that he held sufficient support for his plan, he announced a public lecture on “Statistics related to the Cruelty Practiced on Animals.” A storm raged through the city on the night of February 8, 1866, but Clinton Hall was crowded with an anxious crowd. Bergh’s preliminary efforts had paid off, and his lecture prompted a ground swell of support. In the days following the meeting a who’s who of the social and political elite of the city and state signed a petition calling for the formation of The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Bergh carried the petition to Albany and lobbied the state legislature. The response was quick and on April 10, 1866 the New York State Legislature granted a charter for the formation of The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Just nine days later, the legislature passed an amended law for the prevention of cruelty to animals, and authorized Bergh and his fledgling Society the power to enforce the law.
The first office of the fledgling organization was located in a building at 826 Broadway. That building was eventually demolished, and the building that now houses The Strand bookstore now stands in its place.
There’s another interesting connection between the ASPCA and our neighborhood. One of the organization’s early projects was to provide water for tired horses hauling carts and carriages. One example of that — the fountain in Washington Square! The fountain has transformed a few times since then, but it remains a beloved (and still much needed) amenity in our neighborhood.