I’m off to New York later this week to research the history of dogs in the “Big Apple” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for my book project on the transnational history of dogs in modern London, New York and Paris. In anticipation, I’ve just finished reading Catherine McNeur’s Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City (2014). McNeur shows how loose hogs, trees, dung, rubbish, parks, and food all caused social and environmental tensions in the rapidly expanding city as the city’s elites tried to “tame” Manhattan’s unruly environments at the expense of the city’s poorer residents who relied on resources drawn from the “urban commons.” As part of this process, McNeur highlights how the city’s authorities sought to contain the mobility of stray dogs in the early nineteenth century. Motivated by fears of rabies and affronted by their unruly roaming, the Common Council (the city’s governing body) tried to reduce the number of stray dogs with the 1811 “Law Concerning Dogs” which created the position of Dog Register and Collector, an official who would collect a $3 tax from dog owners. In addition, anyone could kill stray dogs outside of the downtown Lamp District, as well as any dog suspected of biting someone. It provoked violent resistance as crowds attacked dog carts and released the dogs in the summer of 1811.
By the 1830s the bounty for stray dogs had risen to $1 and the Dog Register struggled to deal with the number of dog carcasses he received as cash-strapped New Yorkers killed dogs to receive the reward. In 1836 8000 dogs were slaughtered. This violence on the streets sparked concerns about the fate of the dogs and the morality of their killers. Middle and upper class commentators worried that the dog killers, many of whom were children, would go on to become thieves or worse. Despite the slaughter, New York’s stray dog population continued to grow.
My research in New York is supported by a Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Small Grant.