Monsters & Miracles:
Henry Bergh’s America
by Gary Kaskel
Infinity Publishing (1094 New DeHaven St., Suite100, W. Conshohocken, PA 19428), 2013.
383 pages, electronic & paperback formats. $10.95.
Henry Bergh, who founded the American SPCA in 1866, remains such an influential and legendary figure that a succinct biography of Bergh fills nearly half of Heritage of Care, a 2010 history of the ASPCA by longtime ASPCA senior staff members Marion S. Lane & Stephen L. Zawistowki.
Many other Bergh biographies have been written, including Angel In A Top Hat, by Zulma Steele (1942), which though out of print for 70 years is still considered the most complete, and two books for adolescents, Friend of Animals: The Story of Henry Bergh by Mildred Mastin Pace (1991) and Crusade for Kindness: Henry Bergh and the ASPCA by John J. Loeper (also 1991).
Monsters & Miracles author Gary Kaskel references three other Bergh biographies that I have not seen, but not the one that appears to have been Steele’s primary reference: “Henry Bergh: Founder of the AntiCruelty Cause In America,” by Sydney H. Coleman, presented as the second and longest chapter of Humane Society Leaders in America (1924), published by the American Humane Association.
The next chapter, “Elbridge T. Gerry and the Prevention of Cruelty to Children,” further illuminates the Bergh story, since Gerry was Bergh’s attorney from 1870 to Bergh’s death in 1888, and remained on the ASPCA board until 1899. It was Gerry who won the 1873 Mary Ellen child abuse case, among the first in the U.S., in which Gerry acted with Bergh’s support on a complaint brought by social worker Etta Angell Wheeler, herself a person of note in humane history.
Coleman, 1887-1955, never knew either Bergh or Gerry in person, but his biographies were informed by many sources who had, some of whom had been among Bergh’s rivals during a long rift between Bergh and the AHA leadership. This enabled Coleman to include some personal anecdotes that to my knowledge have not appeared in other books. Comparing Coleman’s version of Bergh’s life to Bergh’s own writings and press reports of his work during his lifetime, I believe Coleman probably came closest to accurately representing Bergh’s character and motivations.
Coleman did stumble at least once, however, misattributing to Bergh a daring descent through a skylight to arrest dogfighter Kit Burns on November 21, 1870. The descent was actually made by a New York City police captain named Allaire, while Bergh, then 58 years old and a rather big man to do such a thing at any age, waited with other police and ASPCA agents to grab anyone who fled out the front door.
Allaire’s acrobatic feat has been credited to Bergh by all other biographers since, including Gary Kaskel in Monsters & Miracles: Henry Bergh’s America.
Concludes Kaskel, “I have tried to tell the story of Henry Bergh and his achievements as a story and not as a history. The accounts of his life as documented in his journals and the contemporary press are portrayed accurately, and many of the words spoken are faithful to such records. Other characters, scenes and dialogue have been dramatized…Chapter 7 has been adapted from George G. Foster’s 1850 book New York by Gas-Light and does not necessarily reflect Henry Bergh’s personal story. It and other intimate encounters and thoughts attributed to Henry Bergh were reasonably included to speculate that all men share certain private feelings and experiences that contribute to their psychological makeup…after drawing inferences from his writings, particularly his poems and plays.”
Kaskel can be credited with quite a lot, including his effort to contextually place Bergh in mid-19th century New York City. His literary structure, framing Bergh’s biography within an also fictionalized reminiscence by the elderly Mary Ellen toward the end of her life, almost works. What does not work is that parts of the narrative do not appear to reflect anything a woman of Mary Ellen’s post-rescue upbringing would actually have said, even in paraphrasing. Even more jarringly, at least to me, Kaskel’s interpretation of Bergh appears to be much at odds with Coleman’s.
The Kaskel version, presenting Bergh as something of a rake into middle age, would be plausible in the context of the late 20th century animal rights movement, or for that matter within the context of Sydney H. Coleman’s career, when the first scandals broke involving prominent animal advocates. Within Bergh’s time, however, and among his contemporaries, there was a strong understanding that would-be moral reformers had to avoid any personally compromising situations, not least because they were often under scrutiny by foes as ruthless as Kit Burns and Bergh’s arch-adversary P.T. Barnum. Barnum honored Bergh after his death with a statue which still stands in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in part because he was never able to catch Bergh in anything the public recognized as hypocricy.
Kaskel does accurately depict Bergh as having a temper, and as at times losing control of it, saying some things that were absurd enough to inspire leading cartoonists. Kaskel covers all of the best-remembered aspects of Bergh’s 22 years at the head of the ASPCA. But there are parts of the Bergh story that have yet to be detailed in any book, among them his conflict with the early AHA, his relationships with the other founders of the U.S. humane movement (still best covered by Coleman), his opposition to the ASPCA operating the New York City dog pound (which came about seven years after his death), and his influence on David and Diana Belais, who believed themselves to be––with reason––Bergh’s most authentic successors.
David and Diana Belais responded to changes of direction on the part of the post-Bergh ASPCA leadership by founding the Humane Society of New York in 1903, the New York Anti-Vivisection Society in 1908, and the short-lived First Church of Animal Rights in 1921. David Belais in June 1927 won the first and perhaps only conviction of a vivisector under the 1867 New York state anti-cruelty law which had been passed through Bergh’s influence. He died in 1933. Diana Belais continued in animal advocacy until her death in 1944. ––Merritt Clifton