by Clarence Hawkes
Illustrated by William Van Dresser
Milton Bradley Co. (Springfield, Mass.), 1922.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
The sole known published reference to the now popular “nanny dog” or “nursemaid dog” notion, before the rise of opposition to breed-specific laws in recent decades, came in a 1922 work of fiction, Pep: The Story of A Brave Dog, by Clarence Hawkes (1869-1954), a blind man who wrote by dictating his stories and, though able to spin a gripping yarn, routinely muddled his facts.
Before & after
Pit bulls and pit mixes, before Pep: The Story of A Brave Dog, were known mostly from use in dogfighting, rat-killing contests, baiting tethered bulls and bears, tearing the ears off of corralled pigs, hunting runaway slaves, terrorizing Native Americans, mauling prisoners of war at the notorious Andersonville camp during the U.S. Civil War, and of course for killing more than half of all human victims of random dog attacks, even in a time when rabies ran wild and no vaccine against rabies had been developed.
After publication of Pep: The Story of A Brave Dog, the allegation that pit bulls were ever once “nanny dogs” disappeared from print for another 49 years, during which time rabies was controlled but pit bulls continued to account for substantially more than half of all the fatal dog attacks on record.
The next published reference to pit bull as “nanny dog” came in a 1971 New York Times article by Walter R. Fletcher about the admission of the Staffordshire bull terrier to the list of breeds eligible to be exhibited in American Kennel Club shows.
In that article, Staffordshire Bull Terrier Club of America president Lilian Rant acknowledged to Fletcher that Staffordshires “had an unsavory reputation for fighting and violence and his name [the name of Staffordshires] became associated with ruffians, who cared little for him as a dog but only for his ability in the pit.”
Rant then alleged, without offering substantiation and apparently without being asked for any, that “The Stafford we know today quickly becomes a member of the family circle. He loves children and is often referred to as a ‘nursemaid dog.'”
One must wonder whether pit bull advocacy as we know it today might have emerged, had Fletcher traced Rant’s rant back to the only evident source.
Enormously popular in the school libraries of Rant’s childhood, Pep: The Story of A Brave Dog also appears to have originated the myth of pit bulls as “therapy dogs,” and as war heroes; in truth, no pit bull has ever served with distinction in a U.S. military K-9 unit. Sergeant Stubby, the real-life World War I war hero dog who partially inspired Pep: The Story of A Brave Dog, was a Boston terrier. (See Hitler’s pit bull.)
But Pep: The Story of A Brave Dog itself appears to have received a free pass from close critical examination. This may have been partly because of the already established popularity of author Clarence Hawkes, an acquaintance of Helen Keller, who was blinded at age 13 by a hunting accident, and like Helen Keller, was widely regarded as a positive role model for other blind and handicapped people. Partly also, many reviewers, including some of those who should have been more aware and on guard against insidious hidden messages, read Pep: The Story of A Brave Dog as a book written on behalf of dogs in general, not pit bulls in specific.
“Pep is a purposeful book–the story of a faithful, intelligent dog, which should help to do for the dog what Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty did for the horse,” opined William H. Micheals, superintendent of schools in Media, Pennsylvania, in prefacing the 1928 edition of a volume which was already promoted and even distributed by humane societies nationwide.
Pep did not achieve the enduring popularity of Black Beauty, first published in 1877 and still in print, and frankly is not at that level of literary skill. It has not been reprinted for many decades now, though it was once a staple of humane education.
It is still a page-turner. Several generations of my family have enjoyed Pep, and I found on rereading it a decade ago, for the first time in 42 years, that it still held my interest, not least because author Clarence Hawkes is convincing when he narrates from the dog’s point of view.
Overlooked at the time by most observers, Pep also was in truth an early effort, perhaps the first to achieve popular success, to rehabilitate the image of pit bulls. In both the rhetoric it uses and the examples it presents, Pep directly presages most recent defenses of the breed.
Ku Klux Klan
Not mentioned in the text, but in the immediate background, was that dogfighting had relatively recently been banned in many states, but was still legal here in Washington as well as in much of the South. Both in the South and in Washington, where the biggest Ku Klux Klan rally ever was held in Renton, just outside Seattle, on July 14, 1923, dogfighting operated under the protection of Klan influence within law enforcement. Along with bootlegging, pigeon-shooting, prostitution, and gambling, dogfighting was among the major sources of funding for the Klan.
Elsewhere, animal shelters then as now were filled with pit bulls for whom there were no homes.
Efforts were made to adopt them out, but the vast majority were killed, until by the middle of the 20th century pit bulls outside of the remaining Klan bastions had become temporarily scarce.
“The usual type of bull terrier”
“Pep was the usual type of bull terrier,” Hawkes tells us, “about 16 inches at the shoulders and weighing nearly 40 pounds,” small by current standards. In those days both pit bulls and people were usually smaller.
Pep is also described as an “English bull terrier” early in the book, which enables him to win an unnamed exhibition that appears to have been inspired by the Westminister Dog Show. Pep’s fighting pedigree is later recognized immediately by a British stretcher bearer, but Pep himself never fights.
Drawings by William Van Dresser show a battle-scarred white Staffordshire on the cover, and several white Staffordshire show dogs inside.
Pep belongs to an American doctor living somewhere about two hours from New York City by train. There are hints that the doctor character might have been partially inspired by the dog-fighting doctor described in the June 7, 1896 New York Times article “Sweet Tempered Dove,” Dove being the name of the pit bull involved, and perhaps also by Dr. Walter Bensel, an outspoken pit bull advocate who in the early 20th century used his position as New York City sanitary superintendent to advocate against proposed restrictions on keeping pit bulls.
Both doctors were in the headlines long before Hawkes wrote Pep: The Story of A Brave Dog, but throughout Hawkes’ long career as an author he demonstrated a phenomenal memory for details of articles that had been read to him by others many years earlier.
Sent to France
The doctor in Pep: The Story of A Brave Dog is drafted and sent to France in 1917, without benefit of military training–unless his previous location was West Point, a geographic possibility.
Running away from home when left behind, Pep overtakes the doctor’s train when it is derailed by a broken axle. Finding no way to make himself useful, Pep is left again, but leaps aboard the platform behind the last car when the train continues, and eventually obliges the doctor to take him on the troop ship to France.
Two little girls
There are, improbably, two little girls on the ship. One girl, named Hilda, is swept overboard in a storm. The doctor throws Pep into the sea to save her.
Later the ship is torpedoed by a German submarine. The people escape in lifeboats. Pep swims behind for an hour before the doctor thinks to tie a shoelace to his collar to help him keep up. Pep then swims two more hours to reach shore.
In France Pep distinguishes himself as a therapy dog, comforting the doctor, other medical personnel, and wounded soldiers. When the doctor is sent to the front during the March 1918 battle to retake Ardennes forest from the Germans, who had held it since August 1914, he is shot through the hips. Pep finds him. The doctor throws his canteen into a convenient stream; Pep retrieves it repeatedly, bringing water. Eventually Pep fetches help, saving the doctor’s life, but is wounded himself by shrapnel. While convalescing, Pep resumes his work as a therapy dog, until he and the doctor sail home.
Sailing home on a sunken ship
Apparently the Allied command has decided that Hilda too should be sent home from the Western Front. Pep and the doctor join her on the same “great ship on which they had come across.” Exactly how the ship was resurrected after being torpedoed and sent to the bottom is never discussed.
Hawkes was among the most popular story-tellers of his time, producing 53 books in all, chiefly on animal themes. Blinded at age 13, Hawkes wrote by dictation. Instead of filling in details from observation and imagination, Hawkes relied on research. He made mistakes when misled by sources, for example in describing sled dog racing as an activity performed by two-man teams of mushers, but that was a matter of confusing competitive practice with the methods of freight teams. He correctly described the difference between native and racing team hitches.
Many different dogs
Though Hawkes to his credit did not resort to whining “But it really happened!” in defense of his rather exaggerated plot, it is an amalgam of deeds actually done by many different dogs, on many different occasions, none of them really pit bulls. Despite some howlers, and except in attributing to pit bulls the deeds of an array of dogs of distinctly different history and behavior, Hawkes’ accuracy quotient was rather high, by the standards of either then or now. His audacity in describing the evolution of wolves from dogs far exceeds what most writers with a schoolroom audience would attempt today.
The courage of his publisher should also be noted, in that Pep first appeared three years before John T. Scopes was tried in Tennessee for teaching evolution, and was kept in print long after Scopes was convicted and fined.
Wrote Micheals, “The educational value of Pep lies chiefly in its effort to develop kindness toward animals, and books like this will do more to stimulate humaneness in the child’s mind than all the ‘Be Kind to Animals’ weeks we can observe. This is an end to be sought not only for the sake of the animals, for also for the sake of the child. Therein,” Micheals opined, “lies the justification for this book as a supplementary reader,” included in school curriculums for decades, and kept in school libraries for even longer.
“The teacher who ignores this opportunity for character development is, to a great degree,” Micheals concluded, “delinquent in her duty as a promoter of true ethics.”
The Natural History of Dogs
All of this would have been much more true had Hawkes attributed Pep’s many admirable deeds to any of the breeds of dog who actually performed them, instead of the breed type which existed then, as now, only through centuries of effort to produce more uninhibited and successful killers.
This history was perhaps even better known in Hawkes’ time than today. Influential in establishing breed standards for most common dog varieties, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hamilton Smith, author of The Natural History of Dogs, originally serialized in 1839-1840 by W.H. Lizars of Edinburgh, Scotland, and kept in print in various formats for decades thereafter, observed of the dog now most often called a pit bull: “The bull-dog differs from all others, even from the mastiff, in giving no warning of his attack by his barking. He grapples his opponents without in the least estimating their comparative weight and powers. The bull-dog is possessed of less sagacity and less attachment than any of the hound tribe; he is therefore less favored, and more rarely bred with care, excepting by professed amateurs of sports and feelings little commendable to humanity. He never leaves his hold, when once he has got it, while life lasts.”
This, not Pep: The Story of A Brave Dog, was the truth of pit bulls in the alleged “nanny dog” era, and still is, despite the many misrepresentations of Hawkes and his many propagandistic descendants.