Cane Corso history is not what the “dog literature” says
OAKLAND PARK, Florida––Was Gladys, the star rescue dog who killed volunteer Pam Robb on February 17, 2022, really a Cane Corso and not, as ANIMALS 24-7 reported, a “supersized pit bull”?
Or is “Cane Corso” really just a sanitized and gentrified name for a common supersized pit bull/mastiff mix that has been called by at least four other names over the past 200 years?
And does the distinction, if any, between a Cane Corso and a supersized pit bull really make an iota of difference?
Either way, reality is that a well-meaning 71-year-old woman was fatally mauled by a 125-pound dog of a sort bred for centuries to wreak mayhem, a dog who should have been recognized as unsafe by any name.
Took rescue founder’s word on the breed
ANIMALS 24-7 initially identified Gladys from both still and video images as a Cane Corso, but switched to “supersized pit bull” before publishing our February 18, 2022 account of Pam Robb’s death, Pit bull star of 100+ Abandoned Dogs of Everglades Florida kills volunteer, in deference to social media postings from people who knew Gladys, and knew victim Pam Robb, in person.
Among those who identified Gladys as a pit bull, on video, was Amy Roman-Daniello, founder of 100+ Abandoned Dogs of Everglades Florida, albeit that Roman also noted that Gladys seemed to “have a bit of mastiff in her.”
Pam Robb, on the morning of February 17, 2022, lost her life while working with Gladys at the Rescue House One shelter operated by 100+ Abandoned Dogs of Everglades Florida, in Oakland Park.
Gladys also seriously injured another volunteer identified by other volunteers on social media as Jan Halas Stenger, 51, of Orange Park, Florida.
Cane Corsos have killed five Americans in 10 months
Counting Gladys, dogs said to have been Cane Corsos have now killed five Americans in under a year.
The first victim, Tony Allen Ahrens, 53, of Newport, Tennessee, was found dead on April 1, 2021, three months before Amber Miller, 29, died in the same gruesome manner at the same site. Her autopsy indicated that both her arms and 40% of her skin were ripped off her body.
Cane Corso owner Charles Owensby was charged with drug-related offenses as result of the police investigation of the Ahrens and Miller deaths.
(See Why were Amber Miller & Tony Ahrens killed by dogs in Newport, TN? and Warrants executed weeks & months after fatal Cocke County dog attacks.)
Tiffany Frangione, 48, of Houston, Texas, was on November 19, 2021 fatally mauled by her own pit bull/Cane Corso cross and husky mix while breaking up a fight.
Most recently before Pam Robb’s death, Karen Rosa Madrid, 26, was killed in front of her six-year-old son on December 28, 2021 in East Valinda, California, while trying to climb in a window.at the home she and her son shared with her sister-in-law and her sister-in-law’s four Cane Corsos.
Cane Corsos going by the name “Cane Corso” had previously killed only three Americans, four-year-old Jayelin Graham, of Brooklyn, New York, on May 26, 2011; Klonda Richey, 57, of Dayton, Ohio, on February 7, 2014; and Kristie Kelley, 44, of Neylandville, Texas, on October 27, 2018.
(See Montgomery County to pay $3.5 million to survivors of Klonda Richey)
The only other fatality inflicted by a Cane Corso called a Cane Corso, at least in the English-speaking world, appears to have been a British woman, Barbara Williams, 52, of Wallington, Sutton, killed on December 24, 2010.
But that scarcely means Cane Corsos, whose current name means in Italian simply “Corsican dog,” were ever safe dogs.
The quasi-“official” Cane Corso history, perhaps most recently recited by blogger Jenna Stregowski on February 7, 2022, is that “The Cane Corso (pronounced ‘KAH-Nay KOR-So’) is a large-boned and muscular working dog,” whose “lineage goes back to ancient Rome.
“The Cane Corso originated in Italy,” continued Stregowski, “and can be traced back to ancient times. The molossus, a now extinct mastiff-type dog, is an ancestor of the Cane Corso and similar mastiff-type dogs. Throughout its early history, the Cane Corso acted as a guard dog, war dog, and skilled hunter of various game (including very large game). Its name is derived from the Italian word for dog, cane, and the Latin term cohors, which means ‘protector’ or ‘guardian.’”
Very little of that account withstands historical scrutiny, including the linguistic etiology, but Stregowski, in fairness, did not just make it all up. That dubious distinction traces pedigree mostly to attorney Will Judy (1891-1973).
Judy, after World War I military service, returned to the U.S. as “Captain Judy.”
Judy bought Dog World Magazine for a little over $1,000, and turned it into a money-making machine serving the dog fancy that continued for more than 40 years.
Though Dog World sold subscriptions, Judy realized revenue chiefly through the combination of breeder advertisements and newsstand sales to fanciers of whatever breed was on the cover of that edition.
Judy also produced books including Dog’s Best Friend, Training the Dog, Principles of Dog Breeding, and Care of the Dog.
Boosted breeders with fanciful dog histories
Judy clearly loved dogs, but he loved money, too.
Along the way, Judy boosted the breeders who advertised with Dog World by inventing, perpetuating, and amplifying many colorful yet preposterous myths about the origins and history of various “rare” dog breeds, most of them merely inbred variants of some of the most common mutts who ever sniffed another dog’s rectum.
Judy probably never heard the term “Cane Corso,” because it does not appear to have been used in print, at least in the English language, before 1988, except as the name of a British tramp steamer that sailed the seven seas at least from 1911 to 1938.
But Judy in 1952 was pushing the dog then newly sanitized and re-baptized as the Neapolitan mastiff, after having earned a bad reputation by turns as the Italian mastiff, then the Italian bulldog, and then again as the Italian mastiff.
Great Caesar’s ghost!
Wrote Judy in the third person as a sidebar to the July 6, 1952 edition of a newspaper column he syndicated as Special Dog Talks, “The ‘dog of the Caesars’ is still extant. The author of Dog Talks, Capt. Judy, recently judged this unusual breed in Italy, where it is known as the Neapolitan mastiff or Colossus. It is a heavy, large, fierce-appearing dog and is mentioned frequently in ancient Greek and Roman history. It is an ancestor of the present St. Bernard, Great Dane, Newfoundland, and bull mastiff.”
What is true is that mastiffs ancestral to all of the breeds Judy named, and to pit bulls, Rottweilers, and many other large dogs, were known to the Romans and were used as war dogs, in gladiator fights, and sometimes to pull carts.
What is not true is that any particular genetic line is likely to have survived undiluted for 2,000 years, given the promiscuity of dogs, even on Corsica, an island about the size of Rhode Island plus Delaware.
That some dogs today resemble “the dog of the Caesars” means about as much as that some men today resemble Julius Caesar, some resemble Marc Antony, and some try to resemble Cleopatra.
Written record began in 1887
The Cane Corso history in the Americas, to the extent there exists any written record of it, appears to begin with a classified ad in the Boston Sunday Globe of February 20, 1887, offering “For sale, cheap, 4 Italian mastiff pups, 4 months old; recently imported and very desirable. Apply at 48 Temple Street.”
48 Temple Street, Boston, a boarding house owned by one H.M. Fiske, had been in the local crime news at least seven times in the preceding four years, as locale of two major swindles involving extortion and rare book theft, respectively, plus a June 1883 arson fire.
The fire was allegedly set by a man named Thomas W. McKee of the Salem furniture rental company Merritt & McKee, on behalf of housekeeper Caroline L. Nyeberg, also identified as Caroline Nobling.
From arson to selling dangerous dogs
With five men and three women asleep on the third floor of the building. the alleged perpetrators at 1:45 a.m. started the fire after saturating the carpet on the second floor and in front of the first floor exit with kerosine.
Nyeberg/Nobling hoped to collect “an insurance of $2,000 on the furniture,” the Boston Post reported, but was thwarted when a Dr. T.A. Lamson called the fire department, located only two blocks away. The trapped residents all survived, and the building, repeatedly renovated, stands to this day.
McKee was fined $10,000 and remained at large. What became of Nyeberg/Nobling seems not to have been reported.
The four “recently imported” Italian mastiff pups left no further recorded trace of themselves, but must have found mates somewhere, because within fifteen years “Italian mastiffs,” so-called, also described as “Italian bulldogs,” were turning up all over the country.
“Carried by Uncle Tom’s Cabin companies and called a bloodhound”
But they were not exactly “the dog of the Caesars.”
A September 30, 1902 syndicated news item from Keokuk, Iowa, revealed the greater portion of their actual ancestry, their names notwithstanding.
“The little 12-year-old daughter of John Detliffs was frightfully torn by a vicious and monstrous mastiff while playing in front of her home,” the article opened. “The animal tore the shoulder, back, and arm, making a number of wounds which bled profusely.”
Added the account, “The animal was a coal black Italian mastiff, the species often carried by Uncle Tom’s Cabin companies and called a bloodhound.”
In short, the so-called Italian mastiff, though perhaps distantly mixed with some mastiffs of Italian origin, was mostly the dog long known as the “Cuban bloodhound,” also ancestral to the Presa Canario, Fila Brasiliero, Dogo Argentino, and the so-called “American” pit bull terrier.
Multi-national mutt of mayhem
Note that the alleged national origin of this proto-pit bull was variously cited as Italy, Cuba, the Canary Islands, Brazil, Argentina, and the U.S., all before the invention of the term “Staffordshire” circa 1935 to highlight some British ancestry, and long before the first identification of “Cane Corsos” as such circa 1988.
Reality is that all of these places contributed to the evolution of the pit bull as known over the past 500 years or more, but none offered anything truly unique to the mix of mastiff and rat terrier, in varying degrees, which was inevitable wherever and whenever both types of dog existed.
That was almost everywhere with wharfs and warehouses patrolled by feisty rat terriers and much bigger mastiffs used to pull carts.
The rat terrier/mastiff offspring were mostly too big to hunt rats, except in pits where “ratting” became a common gambling pastime, and were too intractable to pull carts, but were easily used for pit fighting and baiting bulls and bears.
Though practiced throughout Europe, these pursuits perhaps peaked in popularity in Britain, among Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and her court.
Normal dogs run from gunfire, but as soldiers soon discovered, terrier/mastiff offspring could also be induced to charge gun emplacements and men with harquebuses, a weapon ancestral to muskets.
Then, if surviving long enough, such dogs might dismember the Three Musketeers or whoever else stood behind the guns.
Accordingly, as firearms gradually ended the era of armored warriors, the use of suicidally aggressive war dogs, some outfitted with armor of their own, exploded in the High Middle Ages.
The first ancestors of the modern pit bull to arrive from Europe were the “war dogs” of the Spanish conquistadors, who fed the dogs on the flesh of captured Native Americans, killed to order.
This practice ended only after Bishop Bartolme de Las Casas (1484-1566) objected about it to Pope Charles V.
Bullmastiffs & Cuban bloodhounds
Similar dogs, acquired by U.S. settlers of British ancestry from slave traders typically based in the Canary Islands and Cuba, were at times deployed to dismember Native Americans, as at Fort Nashborough, Tennessee in 1781.
Some such dogs were used to hunt and dismember fugitive slaves, a practice inspiring the most dramatic scenes of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influential 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as recalled by the reporter who covered the 1902 Keokuk dog attack.
(See SHARK fights pigeon shooters where black man was hunted for sport.)
Some such dogs were also used to guard prisoners of war, as at the infamous Andersonville Prison during the U.S. Civil War; and later, as the instruments for lynchings, as described, for example, by Cayton’s Weekly for August 2, 1919.
(See Pit bulls, “bullying & backlash,” & who is really threatening whom.)
Throughout the 19th century the bigger of the terrier/mastiff mixes were alternately called bullmastiffs and “Cuban bloodhounds,” while the smaller dogs of the same general sort were simply called “bulldogs.”
No breed standards for fighting dogs
As there were no hard-and-fast lines of delineation, the same dog might be described as a bulldog, a bullmastiff, and a “Cuban bloodhound” by different observers.
Systematically bred almost exclusively by dogfighters, no dog in the “bulldog” or “bullmastiff” category had a pedigree. Many of the people who were most instrumental in establishing dog breed standards recommended that dogs of fighting ancestry should not be perpetuated.
Thomas Bewick in A General History of Quadrupeds warned in 1807 that “As the bulldog always makes his attack without barking, it is very dangerous to approach him alone, without great precaution.”
“Extinction of the breed is a desirable consummation”
The 1818 Manual of British Field Sports asserted that, “The bulldog, devoted solely to the most barbarous and infamous purposes, the real blackguard of his species, has no claim upon utility, humanity, or common sense, and the total extinction of the breed is a desirable consummation.”
Observed Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hamiliton Smith, author of The Natural History of Dogs, published serially in 1839-1840 by W.H. Lizars of Edinburgh, Scotland, “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.”
Fighting dog fanciers, however, eventually got around such objections by renaming their dogs to suggest origins other than in fighting, baiting, and killing people.
John P. Colby invented the “Staffordshire” in Massachusetts
The most famous example is that of John P. Colby, of Newburyport, Massachusetts, a professional dogfighter and fighting dog breeder who produced his first pit bull litter in 1889, and went on, with his wife, to form the Staffordshire Club of America in 1936.
Colby’s pit bulls were already justly notorious.
The Boston Globe on December 29, 1906 reported that police shot one of Colby’s pit bulls, who mauled a boy while a girl escaped.
On February 2, 1909 the Globe described how one of Colby’s dogs killed Colby’s two-year-old nephew, Bert Colby Leadbetter.
Yet the dog fancy credulously accepted Colby’s wholly fictitious claim that his “Staffordshires,” who were actually the culls from the fighting dog line he continued to fight to the end of his life, were a separate and safer ancient English breed.
In truth, and deeply contrary to pit bull mythology, there was no dog line in Britain called a “Staffordshire” before the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 banned “American pit bull terriers,” occasioning British pit bull fanciers to abruptly change their dogs’ papers.
This is easily verified just by searching the multi-century archives of British newspapers accessible at NewspaperArchive.com.
“Italian mastiffs” & “Italian bulldogs”
The “Italian mastiff” or “Italian bulldog,” later called the “Neapolitan mastiff” and now often called the Cane Corso, is a comparable example of dog-washing.
As the “Italian mastiff” or “Italian bulldog” became better known in the early 20th century, marathon runner Pietri Dorando was nicknamed “The Italian Bulldog,” lightweight champion pugilist Louis Bogash became “The Little Italian Bulldog,” pugilist Kid Francis became also “The Italian Bulldog,” and heavyweight contender Primo Carnera was “The Italian Mastiff.”
Silent film star Rudolph Valentino, often identified today as one of the first owners of Cane Corsos in the U.S., actually called the dogs in question Italian mastiffs.
But by Valentino’s death in 1926, violent behavior had again brought the breed into disrepute, just as had occurred when they were “Cuban bloodhounds.”
Five elephants & a U.S. fatality
The year 1926 opened with syndicated columnist Arthur Brisbane describing how “The Italian bulldog of Turin, not liking the appearance of five elephants in a circus parade, dashed at them and bit one of them on the soft, tender end of its trunk. Away went the five elephants, galloping and trumpeting in all directions. One of the frightened creatures was found jammed in the entrance of a stairway.”
The first human death attributed to an “Italian bulldog” came on February 21, 1926, when a one-armed man named James Griffin was reportedly “torn to pieces” in Yonkers, New York, by a pack led by the “Italian bulldog,” also including a collie and an unidentified stray.
Griffin may have been trying to make his way to the nearby Fleetwood police station, seeking help. Police shot the collie and the stray, but the “Italian bulldog” who was apparently the instigator escaped.
“A significant decline of the Cane Corso” before it had that name
Other attacks followed, accelerating the fall of “Italian mastiffs” and “Italian bulldogs” from favor.
By September 1929 the New Rochelle Humane Society, in one of the first examples of a humane society advertising in search of adopters, offered cast-off “Italian bulldogs” free to “kind homes”––much as many humane societies pass out pit bulls free of charge today, to try to clear their kennels.
“A significant decline of the Cane Corso breed was brought on by World Wars I and II,” alleged Jenna Stregowski in her February 7, 2022 blog history of the Cane Corso as fanciers imagine it, “but small numbers of the dogs still existed. During the 1970s, Cane Corso enthusiasts sparked a revival of the breed. The first Cane Corso dogs arrived in the U.S. in 1988. The breed was admitted to the American Kennel Club miscellaneous class in 2007, and received full recognition into the American Kennel Club working group in 2010.”
From World War II to Peter Ustinoff
Again, this is what Cane Corso enthusiasts generally believe, but grubby reality is considerably different.
Among the few dogs of the Cane Corso type verifiably imported from Italy since Rudolph Valentino acquired his was an “Italian bulldog” named Choo-Choo, brought home to Milan, Illinois in 1945 by U.S. soldier Arthur Harkless, “after an officer had ordered Choo-Choo destroyed because of his capers,” according to syndicated news accounts.
Choo Choo in March 1948 alerted Harkless’ wife to a fire in their trailer home. She saved their 10-month-old daughter, but Choo Choo, unable to follow mother and child out a window, with the fire blocking the doorway, died in the blaze.
The next dogs of the Cane Corso type verifiably brought from Italy were two “Neapolitan mastiffs” imported by actor Peter Ustinoff after the filming of Spartacus in 1960.
“No more than 40 in the country”
Ustinoff told media that he believed his “Neapolitan mastiffs” were the only pair in the United States.
Indeed, mentions of either “Italian mastiffs” or “Italian bulldogs” had already all but dropped out of print.
The next significant attention paid to “Neapolitan mastiffs” came when CBS news reporter Michael Sottile imported three in 1974, exhibiting one of them in June 1974 at an Associated Rare Breeds Inc. show in Moodus, Connecticut.
Sottile alleged that “There are no more than 40 in the country.”
Breeder used “Italian mastiff” & “Neapolitan mastiff” interchangeably
Charles Allbright profiled breeder Neal Halliburton of Commanche, Arkansas for the Commanche Chief on September 25, 1975.
Opened Allbright, “According to dog literature, the Neapolitan mastiff is one of the oldest breeds known to man, with ancestry traceable to 2200 B.C.”
Doubling Will Judy’s claim of antiquity, Allbright’s statement attributed to “dog literature” is remarkable not only because of the absence of any written documentation of a “Neapolitan mastiff” breed predating 1905, but also because few if any humans can trace their ancestry back that far with any precision, even using DNA markers.
Halliburton, recently retired from the U.S. Air Force, told Allbright that “There are said to be about 300 Italian mastiffs in the United States,” using “Italian mastiff” and “Neapolitan mastiff” interchangeably.
Agreed on 40
“My own estimate,” Halliburton added, echoing Sottile, “is that the number is closer to 40.”
According to Halliburton, Allbright reported, “The first litter of Neapolitan mastiffs born in this country was recorded in 1971. The first public showing of the dog was only last year,” an apparent reference to Sottile.
Halliburton meanwhile made clear that his dogs were fighting dogs of attributes generally credited to pit bulls: “There is not a lot of fanfare about it. When the time comes he will dispose of his adversary in minimal time. Either that, or in a losing cause the fight will be resolved in the dog’s own death.”
From “Neapolitan mastiff” to “Cane Corso”
Neapolitan mastiffs, by that name, have never really caught on, perhaps because “Neapolitan,” which means “from Naples,” reminds people too much of Neapolitan ice cream, pink stripe and all, not an image apt to attract buyers of big fierce dogs.
But Cane Corso is another matter. Whether or not the Cane Corso name was imported with some dogs from Italy in 1988, it emerged in U.S. print media in 1995, chiefly in classified ads placed by just two breeders, located in Santa Ana, California, and Wisconsin.
Within two years many dozens of U.S. breeders were selling Cane Corsos, a highly unlikely rate of multiplication if they were all breeding descendants of the first dogs bred and sold in the U.S. as Cane Corsos.
Bullmastiff + boxer = “Cane Corso”
This is, however, marginally possible if breeders incorporated the Neapolitan mastiff population into the “Cane Corso” lineage, along with any remaining dogs formerly called “Italian mastiffs” and “Italian bulldogs.”
Even more likely is that unscrupulous breeders realized they could cross a pit bull or bullmastiff with a boxer and get offspring looking enough like Cane Corsos to command the initially very high Cane Corso prices.
Eventually this dodge appears to have been recognized, probably because the advent of doggie DNA testing began to detect boxers in the woodpile.
This led to the emergence of the dog called “The Cane Corxer,” described on one breed fancy web site, as of 2017, as “a mix of two purebred breeds, the Cane Corso Italiano and the boxer, recognized by the American Canine Hybrid club and the Designer Breed Registry.”
Of historical note, Corsica has belonged to France, not Italy, since 1768, after rule by fourteen other nations since Roman times.
Napoleon Bonaparte, born in Corsica just one year later, remains the only Corsican son of a bitch to even temporarily conquer the world.
He reputedly also had the shortest penis ever collected by the British museum.
Mashal Pembry says
It is hard for me to take this article seriously with the interchange of Neapolitan Mastiff for Italian Mastiff/Cane Corso. They are totally different breeds. Equally pointless and ugly, but different.
Merritt and Beth Clifton says
Superficial cosmetic differences as a result of inbreeding do not accurate differentiate dog breeds.
Jamaka Petzak says
“…The 1818 Manual of British Field Sports asserted that, “The bulldog, devoted solely to the most barbarous and infamous purposes, the real blackguard of his species, has no claim upon utility, humanity, or common sense, and the total extinction of the breed is a desirable consummation.””
Sharing with gratitude.
Jerry Phillips says
I love this article. You amass a wealth of fascinating historical details about attack dogs, as used in war, slavery, and blood sports. I particularly liked your painstaking deconstruction of the keywords “mastiff,” “Molossus,””Italian bulldog,” “Cuban bloodhound,” “Pit bull dog” and so on.
I’m convinced by your argument that all these dogs are essentially variants on each other, and it’s pure myth to give them clear pedigrees stretching back to ancient times. In my research I have come to very similar conclusions. It makes more sense to speak of “types” rather than “breeds.”
The notion that there is a hard dividing line between Mastiffs and Bull and Terrier mixes is absurd. Dog fanciers and dog authorities have been responsible for promoting the myth that pure bloodlines running through history justify careful and precise taxonomy.
As you say, the Cane Corso resembles the ancient molosser dogs to the same extent we moderns resemble Julius Caesar. For me, the most important point about your article (which needs to be made clear in the pit bull debate) is that there has NEVER been a benign use for these sorts of dogs. They have always served as instruments of war and oppression.
It’s mind boggling listening to fools prate on about “innocent” “sweet fur babies” when they are talking about pit bull types. One look at the historical record will soon disabuse you of the preposterous notion that these human created monsters are dogs like any other. Thanks so much for the article. It’s very useful to me in my own work.
A cane corso appears in a recent commercial for a product no less mainstream than Tide clothes detergent. Ten years ago, that role would have been occupied by a golden retriever or other family breed.
Beth and Merritt Clifton says
Just watched it. Ridiculous and the Tide advertisement displayed the Cane Corso’s viciousness!
The “Cane Corso are an ancient wardogge” claims are clearly bunk for one non-dog-related reason – that region could not have supported a breeding population of giant dogs, particularly ones that attack people. The land that is now known as Italy has almost never been united or wealthy. The Roman period was the last time anyone there had the wherewithal to keep 100-pound dogs around eating their heads off and mauling random neighbors.
With regard to Cane Corsos being basically pit bulls – I came to that conclusion a few years ago, looking into the ancient dog claims and realizing just how hazy the details are about when the dogs were brought to the U.S. I was expecting the normal story of a non-U.S. breed imported and bred. This happens all the time and there’s usually quite a history of the imported dogs, and a lot of info on the original bloodlines dating from that first decade of major imports. Cane Corsos have virtually nothing. They didn’t exist in Italy, not in Roman times nor in modern times, as an established native breed. They’re pit doodles, just like every other bandog, exotic mastiff and bully pyramid scheme dog being peddled today.