The Michael Vicks of Yore

Sunday, September 2, 2007

When Michael Vick pleaded guilty last week to a federal dogfighting charge and admitted that he had endorsed the hanging of underperforming dogs at an operation called Bad Newz Kennels, the 27-year-old Atlanta Falcons phenom added his name to the annals of blood sport. The tradition, which finds its roots across the ocean in England, boasts a strange roster of kings, canines and others -- including, now, a quarterback.

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Henry IV, monarch. As king of England from 1399 to 1413, Henry reigned during an era when "baiting" -- goading dogs to attack other animals -- was a popular form of entertainment. Spectators relished the excitement of combat and often wagered on a bait's outcome. But when Henry learned that a mastiff had baited a lion, he was appalled. How could a lowly dog attack the king of beasts? Worried that the mastiff's glory might inspire his own human subjects to rise up against him, he ordered the unlucky mastiff strung up.

Jacco Macacco , fighter. One of the most famous dogfighters of the 1820s was actually a monkey. The English loved to see their dogs best foreign foes, so this African-born simian found himself in the pit with some of Britain's best. Pity the dogs. Jacco taught himself to jump on his opponent's back, reach around with his teeth and tear out the windpipe. After dispatching 14 dogs in a row, he faced off against Puss, a canine who boasted a similar record. Jacco lacerated Puss in his usual way, but Puss managed to tear off Jacco's jaw. Both died after the match.

William Windham, parliamentarian. The movement to ban blood sports gained momentum in the early 1800s, when activists allied themselves with factory owners, who viewed rowdy bull-baiting as a threat to worker discipline. But each time the bills made it to Parliament, the conservative rural aristocracy managed to kill them. Manning the battlements of the status quo was Windham, who believed that Britain owed its greatness to blood sports and warned that the anti-baiting campaigners were religious and political fanatics bent on "the destruction of the English character." Parliament reformed itself in 1832 to give greater representation to more progressive urban areas and banned blood sports three years later.

Jemmy Shaw, entrepreneur. A former prizefighter, Shaw operated one of London's most important blood-sport sites in the mid-19th century. Pubs such as his were gathering places for the Fancy, the community of dogfighting men from all classes. After Parliament banned blood sports in 1835, the Fancy's passion shifted to ratting contests, in which gamblers bet on the number of rats a dog could kill in a given time. (Ratting was technically illegal, but no one cared to prosecute for killing vermin.) Shaw's operation consumed an average of 26,000 rats per year and, he claimed, supported 20 vermin-supplying families.

Tom and Jerry, fictional rakes. Pierce Egan's 1821 novel "Life in London" was a sensation. It featured a callow youth from the country, Jerry Hawthorn, who moves to London to join his cousin, Corinthian Tom, and the Fancy. The two encounter a number of real-life people and animals, including Jacco Macacco, and become famous for the trail of destruction their shenanigans leave. Their names live on in the English language as a synonym for raucous troublemakers ("a real Tom and Jerry") and in the ever-popular cat-and-mouse cartoon characters.

Bess, fighter. Dogfighting continued underground long after Parliament banned blood sports -- and came to the rescue of battered British pride in the mid-1800s, when the United States was besting its former master in one arena after another. As the British newspaper the Field put it, "The [Americans have] out-sailed our yachts; Col. Colt has out-shot our pistols; . . . Morphy has beat our best chess-players, and Barnum our strongest humbugs; high-trotting horses from America are a proverb and a caution. . . . What is there left for us in which to claim a decided superiority over them?" The answer came in 1861, when an English dog named Bess sailed across the Atlantic to take on an American dog named Rosie. Bess won, and the Field crowed, "Our dog has won, and so we have some change for 'The America,' and the rest."

-- Edmund Russell, a historian at the University of Virginia, is at work on a book on dogs and blood sports in 18th- and 19th-century England.

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