Wednesday, September 17, 2014

From Bear Pit to Bodega

If you're a history or trivia buff, you'll love NY Songlines. The low-tech web site has a page for every street in Manhattan, that walks by every building and cites its history and trivia facts. I was reading up on our own street, First Avenue, one day when I stumbled upon something startling:

"First Avenue and 10th Street: McLaughlin's Bear Pit, where one could bet on fights between dogs and bears, was located at this intersection in the 1860s."

Whoa. This is six blocks south of our apartment. What's there now?

Oh, it's a bodega and a fancy italian coffeeshop, naturally.

Ever since I discovered this, I've used it as an example of Secret Peace trends. It's not just that this particular spot used to be something gruesome and is now benign. The bear pit could have simply moved somewhere else. No, it's that the very idea of a bear-fighting pit is so absurd to modern audiences that it's practically unbelievable. This wasn't an underground, secret pit. It was on the up-and-up. It's also remarkable that it's from the 1860s, only 150 years ago. Can you imagine what people thought was normal 300 years ago? 1,000 years ago?

But hold on to your hats. Dogs fighting bears is not even the most abhorrent aspect of this factoid. What about dogs fighting rats? People fighting rats? Read this excerpt from Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, by Luc Sante, to really get a good taste of the past.

"Rat-baiting was the premier betting sport of the nineteenth century. Its prestige can be gauged in economic terms, circa 1875: admission to a then illegal prizefight between humans cost fifty cents, to dogfights and cockfights $2, while a fight pitting a dog against rats ran anywhere from $1.50 if the dog faced five rats or fewer, up to $5, in proportion to the number of rats. In the eighteenth century the biggest draw had been bearbaiting, but the sport gradually dissipated as the number of available bears decreased, although matches continued to be held up to the Civil War, notably in McLaughlin's bear pit at First Avenue and Tenth Street. For a while, dog-vs.-raccoon contests were popular, but rats were so readily available that they came to dominate the scene; boys were paid to catch them, at a rate of five to twelve cents a head. The dogs were always fox terriers, and they were trained for six months before being sent out at a year and a half, retaining the status of novice until they reached two years of age. The pits, at Kit Burns's and elsewhere, were unscreened boxes, with zinc-lined wooden walls eight feet long and four and a half feet high. Matches typically drew no fewer than a hundred betting spectators, from all walks of life, with purses starting at $125. A good rat dog could kill a hundred rats in half an hour to forty-five minutes, although the modern record was set by Jack Underhill, a terrier belonging to one Billy Fagan, who slew his hundred in eleven and a half minutes at Secaucus, N.J., in 1885. Late in the century it briefly became popular to pit rats against men wearing heavy boots. The ASPCA finally drove the game out of the city in the early 1890s."

Whenever anyone waxes nostalgic for humanity's make-believe halcyon past, I bring up the bear-fighting pit.