Archive for the ‘Animal Attractions’ Category


Popular in England during the 17th and 18th centuries, illegal bear-baiting took place occasionally in New York City in the mid-1800s, most notably at James McLaughlin’s dog pit at 155 First Avenue (corner of East 10th Street). In bear-baiting, the bear would be chained by the neck or leg to a stake and harassed by dogs.

The following story is not for the squeamish — it was not an easy story for me to write, but I think it’s an important story to tell as it says a lot about society in New York City just before and during the Civil War. Plus, there seems to be a lot of talk about Russian bears in the political news these days, so it’s a timely tale to tell.

Hell in New York City

Three hundred beings human only in shape were crowded together in a close, noise some cellar only about 20 feet square, and a great part of that space was taken up by the pit Saturday night. The animals were tortured merely for the amusement of the spectators. The programme advertised three days beforehand: The sports of the evening would commence with bear baiting, badger and coon drawing, wolf hunting and rat killing.

The bear was baited by five dogs until he caught them in his paws and crunched them half to death, amid the yells and cheers of the assembled fancy. More than a dozen dogs baited the badger. There was also a match between two dogs who fought with such fury that in five minutes their passing could be heard above the shouts of their masters: and when they were stopped for a moment in one place, they marked it with a pool of blood.

The dogs fought for 20 minutes until they were helpless. The men kept cheering them on even though they were exhausted. Then a bag of rats was dropped into the pit, and men and dogs jumped in kicking. When all the rats were killed, a dog and raccoon were pitted against each other. This went on until early on Monday morning by a raffle for dogs still bleeding from the fights.– New York Tribune, January 29, 1855, “Hell in New York”


A scene at Kit Burn’s Sportsmen’s Hall at 273 Water Street, one of several “sporting” establishments that featured rat-baiting in New York City in the 1800s.

The Dog Pits of New York City

In the 1850s and 1860s a brutal pastime called rat-baiting reached new heights in popularity in New York City. Basically, rat-baiting involved pitting a dog against a rat until they fought to the death. When the rats did not provide enough excitement for the mostly young sporting men and male tourists who came to these events, other animals including raccoons, badgers, pigs, and sometimes a bear would take the place of the rats.

Oftentimes, champion dogs were pitted against other dogs. And later in the century it became popular to pit rats against men wearing heavy boots.

Rat-baiting events were not legal, but they were openly patronized and often advertised in publications like The New York Clipper, a weekly entertainment newspaper published in New York City from 1853 to 1924.


A typical scene at a rat-baiting event.

The dogs at these “sporting” events were, for the most part, terrier breeds who were trained for about six months and sent into the pit when they were about a year old. The rats were provided for free — neighborhood boys were paid to catch them, at a rate of 5 to 12 cents each.

The dog pits, at places like McLaughlin’s on First Avenue, Kit Burns’s Sportsmen’s Hall at 273 Water Street, and Jacob Roome’s pit at 140 Church Street, were basically open wooden boxes with walls about 8 feet long and about 4 feet high.

James McLaughlin and His Champion Rat-Baiting Dogs

James McLaughlin was one of the most famous breeders of champion rat-baiting dogs. From about 1854 to 1859, he held “canine exhibitions” at his dog pit at 155 First Avenue. Oftentimes his own terriers, including Whiskey and Princey, participated in the events.

These events were usually advertised in The New York Clipper, such as this announcement that appeared in April 1859:

 April 25, 1859 – A great canine exhibition on Easter Monday…Muzzles and silver collars, and prize for the dog who kills his five rats in the shortest amount of time. Princey, the champion at 24 pounds, open to fight any dog in the world for $100 or $200.  Crib, 44 pounds, Billy, 18 pounds, Mr. O’Brien’s dog, Blinker, 15 pounds, Nelson and Fan of Staten Island, Dick of Newark, Sailor of Brooklyn, the slut Lady, the slut Rosy of Brooklyn, the Yorkville slut. Weighing to commence at 7 p.m., the show started at 8 p.m. Tickets 25 cents. Collars and rats free of charge.

Another announcement read:

A Grand Ratting Exhibition will be given at James McLaughlin’s Sportsman’s Retreat, 155 First Avenue, on Friday Evening, May 26, 1854. There is 4 handsome collars to be run for; 200 Rats to be killed, this is a real chance for gentlemen wishing to try their Dogs, as Collars and Rats will be given free. On that night there will be 10 Rats for large Dogs, and 8 Rats for small dogs; the Dogs making the best time to receive the Collars. The Badger Sport will be beated for a handsome Collar; the Bear and Coon will be on hand. Doors open at eight o’clock.

Sometime in January 1855, a Russian bear named Dennis was reportedly baited at McLaughlin’s. I don’t know the fate of the bear or the dogs that attacked it. But I do know that shortly thereafter, James McLaughlin and 30 spectators were arrested by the police of the 17th Ward. McLaughlin was charged with keeping a disorderly place and was held on $300 bail.

I don’t know if it was this arrest that changed his career path, but I do know that in the 1860s McLaughlin renamed his place Union Hall, which featured sparring events with men only. In later years, McLaughlin continued breeding terriers, but for the dog show circuit at Madison Square Garden as opposed to the rat-baiting circuit.

A Brief History of First Avenue

When Petrus Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Director-General of New Netherland, surrendered to the British in 1664, the King offered him a 62-acre tract of land on the lower east side of New York. Stuyvesant established his country seat on his Bouwerie (or Bouwerij, the Dutch word for farm), which covered what we call today the East Village and Stuyvesant Town (from about 6th Street to 23rd Street, between Fourth Avenue and Avenue C). He named his home Petersfield.

Stuyvesant built his home on a high slope facing the East River, right about where today’s First Avenue intersects with 15th and 16th streets. He lived in the home until his death in 1672.


Peter Stuyvesant’s country seat near present-day First Avenue and 15th Street. 

More than 100 years after Stuyvesant’s death, First Avenue was one of the 12 north-south avenues proposed as part of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 for Manhattan. The southern portions of the Avenue, where Stuyvesant’s old home was located, were cut and laid out shortly after the plan was adopted.

In 1831, an article in the New York Mirror reported that the Stuyvesant house was still standing, albeit, “it appeared to be tottering on its ancient base” as all the earth around it was being removed to use as landfill in other areas. According to the article, the two-story house with gambled roof was constructed of brick painted yellow. Part of the building on the northeast corner had fallen down, and its demise was imminent.

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In this engraving from the December 31, 1831 issue of the New York Mirror, the old Peter Stuyvesant house near First Avenue and 15th Street does appear to be tottering. NYPL digital collections

For almost three centuries, the Stuyvesant farm remained in the family, although little by little, parcels were sold off for development.

In 1820, Peter Gerard Stuyvesant sold 60 lots adjoining First, Second, and Third avenues from 10th through 13th streets. Based on this account in The Evening Post (November 18, 1820), the five-story with basement tenement at 155 First Avenue was probably constructed around this time.

155-157 First Avenue

In the early 1900s, First Avenue from about 1st to 14th streets was filled with peddlers and their pushcarts. Mayor Fiorello Henry LaGuardia, elected to office in 1934, removed the pushcarts from city streets and abolished the city’s filthy, crowded open-air markets.

In place of the open-air markets and pushcarts, LaGuardia used federal Works Progress Administration funds to build several indoor markets that had running water and loading platforms.  In 1937, architects Albert W. Lewis and John D. Churchill were commissioned by the Department of Markets to design several of these markets, including the First Avenue Retail Market.


Mayor LaGuardia addresses the crowd at the grand opening of the First Avenue Retail Market in 1938. The market closed in 1965. Museum of the City of New York Collections

Constructed in 1938, the indoor market occupied an L-shaped building that spanned 155-157 First Avenue and 230-240 East 10th Street.  Where once terrier dogs fought rats and bears, there was now a bustling neighborhood market where merchants sold cheese (the rats would have loved that), vegetables, and other grocery products.

When the market closed in 1965,  the city’s Sanitation Department took over the 30,000 square foot building for use as a storage warehouse for paperwork and small equipment. The Sanitation Department was the sole occupant of the building until 1987, which is when Crystal Field and her husband, George Bartenieff, moved in with their small theater group, the Theater for the New City.


Inside the First Avenue Retail Market in 1938. 

Founded in 1970, the Theater for the New City is, according to The New York Times, “Off Off Broadway’s answer to the mom and pop grocery.” According to the theater’s website, each year TNC produces about 35 new American plays by emerging and established writers and theater companies that have no permanent home.


The old First Avenue Retail Market as it looks today. Google Streets

Part 3 of a 3-part story about Isaac Van Amburgh, the Richmond Hill estate in Greenwich Village, and New York’s Zoological Institute in the Bowery


In 1833, Isaac Van Amburgh, aka the Lion King, made his New York animal training debut by stepping into a cage occupied by a lion, a tiger, a leopard, and a panther at the Richmond Hill Theatre in Greenwich Village. Following this appearance, Van Amburgh took his wild animals to the Bowery Theatre at #46 Bowery, which was then under the management of Thomas S. Hamblin. Here, Van Amburgh performed in a play titled The Lion Lord (aka Forrest Monarch), in which he starred with two leopards, a pack of hyenas, and two Bengal tigers.

During the play, Van Amburgh reportedly rode a horse up a high incline, and when he reached the top, one of the Bengal tigers sprung out upon him. Man and beast struggled down the ramp to the footlights in a desperate combat.


The Bowery Theatre — originally called the New York Theatre — was constructed in 1826.

A Brief History of the Bowery Theatre

In the mid-1820s, under the leadership of Henry Astor, wealthy families that had settled in the new ward made fashionable by the opening of Lafayette Street formed the New York Association in efforts to bring fashionable high-class European drama to the new neighborhood.

They bought the land where Henry Astor’s Bull’s Head Tavern once stood, occupying the area between the Bowery, Elizabeth, Walker (present-day Canal), and Bayard streets. Then they hired architect Ithiel Town to design their new venue, which opened on October 22, 1826, as the New York Theatre.

The New York Theatre — later the Bowery Theatre — was built on land once occupied by the Bull’s Head Tavern between Bayard and Pump (now Canal) streets. The tavern opened around 1750 and was famous for serving as temporary headquarters for George Washington in November 1783.  In 1813, the tavern relocated uptown to Third Avenue and East 24th Street, where it survived into the 1830s under the ownership of local butcher Henry Astor, patriarch of the notable Astor family. 

The New York Theatre was destroyed by fire in 1828, but it was rebuilt behind the same facade and reopened under the name Bowery Theatre, shown here. This structure was damaged by a fire in September 1836, and again in 1838, and was replaced by a more opulent structure that opened in May 1839.

Under the management of Thomas Hamblin, who took over the theater in August 1830, large wild-animal acts, blackface minstrel acts, and spectacular productions with advanced fire and water effects featured prominently at the Bowery Theatre (the theater earned the nickname “The Slaughterhouse” during this period).


The Bowery Theatre — later called the Thalia Theatre — post 1845. 

Over the period of 100 years, the Bowery Theatre was damaged or destroyed by fire numerous times. Following a devastating fire in April 1845, a 4,000-seat theater was constructed by J. M. Trimble, pictured above. This structure had four more fires in 17 years, with the final fire coming on June 5, 1929.

By that time, the theater was under Chinese management and was called Fay’s Bowery Theatre. Today #46-48 Bowery is a squat, nondescript building occupied by a popular dim sum restaurant and several apartments in the heart of Chinatown.


On April 25, 1845, the Bowery Theatre was destroyed in a large fire. Museum of the City of New York Collections

The Zoological Institute at 37 Bowery

Following his stint at the Bowery Theatre, Isaac Van Amburgh moved across the street to #37-39 Bowery, which was then home to a large menagerie called the Zoological Institute. From 1833 to 1838, he performed every winter at the Zoological Institute, and in warmer months, he took his own travelling menagerie on the road.

Constructed in 1833 by a group of New York businessmen known as the Zoological Institute or the Flatfoots, the Zoological Institute was a grand structure covering four city blocks. For 50 cents, visitors could examine bears, tigers, monkeys, hyenas, and other animals, all kept in individual cells along a great hall.


From the New York Evening Post, 1836

The layout of the Zoological Institute was remarkable, even by today’s standards. Each exhibit — like the African Glen exhibit featuring a rhinoceros, elephants, and tigers — had beautiful displays and panoramas depicting the animal’s natural habitat. The floors were constructed at a slight incline leading to a drainage system that ran the length of the hall, which helped keep cages clean and eliminate odor.

Cages were numbered and corresponded to a guidebook for visitors, and the main gallery was illuminated by several skylights in the ceiling (at night, three gas-lit chandeliers illuminated the space). Above the animal floor was an orchestra promenade with a theater-like seating for special events, like lion taming, circus performances, and equestrian shows.

In 1835 the building was modified and renamed the Bowery Amphitheater, where P.T. Barnum landed a job in 1841 as an ad writer, earning $4 a week. The owners changed the name to the Amphitheatre of the Republic in 1842, and in 1844, under the management of John Tryon, it became the New Knickerbocker Theatre.

Over the next 50 years, the structure served as a circus, German-language theater, roller rink, and even an armory for the First and Third Regiment Cavalry. Today the site is occupied by Confucius Plaza, a large apartment complex constructed in 1975.

The Final Days of Van Amburgh and His Menagerie

By the mid-1840s, Isaac Van Amburgh was operating the largest traveling menagerie in England. Twenty years later, he had one of the largest traveling shows in America.

It all came to an end on November 29, 1865, when, at age 54, the brave lion tamer suffered a fatal heart attack at Miller’s Hotel in Philadelphia. Van Amburgh was buried at St. George’s Cemetery in the City of Newburgh, New York, but his name lived on for many more years.


On March 2, 1868, many of Van Amburgh’s animals were killed in a fire at the Barnum and Van Amburgh Museum and Menagerie. New York Public Library Digital Collections

In 1866, a year after his death, Van Amburgh’s manager, Hyatt Frost, entered into a partnership with P.T. Barnum, who had just lost his American Museum on Broadway to a large fire. The new enterprise at 539-541 Broadway became known as the Barnum and Van Amburgh Museum and Menagerie. Tragically, almost all of the animals and other circus artifacts formerly owned by Van Amburgh were destroyed in a spectacular fire on March 2, 1868.

Van Amburgh’s name continued to be associated with other circuses until about 1922.



Van Amburgh is the man, who goes to all the shows
He goes into the lion’s cage, and tells you all he knows;
He sticks his head in the lion’s mouth, and keeps it there a-while,
And when he pulls it out again, he greets you with a smile.–
“The Menagerie,” song by Dr. W.J. Wetmore, 1865


Isaac Van Amburgh, aka the Lion King, with his lions, tigers, and lamb at the London Theatre. Oil painting on canvas by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1839. 

Part 1 of a 3-part story about Isaac Van Amburgh, the Richmond Hill estate in Greenwich Village, and New York’s Zoological Institute in the Bowery

After years of pressure from its many critics, SeaWorld recently announced that it was no longer breeding killer whales in captivity. The announcement follows on the heels of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ decision to retire all of its performing elephants by May 2016. Although news reports suggest these announcements reflect a shift in society’s attitude toward the treatment of wild animals, one could argue that the criticism has existed for at least 200 years, going back to 1833, when a 22-year-old lion tamer from Fishkill, New York, introduced his wild animal act to New York City audiences in Greenwich Village and the Bowery.

Much has been written about the lion tamer Isaac A. Van Amburgh, and I’d prefer to focus on the New York City ties to this story, but a quick introduction to the man who came to be known as the Lion King is warranted to paint the full picture.

In 1830, at the age of 19, Isaac Van Amburgh was hired as a cage cleaner for June, Titus, Angevine & Co., a large menagerie in North Salem, New York (later to become part of the New York Zoological Institute, founded in Somerstown Plains, New York in 1835 at the Elephant Hotel). Legend has it that Isaac was fascinated by the Biblical tale of Daniel in the lion’s den, and had always dreamed of being a lion tamer. He was a natural for the job.

That year, Isaac spent the warm months cleaning animal cages and the winter months training wild animals in various barns throughout upper Westchester and lower Putnam counties. By 1831, he was ready to take his traveling Van Amburgh Menagerie on the road. For the next forty years, Van Amburgh’s name would be synonymous with menageries, the circus, and daring wild animal acts.


Isaac Van Amburgh’s menagerie bandwagon was billed as the largest ever seen in America. It was more than 20 feet long and 17 feet tall, and its canopy could be lowered for passing under low bridges. The horse-drawn bandwagon was followed in grand procession by about 30 carriages, cages, and performer caravans. In this illustration, Van Amburgh is reportedly leading his menagerie past the Astor House hotel on Broadway at Vesey Street in 1846.

The Lion King Takes His Act to Greenwich Village

In the fall of 1833, Isaac Van Amburgh announced his plans to step into a cage occupied by a lion, a tiger, a leopard, and a panther at the Richmond Hill Theatre, located at the southeast corner of Varick and Charlton streets in Greenwich Village. Strong appeals were made for him to cancel this performance, but he would not back down. He reportedly even offered to drive down Broadway and other main streets in a chariot drawn by lions and tigers, but the authorities interfered.

VanAmburghBio_HatchingCatO.J. Ferguson wrote of the performance in Greenwich Village in his biographical sketch of Van Amburgh published in 1862:

The daring pioneer approached the door of the den with a firm step and unaverted eye. A murmur of alarm and horror involuntarily escaped the audience…The effect of his power was instantaneous. The Lion halted and stood transfixed. The Tiger crouched. The Panther with a suppressed growl of rage sprang back, while the Leopard receded gradually from its master. The spectators were overwhelmed with wonder…. Then came the most effective tableaux of all. Van Amburgh with his strong will bade them come to him while he reclined in the back of the cage – the proud King of animal creation.” 

Dressed like a Roman gladiator in toga and sandals, Van Amburgh emphasized his domination of the animals by beating them into compliance with a crowbar. Oftentimes he’d thrust his arm into their mouths, daring them to attack. It’s no wonder that he had his share of critics, even in an era when four-legged creatures were called “dumb animals” and more often than not treated inhumanely.

When he came under attack for spreading cruelty and moral devastation, Van Amburgh responded to his critics by quoting the Bible: “Didn’t God say in Genesis 1:26 that men should have dominion over every animal on the earth?” To further make his case, Van Amburgh would act out scenes from the Bible, forcing a lion to lie down with a lamb or bringing a child from the audience to join them in the ring.

Does anyone else secretly wish these poor creatures would have attacked back?

The Richmond Hill Theatre of Greenwich Village

I recently took a walk along Charlton, Vandam, King, Macdougal, and Varick streets in Greenwich Village, to visit the former site of the old Richmond Hill Theatre, where the Lion King once performed. I first closed my eyes briefly and tried to imagine the scene 400 years ago, when the area was a favorite hunting ground for the Lenape, who came there to fish in the creeks and hunt deer, flying squirrels, and other wildlife.

That proving a challenge, what with traffic police and taxis and buses and bicyclists, I next tried to go back 250 years, when the area comprised the 26-acre Richmond Hill estate, one of the finest and most famous in colonial New York. The Richmond Hill mansion was built in 1767 by Abraham Mortier on grounds the British army’s paymaster general leased from the Trinity Church (99-year lease). The home of timber construction stood on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, just west of today’s intersection of Charlton and Varick streets. (At that time, before the land was filled in, the property was very close to the Hudson River shore.)
richmond hill4_HatchingCat.jpg

In his book “A Tour Around New York and My Summer Acre” (1892), John Flavel Mines writes of the old Richmond Hill estate:

It was a beautiful spot then. In front there was nothing to obstruct the view of the Hudson. To the right fertile meadows stretched up towards the little hamlet of Greenwich Village, and on the left the view of the little city in the distance was half hidden by clumps of trees and rising hills. There was a broad entrance to the house, under a porch of imposing height, supported by high columns, with balconies fronting the rooms of the second story. The premises were entered by a spacious gateway, flanked by ornamental columns, at what is now the termination of Macdougal Street. Within the gate and to the north was a beautiful sheet of water, known to men who are still living and who skated on its frozen surface when they were urchins of tender years, as Burr’s Pond.

richmond hill2_HatchingCat.jpg

In 1776, George Washington seized Richmond Hill and used it as his Revolutionary War headquarters (he was living here when the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed on July 4). Following the war, the estate was home to John and Abigail Adams (1789-1790). Aaron Burr acquired the mansion and church lease on the land in 1794, and he lived here until his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804.

During her brief stay there, Abigail Adams wrote about Richmond Hill in a letter to a friend:

On one side we see a view of the city and of Long Island. The river [is] in front, [New] Jersey and the adjacent country on the other side. You turn a little from the road and enter a gate. A winding road with trees in clumps leads to the house, and all around the house it looks wild and rural as uncultivated nature. . . . You enter under a piazza into a hall and turning to the right hand ascend a staircase which lands you in another [hall] of equal dimensions of which I make a drawing room. It has a glass door which opens into a gallery the whole front of the house which is exceedingly pleasant. . . .There is upon the back of the house a garden of much greater extent than our [Massachusetts] garden, but it is wholly for a walk and flowers. It has a hawthorne hedge and rows of trees with a broad gravel walk.

Traveling back in my mind to the 1700s also proved difficult, as you can imagine, so as I tried to take photos in between bouts of traffic, I decided to ponder on the demise of Richmond Hill and the events that led to present-day Charlton and Varick streets. Stay tuned for Part II, in which I’ll share what I’ve discovered about the final years of the old Richmond Hill mansion/theater where the Lion King once dominated a lion, tiger, leopard, and panther. And then in Part III, I’ll explore the old theater and Zoological Institute on the Bowery, where Van Amburgh developed his career as a formidable lion tamer and circus man.