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This Sol Eytinge, Jr. image of animal welfare activist Henry Bergh appeared in the Sept. 21, 1872, issue of Harper’s Weekly. Bergh, in top hat, right, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is seen here calling attention to the “scandalous overcrowding” of horse-drawn streetcars in New York City. 

Back more than a century ago Bloomington’s west side, with its coal mine, gas works and railroad shops, could be a tough place to live and work. And it was tough on animals too, many of whom toiled hours upon end hauling heavy loads, often overworked, underfed and — in the cruelest of cases —physically battered.

“There was quite a howl raised yesterday by people who had occasion to go past the (McLean County Coal Co.) coal mine,” reported The Pantagraph of July 15, 1899. “One of the horses, used in drawing the cars of coal away from the chutes, had a sore foot. The sore was about the size of a saucer, and was the great attraction for a big army of flies. Railroad men who are used to seeing mangled arms and legs said that the sight was sickening to them."

The Pantagraph, as was its practice at the time, called upon the local humane society to investigate the incident and, if warranted, see to the prosecution in county court of those responsible. During the age before automobiles, work horses, rather than domesticated household pets, demanded the most attention from animal welfare advocates.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals dates to 1866 and the work of Henry Bergh, a wealthy philanthropist known as “The Great Meddler” for his willingness to protect the “mute servants of mankind” (see accompanying image). Bergh’s work attracted the interest of like-minded folks across the nation, with the Illinois Humane Society organizing in 1869.

Seven years later The Daily Leader, a long-defunct Bloomington newspaper, called for the establishment of a humane society-type organization on the local level. “We have no sympathy with that mawkish sentimentally that denounces the shedding of the blood of a chicken until an opiate has been administered,” declared The Leader, “but we believe that the man who would needlessly torture a brute shows his own kinship to the brute creation, and richly deserves to be punished for his inhumanity.”

It’s not known when the first animal welfare group organized locally, though by the early 1880s there was one active enough to investigate reports of abuse. “Yesterday the attention of a reporter was called to the old horse driven by Mr. Joel Holly, and we hand the matter over to the humane society,” read a brief notice in the July 26, 1883 Pantagraph. “The animal is as poor as Job’s turkey, and besides it has a sore on its shoulder as big as a half bushel.”

After a period of inactivity, a major reorganization of the Bloomington humane society occurred in the summer of 1889. The revitalized group dedicated itself to halting, among other practices, “the beating of animals, dog fights, overloading horse cars, overloading teams … cruelties on railroad stock trains, bleeding calves, plucking live fowls, the clipping of horses, (and) driving galled and disabled animals.”

Although combating animal cruelty occupied the bulk of the local society’s efforts, members also concerned themselves with the more sinister specter of child abuse, since it too involved taking advantage of those incapable of protecting themselves. On April 26, 1894, for example, Jerry Flanady and his wife were each fined $10 in McLean County court on charges of cruelty after tying their son to a bedpost, the humane society having alerted law enforcement to the case.

Local animal welfare advocates concerned themselves with creatures great and small. In July 1898, in yet another case undertaken by the local society, a boy named Hougham faced a fine of $3 for cruelty to a sparrow. As part of his release the court instructed this “little fellow” to inform any boy perpetrating similar acts on sparrows that such cruelty ran counter to “the principles of humanity and the bylaws of the humane society.”

W.H. Kerrick served as the investigating agent and prosecuting attorney for the local society for much of the 1890s and into the first decade of the 20th century (there was yet another reorganization in 1907). In June 1900 Kerrick reported that the society had handled an average of 150 complaints annually over the past seven years. “Generally my speaking to the persons complained of is all that is necessary,” he added. “We usually have about a dozen contested cases a year and never but once, as I remember, did we come out second best. Our society has done much good and we expect to keep right on.”

Back in the spring of 1894 the Illinois Humane Society embarked on a project to place a “novel and striking card” in livery stables, streetcar barns and other similar businesses across the state. Taking the form of a poem, the notice reminded handlers of their duty to properly care for their equine brothers and sisters. The idea came from Luther Laflin Mills, a prominent Chicago attorney and director of the state society, who found such a notice in a London stable. The poem ends with this observation:

He (the horse) can’t complain, but God’s all seeing eye

Beholds thy cruelty and hears his cry.

He was designed thy servant, not thy drudge;

Remember! His creator is thy judge.

Bill Kemp is the librarian at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington. He can be reached at BKemp@mchistory.org.

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