Saturday, November 17, 2012

Horror Dog of the Nineteenth Century

Pit bulls weren't always the bad guys. A century ago they were thought of as "nanny" dogs, a gentle and reliable breed that you could safely leave your kids with. (Based on my own personal experience with pit bulls, that seems much closer to their true nature than today's stereotype. Our dog, Ben, was probably the most amiable and the most even-tempered dog we have ever owned. Rob always said of him that "he didn't have a bad bone in his body.")

In the nineteenth century, the breed that everyone was scared of was the bloodhound. Think Hound of the Baskervilles.
A Depiction of the Hound of the Baskervilles
Bloodhounds had a fairly grisly history in nineteenth century America. In 1840 the government under the Van Buren administration purchased 33 Cuban Bloodhounds to help evict the Seminole Indians from their tribal lands in Florida. The purchase caused a huge public outcry, as these dogs had been bred and trained for ferocity ever since the Conquistadors had used them to terrorize the native population in the 16th century. I'd like to think the protests were on behalf of the Seminoles, but I get the impression that most of the worries were that the dogs would used against other victims.
Hunting Indians in Florida with Bloodhounds
They were the breed most often used by runaway slave hunters. Former slave, Frederick Douglass described how slaves were often forced to beat the dogs in order to incite their hatred of black people. Harriet Beecher Stowe's best-selling novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, heightened the public fear of bloodhounds and enhanced their reputation as blood-thirsty man-killers.
Poster Advertising a Theater Production of Uncle Tom's Cabin
Certainly the slave hunters who owned and trained the dogs wanted their dogs to be feared, and doubtless trained them to be as vicious as possible.
Richard Ansdell's Painting "The Hunted Slaves"
Richard Ansdell's famous painting, first exhibited in London in 1861 further enhanced the bloodhound's already scary reputation.

During the Civil War, bloodhounds were used by both the Union and the Confederates to track down deserters and escapees. The commandant at Andersonville prison camp was sentenced to death because he (among other things) "feloniously, and of his malice aforethought, did cause, incite, and urge certain ferocious and bloodthirsty  animals, called bloodhounds, to pursue, attack, wound, and tear in pieces a soldier..."
Bloodhounds Catching an Andersonville P.O.W.
Just as dog attacks today are often wrongly attributed to pit bulls, 19th century dog attacks were often attributed to bloodhounds even though another breed was responsible or the breed of dog was unknown.

The bloodhound's ferocious reputation caused it to become highly popular among people who wanted a vicious dog. Like today's pit bulls, the dogs were often abused by brutal and uncaring owners and made to be scapegoats for the owners' sins.'s_Cabin#Eliza.27s_family_hunted.2C_Tom.27s_life_with_St._Clare