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Release Date: September 11, 2007


Edmund Russell
Associate Professor of Science, Technology and Sociery

A Tale of Two Smithfields

The public outcry over the Michael Vick dogfighting case would have shocked Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth, who ruled England 1558-1603, loved animal combat, hosted contests for visiting dignitaries, and would have been astonished to see such contests suppressed.  Because the United States inherited most of its dog breeds - and attitudes toward them - from England, British history sheds considerable light on the controversy surrounding Vick's kennel in Smithfield, Virginia.

Queen Elizabeth I resembled her subjects in her passion for blood sports.  The most popular was bull baiting, or siccing dogs on bulls.  One motive for baiting was food processing.  Bulls performed long service in the fields before finding their way onto platters as roast beef, which made their flesh tough and stringy.  The law required that butchers bait bulls before slaughter to make the flesh tender. The biggest cattle market in London was Smithfield, so butchers commonly baited bulls there.

Another motive for baiting was entertainment.  A feast or fair was incomplete without a bait.  The English thronged to matches because of the thrill of combat, and because they could gamble on the outcome.  A dog won if it pinned the bull by grabbing a tender part of the head (such as nose or lips) and held on until the pain caused the bull to lower its head to the ground and stop moving.  A bull won if it avoided such a fate.

In Elizabeth I's day, all-purpose dogs called mastiffs handled baiting duties, but over time breeders created specialized dogs known as bulldogs.  The English admired the breed so much they adopted it as a national symbol.  Successful bulldogs showed courage, tenacity, and willingness to fight to the death.  Political leaders believed that baits taught soldiers to do the same in battle.

Baiting prospered because it suited the rural, agrarian economy of the day.  Bulls were plentiful and relatively cheap.  The agricultural calendar balanced seasons of intense work against slack periods with free days for feasts and baits. Few people were shocked by gore because rich and poor alike made their living by raising animals for slaughter.  Seeing dogs die was routine, for breeders kept only the best pups in a litter and killed the rest.

Industrialization and urbanization in the late 18th and early 19th centuries shifted the focus of blood sports from baiting (in which dogs attacked other species) to fighting (in which dogs attacked each other).  Rural laborers flocked to cities to become factory hands.  They retained their love for blood sports but lacked the space and free days for baits of large animals.  Dogfights, on the other hand, could be held indoors, artificial light allowed evening matches, and workers could still go to work the next day.  Businesses called pits arose to meet the demand.

The rules of gambling on fights led to the creation of a new breed.  In baiting, dogs won if they pinned their opponents, which placed a premium on grasping and holding.  In fighting, dogs won if they disabled their opponents, which placed a premium on biting and tearing repeatedly.  Breeders crossed bulldogs with terriers to increase the ferocity of attack, and the cross became known as the bull terrier.  This breed was the ancestor of the pit bulls raised and trained on Vick's farm.

At the same time, industrialization and urbanization in Britain changed attitudes toward dogs.  Urbanites had little experience with raising farm animals for slaughter, while more and more families kept pets. Pet dogs had individual names, lived in the house, and never arrived for dinner on a platter.

These (and other) changes spawned the humane movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Some activists argued for animal protection for the sake of human beings (cruelty to animals led to cruelty to other people).  Others applied religious ideas (God put animals on earth for human use, not abuse).  Yet others pointed to commonalities between people and animals (both could feel pain).  One of the early targets of the movement was the London cattle market at Smithfield, where activists encouraged butchers to stop baiting bulls and to slaughter animals as painlessly as possible.

The British Parliament began considering bills to ban blood sports in 1800, but early efforts failed because power rested with the rural aristocracy.  Then, in 1832, a reform act gave urban areas and the middle classes more representation in Parliament.  This political reformation led to the easy passage of a law in 1835 that outlawed blood sports.

The 1835 act drove dogfighting underground, where it remained popular with the working class and some members of the aristocracy.  One of the hotbeds was the mining district of Staffordshire, and now the English version of the pit bull is called the Staffordshire bull terrier.  Lower class criminals (such as Bill Sykes in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist) owned fighting dogs, as did fashion-conscious men of greater means who coveted the flashy, aggressive aura that possession conferred.

The United States followed England's lead.  It industrialized and urbanized, saw dogfights grow in popularity, fostered a humane movement, passed laws against blood sports, and drove dogfights underground.  Illegal dogfights took place nationwide, including in the rural South.  Gambling was an integral part of fighting.

"Dog men," as participants in this world called themselves, bred, trained and fought their dogs in scheduled matches.  Large sums of money often rode on the outcome.  For these men, fighting dogs deserved praise because of their courage, tenacity and self-sacrifice.  They saw fights as natural because the dogs wanted to fight.  More recently, fighting dogs have gained caché in urban America, including among criminals and those who mimic their fashions.  In contrast to the scheduled fights characteristic of rural areas, urban dogfights often occur spontaneously when two men with dogs encounter each other on the street.  Michael Vick and his friends apparently joined the established, more rural world of "dog men" when they set up Bad Newz Kennels in Smithfield, Virginia.

There is a direct line from bull baiting at the Smithfield market in London in the early 19th century to dogfighting in Smithfield, Virginia, in the early 21st.  The English created bulldogs good for baits, they crossed bulldogs with terriers to breed dogs suited for fights, and they saw English bull terriers develop into American pit bulls.  The ideas of the English humane movement crossed the Atlantic along with those dogs, and they found a receptive audience because the United States underwent similar economic and social changes.  The humane movement pointed to the market at London's Smithfield as an example of the behaviors it found reprehensible, and the same is happening today with Vick's kennel in Smithfield, Virginia.

We Americans pride ourselves on our war of independence from England.  The indictment of Michael Vick reminds us that independence hardly meant separation.  Our fighting dogs and ideas about them - both pro and con - arose on the other side of the Atlantic, where they were shared by cutthroats and queens.  We are also a nation with a passion for progress and the future.  The persistence of dogfighting reminds us that it is hard to change something unless we understand it, and gaining that understanding sometimes means paying a visit to the past.  

The Author:
Edmund Russell is a historian of science, technology, and environment at the University of Virginia.  He is completing "Bulldog Nation," a book on dogs and blood sports in 18th- and 19th- century England.
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