ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

Fox-tossing, Bull-baiting, and Cock-throwing

A Short History of Blood Sports

Today, dear readers, in this time of Covid-19 when many of us are stuck inside self-quarantining with our beloved pets, I’d like to take a moment to talk about animal cruelty and its dangers.

As a student of history with a curiosity for sports, games, and recreation, I inevitably come across references to obscure games and pastimes through the centuries. Many of these sadly involved the intentional and willful injury of animals — all in the name of “fun.” There is something dark about people who are entertained by the suffering of animals, and there is something darker still about those who would wager money on these blood sports. Today we know that cruelty to animals is an early warning sign of serious mental illness associated with sociopathy, but at one point in history this cruel behavior was not only deemed perfectly normal — it was sanctioned and celebrated.

Image 1) William Hogarth (1697–1764) English print maker and social critic.

The English print maker and social critic William Hogarth (1697–1764) took a special interest in the pastimes and vices of his fellow countrymen. Hogarth, widely credited with inventing the use of sequential scenes in Western art, created prints that told stories across the span of time.

In effect he was making comics like those people may read in magazines, newspapers, or comic books. Before Hogarth, artists would tell a story in one single frame, often resulting in a mishmash of figures and events that could sometimes be difficult for the viewer to understand.

Hogarth was a keen studier of 18th century London and daily English life. He would sketch pictures of people and events that he witnessed and would often create various prints that would — he hoped — pacify and civilize the barbarous, iniquitous behavior he witnessed and spur people on to not only be better citizens, but better human beings.

To that end he created a series of various prints with such illuminating titles as “The Rake’s Progress,” which showed the inevitable decline and death of a thief and gambler, or “Industry and Idleness,” which alternated images of successful, thriving businessmen with that of someone who was lazy, indolent, and refused to work. However, it would be the first scene from his “Four Stages of Cruelty,” a print from 1751, that prompted this article.

Image 2) The First Stage of Cruelty (1751) by William Hogarth.

So there’s a lot going on in this picture. It depicts activities and behavior common to young, immature, 18th century English children and how they would often torture animals for their own sick amusement.

In the foreground of the picture you can see a dog biting into and devouring a cat. To the right, a young boy can be seen tying a bone to a helpless dog’s tail. In the middle ground of the print, two cats, having been tied together by a length of string, are fighting with one another as they are hung to dangle from a street sign while a crowd watches and cheers.

Far in the background in the upper left hand corner we can see someone throwing a cat out of a window. Tied to it are two balloons and the inquisitive young boy seems delighted to see if felines can fly.

And in one especially depraved and disgusting act in the center of the print, four young boys — working together — are attempting to ram an arrow through a dog’s nether regions.

The acts in the scene are beyond comprehension, especially when looked at from the eye of one firmly in the 21st century with modern day sensibilities. Examine the rooster in the middle of the print. There was a sport, a blood sport mind you, called cock-throwing, cock-shying, or “throwing at cocks.”

Somewhat similar to horseshoe throwing, a hapless rooster would be tied in place and people would throw weighted, sharpened sticks called coksteles at the animal in an attempt to kill it. If the creature had its legs broken during the “game” it would oftentimes be propped up on sticks to keep the “target” from falling.

William Hogarth believed that people were made cruel. He felt that these acts of childhood cruelty and barbarity, when not checked and corrected, would lead one to become a cruel person — brutish and indifferent not only to the suffering of animals, but to the suffering of human beings as well.

The thing is, there were lots of really, really bizarre blood sports like this found across Europe, England, and later, America. Some historically minded dog owners may be familiar with bull-baiting or bear-baiting, wherein specially bred dogs were used to incapacitate or kill a bull or bear for the amusement of a crowd. There were even arenas built for these blood sports and they can be seen depicted on old maps of London from the 16th century.

Image 3) “Bull-baiting” by Samuel Henry Alken 1810–1894), date unknown

Perhaps the single most bizarre and inhumane blood sport that one may learn about is something called fox tossing. It was practiced by the nobility because, well, getting a bunch of foxes rounded up isn’t easy and required an exhaustive amount of labor that only nobility could afford.

In 17th and 18th century Europe the bored, decadent, and morally depraved nobility would have an arena of sorts set up by encircling an area with sheets of canvas to fashion improvised artificial walls. Inside the makeshift arena, two people would stand at the ends of a 20–25 foot length of fabric with handles on either end that would lay flat upon the ground. Then, upon a nobleman’s signal, some low-ranking commoner in their employ would release the foxes.

Image 4) An engraving of German aristocrats engaged in the sport of fox tossing or Fuchsprellen (lit. “fox bouncing”) circa 1895

When a fox wandered across the length of fabric on the ground a couple, typically one man and one woman, would sharply pull the fabric as hard and taut as possible, sending the helpless fox soaring skyward.

The contest was “won” by the couple that could throw a fox the highest in the air. There are some reports that these poor beasts would be flung upwards of 25 feet. When they fell back to earth they often died from the impact or suffered terribly from multiple broken bones.

This didn’t just happen with foxes. In one spectacular event, Augustus II “the Strong” (1670–1733), King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, held a “contest” in Dresden at which 647 foxes, 533 hares, 34 badgers and 21 wildcats were tossed and killed. To the amusement of the spectators present, court dwarfs (yes, it was at one point in vogue for royalty to have court dwarfs, they found something amusing about differences in height) would run in periodically with cudgels and club to death the injured animals.

Image 5) A fox tossing contest from 1719.

In reading about these morbid and ghastly forms of entertainment one may believe they were exclusively confined to the geography of Europe, but with the colonization of the New World settlers brought not only their language and culture but also their games — and inhumane past times — to American shores.

Boxing, or more specifically prize-fighting, from Great Britain was one of these blood sports. However, when it comes to boxers, let’s go “old school” and call them pugilists, the fighters at least know what they are getting themselves into. They are willful participants. Animals don’t have a choice. The peculiar penchant for entertainment at the expense of animals was well exemplified by one of America’s greatest authors, Mark Twain, in his famous book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884.

Image 6) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

At one point in the novel the protagonist, the young Huckleberry Finn, is traveling through an impoverished, sleepy old town and observes the diversions the inhabitants create to amuse themselves and stave off boredom. Twain writes:

The hogs loafed and grunted around everywheres. You’d see a muddy sow and a litter of pigs come lazying along the street and whollop herself right down in the way, where folks had to walk around her, and she’d stretch out and shut her eyes and wave her ears whilst the pigs was milking her, and look as happy as if she was on salary.

And pretty soon you’d hear a loafer sing out, “Hi! So boy! sick him, Tige!” and away the sow would go, squealing most horrible, with a dog or two swinging to each ear, and three or four dozen more a-coming; and then you would see all the loafers get up and watch the thing out of sight, and laugh at the fun and look grateful for the noise.

Then they’d settle back again till there was a dog fight. There couldn’t any-thing wake them up all over, and make them happy all over, like a dog fight — unless it might be putting turpentine on a stray dog and setting fire to him, or tying a tin pan to his tail and see him run him-self to death.

One can only wonder that this behavior used to be common place in America, Europe, and many parts of the world. The inventiveness and cruelty of people to entertain themselves at the expense of another when bored could perhaps best be summed up in the old “game” of goose pulling, which was popular in the Netherlands, Belgium, England, and parts of North America from the 17th to the 19th century.

Picture this: you take a helpless goose, tie it upside down by its feet so that it is hanging from a wooden post, and slather grease all over its head. Next, you get on a horse, ride as fast and as hard as you can, and while passing under the goose you grab it by the neck and try to wrench its head off!

Image 7) Goose pulling in 19th century West Virginia

Today we think of people who torture animals to be sick and mentally ill. The behavior is considered one of the early hallmarks of burgeoning serial killers. However, as pointed out in this article, in colonial America and Europe hundreds of years ago this was pretty standard entertainment. Does that mean that the majority of people back then were, or would become, serial killers? Of course not.

However, they were a people that were also accustomed to seeing corporal punishment and public executions. Eager spectators would quarrel, fight, and even pay money to have the best view of these ghastly events. People were hanged, beheaded, drawn and quartered, and even gibbeted in some places.

Gibbeting was the legal public spectacle of leaving a body, usually that of a murderer or someone executed for treason, to hang from a cage until the remains rotted away from exposure to carrion and the elements — as a warning to other potential criminals.

Image 8) An executed criminal, whose remains are gibbeted from a gallows pole as a warning for all to see (1700s)

In fact in England in 1751 the Murder Act made it illegal to actually bury someone convicted of murder. Their body had to be put on display to deter criminal behavior. It wasn’t until 1834 that gibbeting was made illegal in the United Kingdom. Apparently attitudes had changed and people didn’t like to look at — or smell — the rotting remains of a human corpse outside their houses.

Today we have a higher regard for life, both of animals and of people. Laws have been passed that set standards for the humane treatment of animals and for the treatment of convicted criminals. Public executions are a thing of the past, along with bull-baiting, fox tossing, cock throwing, and all the other animal blood sports out there, but a deeper question must be asked. What is it in human beings that finds entertainment in the suffering of animals and cruelty to other people?

The fact that laws and regulations are needed to curtail and restrict such activities is more telling about us as a species than the dark, checkered past that our “civilized” selves would like to forget.

Images Cited

Image 1: By William Hogarth — https://www.rct.uk/collection/811832/a-self-portrait-with-a-pug, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84149515

Image 2: By William Hogarth — This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60893441

Image 3: By Samuel Henry Alken — 1. allposters.com2. The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 109529, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6904365

Image 4: By Greiner — http://bizzarrobazar.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Untitled-1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44753265

Image 5: By Johann Friedrich von Flemming — Der vollkommene deutsche Jäger, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10229121

Image 6: By E. W. Kemble (1861–1933) — illustrator — Scanned from the book, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=183828

Image 7: By Frederic Remington — Harper's Weekly, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10239487

Image 8: By The Pirates Own Book, by Charles Ellms, [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13478757

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Lyndon Moore

Lyndon Moore

is a military veteran, nurse, martial artist, writer, and world traveler. He has been published in the O-Dark-Thirty Review, a literary journal for veterans.