Why couldn't J.P. Morgan's prize bulldog bear to go on?
Sometime during the second week of July 1898, as American troops waded ashore in eastern Cuba and U.S. warships encircled the Spanish-held Philippines, a smaller conflict raged at the financier J.P. Morgan’s summer estate on the banks of the Hudson River in Highland Falls. The New York Times noted:
A battle almost to the death was fought yesterday morning between J. Pierpont Morgan’s prize bulldog and a Maltese cat belonging to Mrs. Charles F. Tracy. When the fight ended the bulldog had lost one eye, the other optic was badly damaged, and his nice sleek hide was furrowed and ridged with innumerable scratches from which rich prize blood flowed in profusion.
The Morgans brought the beaten combatant, “His Nibs,” to a New York dog hospital, but after the bulldog went mad and died, the New York World declared him a “suicide.” Joseph Pulitzer’s ‘yellow’ newspaper lived for sensationalist class-war stories like this. Their cartoon illustrated the story with a five-part narrative of the dog’s disgrace. In this account, His Nibs’s dog-show glories are followed by the fight with Mrs. Tracy’s cat. After losing the eye, he is fitted for a replacement, but when he sees his reflection in a mirror, the caption explains, “the appearance of the glass eye fills him with despair.” The cartoon concludes with an image of the dog belly-up, with the superfluous, maybe triumphant caption, “dead.” In a bitter muckraking recounting of the episode, J.C. Cooper quoted from the New York News Dispatch: “The corpse of the dog lay in a casket lined with silk.” Cooper adds that a few days earlier, a U.S. soldier’s newborn baby had died, freezing, in a Denver slum.
His Nibs combines three conventions of 1890s culture: the class politics of masculinity, pet ownership, and suicide. The first is a well-trod subject of 1890s history. The decade that saw the founding of the YMCA, professional sports, and America’s overseas empire is often remembered as the decade of “the strenuous life,” Theodore Roosevelt’s nostalgic ideal of a vigorous republic based on hard labor, martial valor, and virile conflict. It is also the decade of neurasthenia, the term for nervous disorders thought to afflict women and over-cultivated men alienated from virtuous labor, and a reputed rise in human suicides.
The 1890s, the so-called “Gilded Age,” was also period of intense class conflict, manifested in strikes and mass demonstrations. At the same time, the 1890s saw an increase in pet ownership, as both a middle-class trend and an aristocratic hobby. As they still do, dog lovers in the nineteenth century projected human feelings as well as political symbolism onto their mute companions. Class critiques of plutocrats like Morgan were channeled through the macho cultural politics of pet ownership, in which the financier’s moral weakness is comically betrayed by his seemingly tough bulldog’s wimpiness.
In other words: while J.P. Morgan lacked the good sense to die of shame, at least his dog didn’t.