Bergh, Henry

Henry Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in 1866. He introduced Americans to the organized protection of animals. Several thousand humane groups now exist thanks to Bergh's vision and influence.

Biographical Highlights

Bergh, HenryHenry Bergh may be the most famous American that no one knows.  Diplomat, philanthropist and founder of both the animal and child protection movements in the United States he was both honored and reviled for his work in the later half of the 19th century.  The newspapers of the day dubbed him the “The Great Meddler” for his aggressive actions to protect animals, frequently interfering with the standard thinking of the time that animals were property and owners were free to treat them in any way that they desired.

Bergh was something of a dilettante until he passed the age of fifty years.  He had inherited a substantial fortune from his father, Christian Bergh, a successful shipbuilder.  He dabbled in writing, and traveled extensively with his wife.   In 1863 he was appointed to the United States Embassy in Russia, serving as secretary of the delegation.  While in St. Petersburgh he is reputed to have seen a droshkie or Russian peasant beating his fallen cart horse.  Bergh dismounted from his own carriage and intervened, saving the horse from a further beating that day.  Upon his return to America in 1865, he stopped in England and met with the president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).  Once back in New York, Bergh quickly took action to effect the formation of a similar society in the United States.  On April 10, 1866, with the backing of many influential personages, Henry Bergh was granted a charter by the New York State legislature for the formation of The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).  Bergh would serve as president until his death in 1888.

Historic Roots

Henry Bergh was born on August 28, 1813 in New York City.  His father, Christian Bergh was a successful shipbuilder in the city.  He played a significant role designing and building ships for the fledgling United States Navy during the War of 1812.  Christian Bergh was sometimes called the “honestest man” in New York City.  He was exacting in his approach to designing and building ships and in his relationship with business associated and employees.  He was believed to have been among the first shipbuilders in the City to employ freed black slaves, and to pay them the same wage as his other employees.  If Bergh could trace his attention to detail, justice and fairness to his father, his mother may have softened his edges with her tenderness and kindness.  Bergh often reminisced about Elizabeth Bergh’s kind and caring demeanor.  Though, she too apparently influenced his sense of honesty and integrity.  Henry told of how he once found a coin on the street and upon showing it to his mother, was escorted back the place where he found the coin, and instructed to leave there so that whoever lost it might be able to find it and recover it.  Little is known about Bergh’s home life with his brother Edwin and sister Jane.  They lived in a modest home on the lower East Side of Manhattan.  At the time there were orchards in the neighborhood and young Henry and other children were able to play and swim along a sandy beach on the East River. 

In 1834 Henry Bergh entered Columbia College, but left before earning his degree.  He then joined his father and brother in the shipbuilding business.  Christian Bergh retired within a couple of years, and Henry and Edwin ran the shipyard until 1843.  The liquidation of the assets left Bergh and his siblings with a substantial fortune—a sum adequate to assure Henry of a comfortable life without the need to work.

By the time the shipyard was closed, Henry had already courted and wed Catherine Matilda Taylor.  They were a striking couple and made frequent appearances at many social events in New York City, as well as Washington, DC.  They were known as “first nighters” attending the opening of numerous plays and shows.   Travel was a particular passion for the Berghs.  They embarked on extended journeys, including a three year visit to Europe in 1847.  Henry kept extensive diaries during this travels noting the food and entertainment that they enjoyed.  It was during this trip that the first glimpse of Henry Bergh’s eventual calling would be entered into his diary.  The Bergh’s had attended a bull fight in Spain, and were appalled by the blood and death on display.  Most troubling were the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd as horses were gored and bulls taunted and then killed.   When the Berghs returned to the United States they again took up their social life with great gusto.  In addition to attending plays, Henry Bergh tried writing several of his own.  He prevailed upon several of his social connections to have at least one of these staged.  It received tepid reviews.  Bergh had chosen to pen a farce, and in so doing he revealed a significant talent gap – he apparently suffered from a humor deficit. 

Bergh’s social circle included the political elite of his time as well.  He supported abolitionist positions, and shared this conviction with his fellow New York State resident William Seward.  When Seward joined Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet as Secretary of State, Bergh gained an appointment as legation secretary for the American delegation to Russia.  From all accounts, Bergh performed admirably and must have impressed the Tsar, since Alexander II made his personal yacht available to him several times.

Bergh enjoyed the opulence of society in St. Petersburgh.  He traveled about the city in an ornate carriage, a driver at his call.  During one such trip there came a moment that transformed Bergh’s life, and the future of animals in America.  Spying a Russian peasant beating his fallen cart horse, Bergh called for his own driver to stop his carriage.  He instructed his coachman to order the peasant to stop beating the horse.   The details of how and when this event happened are shrouded in mystery.  What was it about this particular day and this particular peasant?  Observing people beating horses must have been a common event given other accounts of the times.   That moment, indeed if it even was a single moment, has become enshrined in the legend of Henry Bergh, and the ASPCA.  Not long after, Bergh would resign his post, and return to the United States.  His return came via England, and while there endeavored to meet with the Earl of Harrowby, serving as president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals at that time.  When he set sail for his return across the Atlantic he must have had much to ponder.  He recognized that the cruel mistreatment of horses that he observed in Russia was also a common practice in his home city of New York.  He also carried with him an understanding of how the RSPCA had been formed and carried out its efforts to protect animals. 

Shortly after his return, Henry Bergh began the rounds of contacting friends and allies, explaining his plan to form a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  When he felt that he held sufficient support for his plan, he announced a public lecture on “Statistics related to the Cruelty Practiced on Animals.”  A storm raged through the city on the night of February 8, 1866, but Clinton Hall was crowded with an anxious crowd.  Bergh’s preliminary efforts had paid off, and his lecture prompted a ground swell of support.  In the days following the meeting a who’s who of the social and political elite of the city and state signed a petition calling for the formation of The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  Bergh carried the petition to Albany and lobbied the state legislature.  The response was rapid and on April 10, 1866 the New York State Legislature granted a charter for the formation of The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.   Just nine days later, the legislature passed an amended law for the prevention of cruelty to animals, and authorized Bergh and his fledgling Society the power to enforce the law. 

Bergh was soon installed as president of the ASPCA and wasted little time making use of these new powers.  He was soon on the street, with a copy of the new law in his coat pocket.   Cartmen, butchers, trolley companies, sportsmen and others soon felt the weight of the new law as Bergh and his small cadre of agents were diligent in exercising their authority.  Eventually known as ‘Berghsmen’ these agents worked the streets, alleys, docks and numerous unsavory districts of the City.  None of them however were able to outdo or outshine their leader.  Tall and imposing in his frock coat and top hat, Bergh became a familiar figure in the City.   His personal courage was frequently on display.  When an explanation of the new law followed by a demand that a miscreant cease his mistreatment of animals in his care was ignored, Bergh would intervene physically pulling a driver down from his perch on a carriage or cart. 

In addition to his work on the street, Bergh took his cause to the people through the mass media of the day, the numerous newspapers and magazines published flood of correspondence from him.  Bergh’s pen that had previously contributed limp poetry and lackluster plays now thundered with authority.   He now produced a continuous stream of correspondence railing against the conditions endured by horses that pulled trolleys in the city, ‘gentlemen’ who honed their marksmanship by shooting captive pigeons and the treatment of stray animals at the city pounds. 
In addition to advocating for animals, Bergh also spent days and nights on the streets in direct action to stop acts of animal cruelty.  He would stop teamsters from beating their horses and butchers from stacking animals like cordwood in the carts going to market and swoop in on dogfighters with his ASPCA agents.  He carried on a high profile dispute with P.T. Barnum over the treatment of the animals in his menagerie.  In the end, Bergh’s persistence and integrity eventually turned Barnum into a friend, who would help to form an SPCA in Bridgeport, CT.

In 1874 Bergh was approached by a social worker with an extraordinary request for help.   Etta Wheeler knew Bergh’s reputation for protecting defenseless creatures.  She now came to ask for his help to rescue a young girl named Mary Ellen.  Mary Ellen was beaten and abused by her foster mother.   While there were laws to protect children, there was no effective way to have abused children removed from an abusive home.  Bergh was moved by Wheeler’s story and contacted his attorney, Elbridge Gerry.  Gerry was a well-known and innovative lawyer.  He devised an application of the writ of habeaus corpus to remove Mary Ellen from the home, and bring charges against the foster mother.  This case became the foundation of the child protection movement, and Bergh and Gerry would help to form the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Children.

By the end of 1887, the years weighed heavily on Henry Bergh.   His wife had died, depriving him of a confidant and loving partner.   He was tired and old injuries suffered while working to protect animals now sapped more and more of his strength and energy.  In late winter 1888 Bergh was bedridden when a massive blizzard struck New York City.  The doctor was called, but was unable to make it to Bergh’s home until after the storm had subsided.  By that time Bergh was near death, and would expire on March 12, 1888.  His funeral was a massive public event and the church was filled with mourners.  His old nemesis, P. T. Barnum was one of the pall bearers.  He would be laid to rest at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn beside his beloved wife, Catherine.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Henry Bergh came from a successful and wealthy family.  He was well-connected with the social and political elite of his day. Bergh solicited the political and financial support of his friends, and they contributed to his cause.  It is important to note that when Bergh founded the ASPCA, it was the first organization founded for the protection of animals in the United States.  His success in leading the ASPCA led not just to the formation of the many other local SPCAs found around the country, but also the many organizations founded to protect birds, wildlife and other animals, creating an entire new area of philanthropic endeavor.   When he helped to form the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children this set the path for organizations that would form to protect children.

Bergh gave generously of his own resources to support the ASPCA.  Combined with the gifts provided by others he was able to see the ASPCA grow in both its activities, and influence.   No donation to the organization seems to have been too small for his attention, and gratitude.  The ASPCA archives include letters from Bergh to children who sent him a few coins to help his work.  Bergh took the time to thank the children for their kind support, and also for caring about animals.

Key Related Ideas

Henry Bergh introduced Americans to the organized protection of animals.  Several thousand humane groups in the United States now exist thanks to Bergh’s vision and influence.   Most important was that Bergh worked to ensure that these efforts went beyond emotional responses to animals.  He worked to ensure that animals received legal protection.   He felt that since humans were so dependent on animals for so many things, animals deserved recognition of their rights for humane treatment.  His cause was quickly taken up around the nation.  Just a year after the formation of the ASPCA, a second SPCA was formed in Buffalo, NY, followed by SPCAs in Philadelphia and Boston a year after that.  Within just a few years there were SPCAs found around the country.  Each year millions of animals are provided care by these organizations. 

Important People Related to the Topic

Elbridge Gerry (1837-1927).  Gerry came from a prominent and influential family of lawyers.  He served as the counsel for the ASPCA for a number of years, helping to set standards for the interpretation and enforcement of laws to protect animals.  One of his most enduring contributions was the use of the writ of habeaus corpus to rescue Mary Ellen from an abusive home.  After he and Bergh formed the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, he would play a significant role in the success of that organization.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The many SPCAs and other humane organizations found around the country came about due to the original influence of Henry Bergh and his founding of The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Related Web Sites

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.   This website provides historical information about the ASPC A as well as information about the organizations current work. 

The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  The same is true of the NYSPCC website—a good source of historical and current information.


Lane, M. and Zawistowski, S.  Heritage of Care.  Westport, CT:  Praeger Publishers, 2007.  ISBN: 978-0-275-99021-3.