Sometime I’m going to write a book about the history of dog breeds in the 20th century. The boxes of documents collected over a couple of years stand ready in the guest room closet — but I am not ready. So in lieu of that gigantic project, I’ve decided, for now, to write blog posts about the breeds that most interest me.
So here is the first one:
The Bloody Bloodhound’s Bad Rap
The model for Edwin Landseer’s “The Sleeping Bloodhound” was a dead dog, Countess. Jacob Bell, Countess’s owner, ran over and killed her accidentally, then took her to his friend Landseer to be painted as if alive.
Behind the lugubrious, long-in-the-face expression of the saggy dogs we call bloodhounds (or sometimes St. Hubert Hound, Chien de St. Hubert, Flemish Hound, English Bloodhound, Sleuth-hound) lies a sad history of being unjustly accused of viciousness. Why? Because dogs with the same last name, Cuban Bloodhounds, tended, at least according to some sources, to tear their human quarry to shreds after locating them. Cuban bloodhounds were associated with the killing of Maroons in Haiti during the Haitian Slave Revolution of 1791, and, albeit with poor results, they were imported from Cuba to track down Seminole Indians in the Florida Indian Wars of 1835-1840. And these were probably the dogs who pursued escaped slaves and later acted as terrifying pursuers of Eliza over the ice in post-Civil War traveling troupes’ enactment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Perhaps a mix of Spanish mastiff and pointer, with pricked ears, Cuban bloodhounds were half again as big as English bloodhounds and looked nothing like them.
Adding to the confusion is the ambiguity of the name “bloodhound.” It does not stand for bloodthirstiness, as one might suppose, but comes from the fact that with their excellent nose the original bloodhounds, an ancient breed, trailed animals wounded by hunters following the scent of their blood.
St. Hubert bloodhounds were imported into England from France in the eleventh century. They were originally used to recover game and catch poachers, especially in royal forests. In Midummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare described them well: “heads are hung/With ears that sweep away the morning dew;/Crook-knee’d, and dew-lapp’d.” They were also used on the Scottish-English borders to trail murderers and robbers. It once was against the law in Scotland to refuse entry to a bloodhound pursuing stolen goods, and bloodhounds were so valuable that a tax was levied on those who kept a certain number of them. Gentle dogs, they did not hurt their quarry. In fact, sometimes they became friends with the animal they were after. For example, one bloodhound, who hunted down a tame stag kept by its owner just for tracking practice, would walk back home in its company after finding it.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the breed went into eclipse in Great Britain. Bloodhounds were no longer as valuable as trackers because policing turned modern and, with more cultivation of land, miscreants had fewer places to hide. Moreover, the British aristocracy took up foxhunting, which demanded a faster dog – the foxhound. Nobility who had deer parks were about the only people who owned bloodhounds. However, the late nineteenth century passion for dog breeding and the entertainment value of bloodounds’ ability to trail saved the breed from extinction. “Manhunting” with bloodhounds became a sport for which English farmers’ sons sometimes volunteered as quarry for two-and-six pence and mug of ale.
The first bloodhound trial took place at Castle Park at Warwick Show of 1886, and the Association of Bloodhound Breeders started Field Trials in 1898.In 1888, breeder Edwin Brough brought “real” bloodhounds (St. Hubert Hounds) to the United States, and they were exhibited at the Westminster Kennel Club bench show in New York City. The English Bloodhound Club of America was organized in 1894.
Meanwhile, that other dog, the Cuban bloodhound, became notorious. The first to reach the New World were brought over by Columbus to subdue Native Americans. Later, according to some spurious anti-French sources, on Sundays during the Haitian Revolution the French threw rebel blacks to Cuban bloodhounds to be eaten alive. The dogs been trained to do this when young by caging them and feeding them animal blood and, when a little older, starving them and making them eat from a wicker “figure” of a black man stuffed with blood and guts. True? I tend to think not.
During the Second Seminole War in Florida, the Seminole Indians, rejecting relocation, attacked forts and plantations. The Florida territorial government sent a sloop to Cuba to import 33 bloodhounds to track down Indians for the “cold and inhuman murders” they supposedly had committed. The enterprise was a failure. Three hundred men went about the countryside for ten days with the dogs, and no results. It cost close to $5000, big money in those days.
In the antebellum South, according to the New York Evangelist (1835), dogs were trained in the following manner to pursue escaped slaves: a slave would be told to go into the woods and tie himself to a tree, then a hound was put on his track. An 1855 ad in Lexington, Missouri Democratic Advocate offered “Negro Dogs” (probably Cuban bloodhounds) for hunting and catching escaped slaves for $15-20, more if the slave was armed or killed the dogs. A comment in the Lexington Tribune condemned it: “If there be a single reader of THE TRIBUNE with heart so dark and skull so dense as to uphold that system with its blazing pyres and hounds of blood, let him examine the simple, unadorned brutality of the above advertisement.”
After the Civil War, Great Dane crosses and Cuban bloodhounds stood in for bloodhounds as cast members in traveling troupes, though not one bloodhound was mentioned in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel of the same name. In the show, “bloodhounds” chased a terrified Eliza over the ice. As Field and Stream put it in 1896: “The plot rested on blood spattered about, poor negroes torn apart in their gentle, defenseless strife for freedom; large, savage-looking dogs with pricked ears and ferocious aspect . . .”
After the Civil War, police continued to use bloodhounds to track fugitives. The dogs’ job could be dangerous. When horse thief Flora Mundis, alias “Tom” King, “pretty but awful wicked,”escaped from jail in 1893, bloodhounds found her, but she shot them and attached a note to the ear of one with a hairpin: “Turn luse som more of your dogs of war. I have still twenty rounds in my belt.”
Bloodhounds can find their quarry almost anywhere (for example, one bloodhound found a sheep-stealer buried in a manure pile) and can follow a trail at least 24 hours old (some say much older) for a hundred miles or more. In 1922, bloodhounds tracked the robbers of a mail train in Casper, Wyoming, for 36 hours in the desert. Bloodhounds also tracked James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King Jr.’s murderer after he escaped from prison in 1977; they found him in the hills of Tennessee.
Today bloodhounds participate in search-and-rescue and trail fugitives for the police. Not very popular as pets (their AKC registration ranking was number 48 in 2011), they deserve a higher place: As a writer for Outing said in 1896: “Instead of being a huge beast with an insatiable appetite for gore, the bloodhound is a medium-sized dog, with a heart full of love, a head full of brains, and possessing scenting powers of extraordinary delicacy.”