A City and its Dogs: San Francisco’s Bummer and Lazarus

April 5, 2018

Bummer lazarus

Journalists depicted Bummer and Lazarus’s exploits in very humanistic terms during the early 1860s, endowing the adventures of two nasty feral dogs with romance and drama. This drawing of Bummer and Lazarus as working ratters is by Meredith Eliassen, 2018.

Prior to the establishment of the establishment of the San Francisco SPCA in 1868, two feral dogs named Bummer and Lazarus established a home base outside a downtown bar that was popular with local journalists. The Press described the apparent bond between the dogs to show that the two strays might actually be useful to society and served as a metaphor for conflicted behavior in human beings unfolding during the Civil War in the national headlines. News stories published in various news outlets created a buzz that opened the community perception to a sensibility of humane treatment for animals.

At this time, stray dogs barking disturbed the relative peace and they were regularly poisoned, trapped, and killed. Shooting stray and feral animals was common practice but it created safety hazards in the business district and tenements. Bummer, a black-and-white Newfoundland, established a home base outside Frederick Marten’s Saloon in 1860. His ratting talents soon garnered a following of passers-by, so Marten’s patrons and local merchants fed him. Lazarus was a mutt that Bummer rescued from a fight with a larger dog a year later; he was named Lazarus because he was so badly injured and was not expected to live. The saloon, a hub for journalists, became a key to changing public perceptions related to animal welfare when San Francisco’s leading newspapers including, Californian, Daily Alta California, Daily Morning Call, and Daily Evening Bulletin started publishing the exploits of the dogs in very humanistic terms. Newsmen created a persona for Bummer as a faithful gentleman down on his luck, and Lazarus was depicted as a scamp. As Lydia Maria Child described in feminine terms a cat named “Grizzly Tom” based upon a real cat who ended up caring for orphaned kittens, the journalists used masculine rhetoric to show how Bummer appeared to care the injured dog, coaxing him to eat shared scraps from his own scavenging, and how with care and encouragement, the dog recovered and within days. Lazarus and Bummer became a team of exceptional ratters.

In reality, Bummer and Lazarus could be vicious: they regularly fought other dogs and ransacked shops when owners failed to close doors. However, the ongoing stories struck a chord and served as a metaphor for conflicted behavior in humans. At one point, Bummer got shot in the leg and Lazarus abandoned him to run with another dog. The newspapers had a field day: they portrayed the bitter sting of desertion that Bummer felt from being abandoned by a fair-weather companion who he once saved from sure death. Once Bummer recovered, Lazarus returned to their old stomping grounds. News stories published in various outlets created a buzz that opened the community to a sensibility of humane treatment for animals.

In response to ongoing noise and dog attacks, San Franciscans enacted a tough ordinance banning unlicensed dogs in April 1862. Stray and feral dogs were captured and taken to the pound. If they were not claimed within 48 hours and the five-dollar fine was not paid, they were put down. The pound-master’s van was seen and heard passing through San Francisco’s cobblestone streets in the early morning hours. The wagon, led by two horses and driven by a dogcatcher, had open sides revealing the luckless unlicensed dogs along with occasional pet goats, pigs, and lambs. A vaquero assisted the dogcatcher, as another rode along side, ready to lasso any strays in their path. An inexperienced pound-master mistakenly captured Lazarus on June 14, 1862. Angry San Franciscans demanded his release, actually petitioning city supervisors to have the two dogs declared city property so they could wander the city unmolested. City supervisors ordered Lazarus’s release and exempted Bummer and Lazarus from local 1962 ordinance. Lazarus was poisoned with rat bane-laced meat after biting a boy and died in October 1863. Angry San Franciscans, once again up in arms, put up a $50 reward for the poisoner’s capture. The Press had less interest in Bummer without his sidekick, and the faithful gentleman died two years later after being kicked by a drunk. Cartoonist Edward Jump (1832-1883) produced an ironic lithograph called “Funeral for Lazarus,” which appeared in The Wasp, and at the rear of the cortege a self-satisfied dogcatcher reclines on his cart.

Source: Albert S. Evans “The zealous pound master,” in A la California: Sketches of Life in the Golden State (San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft & Company, 1873).






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