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Historical Tidbits: Dognapping
Daily Diary, April 19, 2023 Day 960:
When I first started to see what I could find on the subject of people stealing dogs for profit, it looked like this was a very 20th not 19th century problem, with several articles saying that the term wasn’t even used until the late 1920s. However, in the following article, the writer researched newspapers and found the first mention of the term dognappers showing up in an Oregon newspaper in 1897 and then found it began to come up more frequently in newspapers in the early 1900s.
While the term might be a primarily 20th century term, the act of stealing a dog for profit started much earlier. One article I found traced the theft of dogs for profit back to the 1600s and reported that by the 1700s that advertisements for lost dogs, offering rewards, showed up frequently in British newspapers, often with detailed descriptions. However, these advertisements were also used by the criminals who had either stolen the dogs or by the middlemen (fences) who were reaching out to the owners to negotiate a ransom for the return of the animal.
In the 18th century, as wealthy members of society began to spend increasing amounts of money, not just for pets, but on buying valuable sporting dogs, some stolen dogs were simply sold to other wealthy men in a different part of the country. What was most distressing to read was that stolen dogs were also killed and skinned because dog skins were used for gloves in this century!
By the mid 19th century, cities like London became the known for the frequent incidents of dognapping, facilitated by the concentration of wealthy individuals, but also the ease of the thefts on crowded urban streets. In the 1800s, well-organized dognapping rings took advantage of the fact that dogs were not classified as property under law, so stealing a dog and then offering to return the animal for a fee was not a crime. These rings of dognappers employed people to target wealthy individual with their pets, following them to determine the best time to grab the dog, and then having middlemen negotiate the price the owner would be willing to pay for the safe return of their beloved dog. If they failed to pay, they were told the dog would be sold, or killed, with gruesome threats that the dog’s head would be cut off and sent to the owner.
One of the most famous cases was of the 1846 heft of Flush, the beloved spaniel of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Flush was stolen three times, and the third time, when none of the men in her life stepped up to help retrieve the dog, the frail, sickly poetess herself tracked down the middleman who was also probably the head of the dognapping ring. The author of the following story of this theft and retrieval suggests the whole experience helped Elizabeth be brave enough to carry through with her planned elopement with the poet Robert Browning two weeks later.
I must admit, the whole story reminded me a little of the Georgette Heyer Regency romances like the Grand Sophy where her heroine goes after some villain personally in order to rescue her young male relatives or friends who have gotten in trouble. Everyone is so taken aback at the idea of a young well-to-do lady doing such a thing that they always end up giving in!
By the 19th century, two other reasons for stealing dogs being to pop up, one was to steal prized show dogs, the other was to sell dogs for medical experimentation. However, I will leave those two topics for later posts. Instead, I will leave you with a fairly typical notice for a stolen dog, this one from the San Francisco Examiner for April 28, 1884.
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