Jan 30, 2009

Reservoir Dog: New York's Demon-Cur of the Winter of 1893

The recent icy conditions of the city's sidewalks, roads, puddles and lakes reminded me of a late-19th century New York story I stumbled across in the archives of the NYT:

On January 30, 1893, a large crowd of predominately women and children gathered on the shores of the iced-over Reservoir in Central Park. Of interest was the phenomenon of a seemingly distraught dog circling the icy waters. The dog seemed to run the same circles and zig-zag patterns over a great swath of the reservoir, not stopping during the day nor the night for four days. Debate as to how to rescue the poor fellow grew vigorous, as the ice was thin and too treacherous for a human rescue. Some wanted to shoot the dog to put it out of its misery or to stop it from fouling of the waters, as the lake was the source of usable water for many city residents. Members of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were on the scene to safeguard the animal. Efforts to whistle and cajole it back to shore or bribe it with offers of fresh meat failed at every turn.


"Central Park's Dog Demon" served as the headline for the account published the following day in the New York Times. The reporter described the animal as a "gaunt and famished-looking canine of the water spaniel breed" while a "a few among the women onlookers were insistent in the assertion that the vagrant quadruped was a fox." A park keeper claimed the dog's ability to stay awake and active for consecutive days and nights proved it was no ordinary mutt but a devil-dog. In a later report in the Times, some wondered "if it was not the gentleman in black himself, taking a Winter Holiday on ice for change and recreation." One park worker cajoled the dog close to the shore for a good look but didn't think much of him - "he'd never take a prize in the Westminster Kennel Club competitions, but he can do damage just the same." Women observers thought more kindly, with some claiming the dog to be their very own who ran away. One woman, described as wearing sealskin, offered a reward for its safe capture, carrying with her a slab of meat for the poor pup. The Park's superintendent gave the orders to keep the dog moving so that it would eventually tire and come ashore.

People found it strange that the dog never stopped. It ran around the ice at night, and through the whole affair no one had heard it make any sound. Another person observed that the dog was on a mission. Perhaps its owner had fallen through the ice. No one was allowed onto the ice to try to rescue the dog, but several ventured anyway. One young man made a mad dash of it with his Newfoundlander dog, and they came close to catching it. A brave skater scooted across the ice at one point but fell down in pursuit.

At 11 p.m., two young men, Thomas Ward and Joseph Smith, spotted the dog on the north side of the lake, saw that the gatekeeper had returned to his station, and they walked onto the ice in hopes to catch it. They chased the dog across the reservoir. On reaching the exhausted dog, one of the men kicked it and the other picked it up. They then carried the pup ashore. As the Times reported the next day, the woman in sealskins was on the shore at the time of the rescue, ready to give the dog meat. The rescuers took the dog to the gatehouse, gave it some milk and then some dinner. Naturally, the dog was ravenous. By the time it was rescued, the dog had been out on the ice for five days. Thomas Ward, one of the rescuers and an employee at a livery stable on E. 102nd Street, decided to keep the dog but said he was open to selling it for a bargain price of $200.


The Times reporter ended his account of the events of the day before by noting, "It is a curious fact that over 1,000 persons gathered at the reservoir bright and early yesterday morning, and were very much disappointed to learn that the dog had been caught."

I've been watching my own dogs play in the snow and ice this week. They seem to have a great time. I think that for at least one of them nothing would be more fun than to take off running across the iced-over reservoir in Central Park and to stay out as late as possible. I'll see to it that this adventure will never happen.