Rat Pits, Rat Baiting, and American Sportsman Kit Burns

Rat pits were an infamous form of entertainment that people like Christopher Keyburn promoted. Commonly known by his alias Kit Burns, he was a mid to late nineteenth century American sportsman, saloon keeper, and underworld figure in New York City. His business in the Bowery was located on Water Street in a nice-looking but plain brick building that sported a sign over the door that read “Kit Burns: Sportsmen’s Hall.”

Although Burns often held illegal bare-knuckle boxing matches, his hall became more well-known for the blood sports held in the rat pits. Supposedly Burns could obtain plenty of rats because he got them from the East River. In fact, it was stated that there was no limit to how many rats could be found there, which resembled the limitless number of rats discovered in a certain area in France in the early 1800s.

When Burns held his ratting events, large gray wharf rats were captured from the East River. They were then set against dogs, mostly terriers. To ensure a good match and that the dogs would attack the rats, the dogs were often starved for several days beforehand. Thus, hungry dogs always proved to generate glorious matches for onlookers.

Besides the dogs trying to kill rats, dogs were also pitted against one another. Burns’s own dogs were no exception. In fact, Burns was said to be extremely proud of his fighting dogs. His cellar supposedly contained some of the fiercest and most frightening of animals and because Burns held his dogs in such high regard, he wasn’t above stuffing two of his favorites one and placing them over his bar.

“One was called Jack, a black and tan colored terrier that killed 100 rats in 6 minutes and 40 second, a reported American record. The other dog was Hunky, a fighting dog that expired after his last great victory.”[1]

Both the rat baiting and dog-on-dog matches were held in the blood-stained rat pits. Spectators were seated in an area arranged like small amphitheater or miniature arena. The fights took place in the center described by Iowa’s The Daily Times:

“The seats are rough wooden benches, and in the centre is ring or pit enclosed by a circular wooden fence. A number of rats are turned into this pit and a dog of the best ferret stock is thrown amongst them. The little creature at once falls to work to kill the rats, bets being made that she will destroy many rats in a given time.”[2]

Rat pits - Kit Burns

“Kit Burns: Sportsmen’s Hall” during the mid-1800s. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Because of the rat pits and their popularity, a New York reporter from the Sun interviewed Burns in hopes of discovering the secrets related to how the animal matches took place. According to the journalist this type of entertainment was divided into four branches:

  • Rat killing by a weasel.
  • Rat killing by a dog.
  • Rat killing by a man who kills the rats with his teeth.
  • Dog fighting.

Each of these branches was then explained by Burns, which the reporter provided in his lengthy article, republished in San Francisco’s Chronicle, and which I provide here nearly verbatim:

“Rat Killing by a Weasel.

Rat killing by weasel is the mildest form in which the craving for such debasing excitement is manifested. The chief drawback to this branch of the ‘sport’ arises from the fact that the weasel has to expend too much time in chasing the rats around the pit. The weasel, being a natural born rat-killer, requires no training, and always does his best, and the rats have a mortal fear of him; yet the habitues of the rat-pit say: ‘Killin’ rats by a weasel is sport only fit for women and children. It’s too slow for men who’ve seen suthin’ better.’ But when it comes to letting a first class black-and-tan loose upon a pit of rats, the sport rises to such dignity that even a full blown Water street sportsman may witness it without a blush.

An ‘Interesting Event.’

In the dialect of the rat-pit, a rat-killing is called an ‘Interesting event’ ― a delicacy of expression, which paralyzes criticism. The ‘killing’ is sometimes a match between two dogs to see which of them can kill a certain number of rats in the shortest time; sometimes it is a sweepstakes, including several dogs, the one that kills his rats soonest being the winner; and sometimes it is a ‘timed match,’ that is, a bet is made that a certain dog will kill a given number of rats within a specified time.

rat pits - dog killing rat

Dog killing a rat. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A Horrible Pastime.

The killing of rats by a man with his teeth is the lowest and most revolting ‘sport’ of which human nature has been capable since the days of the gladiators and the martyrs, when the most refined Roman ladies enjoyed the ‘sports’ of the Coliseum, and watched with interest the fate and struggle of a Christian maiden thrown to a wild cow or a famishing leopardess. The man who pits himself against a dog, or against time in rat-killing, catches the rats one a time in his hand and bites or tears off their heads with his teeth. He must take the rat’s head clean off or else it does not count. The rat, of course, make all the fight he can, and often gets a good grip on the man’s lip, or cheek, or nose, and by the time the horrid ‘sport’ has ended the wretches face sometimes present the appearance of a gory mass of lacerated flesh.

How Dogs are Trained.

Dog fighting is the ‘royal game’ of the dog-pit. ‘When you see two gamey dogs agoin’ in,’ said an enthusiast to us, ‘then you may count on sport.’ The gamey dogs require a deal of training and peculiar ingenuity is displayed in bringing them to the requisite weight and condition. In training a man for a fight or for a foot-race, his own intelligence comes into play and enables him voluntarily to carry out the instructions of his trainer. A horse can be gradually ridden or driven into the proper muscular condition for racing. But how is a dog to be trained into a proper condition? This is the way it’s done: The dog is placed upon a round table, with a revolving top, covered with a woolen cloth (nailed on), so as to give him a good foothold. His trainer takes him by a chain fastened to his collar, or by his collar itself, and he is then excited and infuriated by the barking of other dogs fastened nearby for that purpose. He tries to get at the other dogs. The trainer holds him on the table, the top of which begins to revolve under the dog’s feet, and way he goes, or thinks he is going, at full speed after his tantalizing, barking foes, he is also barking and yelling with rage and vengeance. He is kept at this for ten or fifteen minutes at first, but as his condition improves the time is extended, until at last he is able to keep up the effort for two hours as a stretch. By this means, and by discreet feeding, physicking and bathing the dog is brought to a high degree of endurance. His fat is all worked off; he becomes a mass of elastic bone and muscle, and his ferocity is brought up to the highest pitch.

rat pits - a dog fight in progress

Dog fight held at Kit Burns’ establishment. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Ferocity of the Dog.

And his tact and grit are still further developed by occasionally practicing him on a cur, which he frequently kills outright. By this means he learns how to use his teeth to the best advantage, and at the same time develops the muscles of the jaw by actual work, such as he will have to perform in the pit. A dog’s best fighting days are between the ages of two and three years. If he has been thoroughly taken care of, and escaped disabling wounds, he is in his prime at two and a half or three years. After that age begins to tell on his sinews, and however, good his pluck may be, his backers want odds when he is matched against a younger dog of equal weight and game.

Tasting the Dogs.

Before a main is fought the dog is ‘tasted,’ in order to see that nothing ‘pernicious’ has been put upon him. Dog-fighters are sometimes so unprincipled as to ‘poison’ the dog on which they have bet, by putting a ‘pernicious’ substance on him, which will soon make the other dog’s mouth so sore that he won’t or can’t bite, and the dog whose mouth becomes so affected will, of course, lose the battle. In order to guard against this, before the dogs are put into the pit they are washed in water as hot as they can beware, in which soda and castile soap are freely mingled, each dog being washed by two men, one of whom is selected by the owner of the dog and the other by his rival; and in order that both parties shall be on terms of absolute equality as to this matter, and to prevent the possibility of cheating, the contents of the two pails are poured into one another back and forth before the washing is begun. After the dogs have been washed they are ‘tasted;’ that is, each dog is mildly bitten and licked all over by his owner’s rival or by someone appointed to that duty by such rival, or by the backers of the dog. An experienced ‘taster’ can surely tell whether anything ‘pernicious’ has been put upon the dog, and if there has been, the backers of that dog lose their money. The dogs are ‘tasted’ after the fight, because some cunning fellow may manage to throw something ‘pernicious’ on a dog while the battle is raging. So tricky are the habitues of the dog pit in this respect, that a greenhorn stands no chance at all.

Gameness of Thoroughbred Dogs.

The gameness of some dogs passes belief. They will ‘die and make no sign.’ The owners are allowed to stand by and encourage their dogs, which they do by calling them pet names d and uttering familiar cries in endearing tones, which revive the fainting spirits of the dog, as the hearty amens and hallelujahs at a camp meeting or revival stiffen up a driveling exhortation or a drooping prayer.”[3]

Although a public crusade against drinking and saloon keepers broke out little was being said about the horrendous fights happening in the rat pits. John Allen, known as the “Wickedest Man in New York,” became the main target of this reform movement that became known as the “Water Street revival.” Before long it was reported that Allen and others had become “reformed” and they then worked to reform other saloon keepers by having them agree to hold prayer meetings in their establishments.

Pressure began to be applied to Burns to hold revival meetings and change his ways too. He soon succumbed to the pressure and allowed his rat pits to be turned into a site for prayer meetings. However, although he allowed prayer meetings, he constantly criticized them and charged high fees for the use of his hall.

Although there had been a public movement to improve morality and clean up saloons, the general public soon became suspicious that nothing good was coming from the prayer meetings being held in drinking establishments. This was demonstrated by an article that appeared in the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette after Burns allowed the first prayer meeting to be held at his establishment:

“The religious sensationists of Water Street, played a new card on Monday. It was the opening of Kit Burns rat pits for a prayer meeting. There was a small attendance, with the same display of real or feigned enthusiasm on the part of a few of the conductors. Kit Burns closed his bar for the hour, but was by no means a proper door-keeper … But the most horrible part of the performance was the burlesque that followed. … All of a sudden a noise was heard outside, and some one asked what was that … ‘They are killing rats.’ Entering one saw in the pit, where a moment before was kneeling the ministers of the gospel, a small bull terrier. Outside a tall, stout, rough-looking individual held a rat by the tail …  he flung in the rat, and immediately the little terrier seized him and he was dead. Another, and another followed … That these performance can aid the cause of true religion is any way is more than doubtful. They are themselves but one remove from the blasphemy they incite, their sole merit lying in the supposed sincerity of their conductors. It is about time that religious scandal came to an end.”[4]

Of course, with such reporting the prayer meetings in Burns’ rat pits didn’t last long and police decided to shut them down. More bad news for Burns followed. On 31 November 1870, Sportman’s Hall was raided. The raid was prompted by Henry Bergh the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty (ASPCA) who established the ASPCA in April 1866, three days after the first effective legislation against animal cruelty in the United States was passed into law by the New York State Legislature.

Henry Bergh. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The raid on Burns’ rat pits came about after Bergh learned that “three hundred rats [were] often given away free of charge on a single evening, for owners to try their dogs with. On these occasions prizes were given to the dogs killing the largest number of rats in the shortest time.”[5] When Bergh learned this he was outraged about the cruelty and insisted on a raid, that was in fact led by him.

Burns was arrested and charged with for violating anti-cruelty laws, along with others. Everyone except Burns was eventually acquitted. That was because Burns never made it to trial. He caught a cold in jail that turned to into pneumonia. The same year that Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) married Olivia Langdon was the same year that Burns died. His death happened at 10:30pm on 19 December 1870. Newspaper reporting on his death stated that his “agony and contortions during the last few hours of his existence [were] fearful.”[6] Shortly after his death his establishment was permanently closed.


  • [1] P. Burns, American Working Terriers (Morrisville, North Carolina: Patrick Burns, 2006), p. 45.
  • [2] The Daily Times, “Sun and Shadow,” June 11, 1935, p. 12.
  • [3] San Francisco Chronicle, “A Man Biting Rats’ Heads Off with His Teeth – Training and Washing Dogs – How They are Tasted – Dog Pluck,” February 20, 1870, p. 1.
  • [4] Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, “Fearful Blasphemy,” September 26, 1868, p. 2.
  • [5] The Kansas State Record, “The Death of Kit Burn,” December 29, 1870, p. 3.
  • [6] Ibid.

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