Blog #3 – The Madison Square Garden of old

As I do with every holiday I go on, I always try to incorporate something related to dogs no matter where I go in the world. So keeping with my tradition, during a recent trip to New York, USA, I took the opportunity to visit a piece of local history, the well known property of 273 Water Street that I have heard so much about over the years.

The building today looks as it does in the photo above, that I took whilst standing outside but go back over 150 years ago and this building could tell a few stories. It’s now a small apartment block, hidden away from the main Manhattan area but at one point it was considered by many as the Madison Square Garden of old.

It was originally built in 1773 and its first resident was Captain Joseph Rose who only resided in the premises for a few years. It was then resided by a few other well known gentleman of the time and eventually it was leased out to a few different shopkeepers of different trades.

It was shortly before the American Civil War that the building took its true identity when it was taken over by the legendary Christopher “Kit” Burns, who converted it to the well known “Sportsmen’s Hall”. Kit Burns was an Irish immigrant and a lieutenant in the famous New York Irish gang, the Dead Rabbits. He was also heavily involved in bare knuckle boxing, dog matches, bear baiting and ratting. These sporting events were the main draw at Sportmen’s Hall where its rat pit became renown all over the world.

The rat pit was roughly eight feet square, with zinc-lined wooden walls that were about four feet high. One terrier at at a time was set loose against 100 rats whilst hundreds of spectators viewed the action from the side lines and wagered heavily on how quickly the dog would kill all of the long tailed vermin. A good terrier could kill 100 rats in half an hour. Rat baiting was more lucrative than boxing and any other animal sport, only bearbaiting was more lucrative. There was such a high demand for rats at the time that  some rat catchers were paid between 5 and 12 cents per a rat.

Burn’s was extremely loving and caring with his dogs, he always made sure that they were well looked after, well fed and in good care. One of his favourite dogs was ‘Jack’, who supposedly killed a record 100 rats in 6 minutes and 40 seconds. When Jack passed away, he was stuffed and mounted behind the bar at Sportsmen’s Hall.

The rat pit was closed by Henry Bergh in 1870, who had founded the ASPCA in 1866. Unfortunately, Burns died that same year six days before Christmas and control was passed to his son in law Richard “Dick the Rat” Toner who was considered by many as the best Rat Catcher in Manhattan. Toner changed the name of Sportsmen’s Hall to the Band Box.

As time passed, 273 Water Street faded away into obscurity after the days of Sportsmen’s Hall and the Band Box. It was severely effected by two fires, one in 1904 and the other much later in 1974, which left the building badly damaged and only the shell remaining. The premises were bought extremely cheap in the mid 90’s and extensive renovations were done to get the building looking as it is today.

I tried to gain access into the building, just to say I set foot inside the famous Sportsmen’s Hall but unfortunately it didn’t happen. At least I can say that I was there and saw it with my own two eyes “the Madison Square Garden of old.”

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