New York City Used To Kill Its Stray Dogs By Drowning Them

How A Merciless City Dealt With Its Unwanted Dogs

In 19th Century New York, You Had 24 Hours To Retrieve Your Lost Dog

Unclaimed Dogs Were Drowned In The East River

The dog catcher in New York City & the dogs fate- drowned in cages in the East River – illustration Harper’s Weekly

The Dog Dilemma

What happens today when animal shelters are filled to capacity? Sometimes cats and dogs are humanely euthanized, if there is such a thing as being humanely euthanized.

Canine population control in 19th century New York was much harsher. Beginning in 1855 a new and brutal method of putting down dogs was instituted – drowning.

Some editors and citizens actually attached the word “humane” to this new way of disposal.

Before that time, wandering dogs were considered pests and usually killed on the spot, in the street. The fear of rabies and mad dogs was used as a justification for the wanton killing.

The New York Times wrote, “One thing, however, is certain: dogs are useless animals in cities, and are a nuisance, independent of their habit of occasionally running mad; and the best dog law would be one that imposed so high a tax on the owners of curs that few people would care to keep them, and those who did would see to it that the animals did not run at large, muzzled or unmuzzled.”

An Efficient, Callous Solution

In 1855 it was resolved that any stray dogs in New York City were to be captured and placed in the dog pound at the foot of the East River. This decision was made by William MacKellar, clerk to New York’s first chief of police, George W. Matsell.

MacKellar had an unwarranted amount of control in the running of the dog pound. MacKellar was considered a slippery character by elected officials. He had just been charged by the city aldermen on the Police Investigation Committee of grafting money from the dog pound during previous years. No one could understand how MacKellar was even connected with the pound. On the witness stand MacKellar at times staunchly refused to cooperate with the investigation. What little he did say was contested as outright lies.

Chief Matsell had his own problems and was being tried for being a British alien and not a citizen of the United States. Matsell was acquitted the following year.

(*sidenote – Matsell and McKellar would later go on be the owners of the scandalous Police Gazette newspaper.)

Dog catcher “Andy” takes delight in beating a dog to death with a club at the New York City Dog Pound – Frank Leslie’s Illustrated 1858

It was MacKellar who came up with the new, efficient way of ridding the city of its dogs.

If unclaimed, within a day, the dogs would be drowned. Some dogs who were too big to be drowned, were heartlessly beaten to death with a club.

The New York Times commented, “…the drowning of the dogs is not a very pleasant sight. But still it is better that such should be their end than that our worthy citizens should live in fear of a bite. Better indeed that New-York, like Venice be dogless…”

New York City’s municipal war on dogs illustration: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper July 1877

This article from the New York Times of June 2, 1881 details the slaughter of mans best friend:


Dogs have no right to live after the 1st of June, according to the Mayor, unless they are wealthy enough to wear a collar with a brass certificate of license attached to it. The “close season” for dogs in New-York began yesterday and the pound was opened. In this institution last year over 8,000 dogs were put to death, and there was thus destroyed more intelligence, more faithfulness, and more common sense than ever bothered some of their persecutors.

The pound was empty yesterday, but the 15 dog-catchers are to go to work immediately, and it will soon have some boarders. It is under the charge of Capt. John McMahon and several assistants, who have made very complete arrangements for the capture and slaughter of unclaimed dogs.

Retrieved just in time from New York’s dog pound. Most of the dogs were not so fortunate – Harper’s Weekly

There is an office in front with a big sign on it. “Department of Dogs.” This is separated inside into two parts by a railing. The officers of the concern are on one side of the railing. and a police-man and the Indignant public are on the other side. In the reception room, to which the better dogs are taken, are 130 kennels, each supplied with a chain. Troughs run around the ends of these kennels, containing constantly four inches of water, to supply thirsty dogs with a drink.

Boy rescues his dog from New York City pound – Harper’s Weekly Aug. 1, 1868

At one end of the room are two large private kennels for the accommodation of such fancy dogs as may be picked up. There is a pen at one side, just the size of the iron cage, in which the dogs are drowned. This is filled with the poor creatures, and they are then driven into the cage. The cage rests upon a little car, which is run to the water’s edge. Over the edge of the river hangs a derrick, from the cross-beam of which dangles a bit iron book. The hook is fastened in an iron ring in the top of the cage, which is then hoisted with a rope and pulley till It is clear of the car, when it is swung over the river and lowered. In six minutes the dogs delight to bark and bite no longer, and the cage is hoisted up again.

Their dead bodies are taken to Barren Island where they are  “manufactured” into various articles. Just what those articles are, perhaps It is better for the public not to conjecture. The pound is at the foot of Sixteenth-street, East River, and there valuable or pet dogs may be re-claimed upon payment of the, legal fee. When a dog sees a man come alone with a big circular badge on his heart and a number on the badge, let that dog lie low—it is the catcher!

A lucky dog reclaimed at the New York City dog pound – Harper’s Weekly June 16 ,1883

Harper’s Weekly reported that after 24 hours of captivity If a stray dog was not claimed and a license purchased for $2.00, the dog was put down in this barbaric fashion at 4:00 PM the following day. The poundkeeper had the liberty of keeping fine looking dogs that had a greater likelihood of being reclaimed for any amount of time beyond the hour of reckoning. On average, less than five percent of captured dogs were retrieved.

Enterprising rowdies, street urchins and the professional dog catchers were paid between 25 and 50 cents (prices changed over the years) for each dog that was brought into the pound. Needless to say many of the dogs were not strays, but stolen, sometimes right out of the hands of their owners.

A Need For Change

Many people considered drowning to be cruel and painful to the dogs. The issue was taken up in 1888 by Mayor Abram Hewitt who suggested there had to be a better way to dispose of strays.

Investigative experiments were made to put dogs to death painlessly and economically. Electrocution by AC current proved to be effective but too expensive. A carbon dioxide plant was built and was also found to be too expensive to maintain and operate. Poisoning the dogs by suffocating them with chloroform held the most promise with death occurring in two minutes. But more study had to be conducted before enacting a change, and the drowning continued.

Finally in 1894 a new law went into effect pushed through the legislature by John P. Haines, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Dogs and cats wandering the streets without licenses would be taken to the new Shelter for Animals at 102nd Street adjacent to the East River.

The 60 foot long and 14 foot wide shelter building was well heated, lighted and ventilated. The animals would be held for at least 48 hours. After that time, if not found to be proper inmates for the institution (vicious, mangy or sick dogs and cats), they would be destroyed.

The dogs and cats deemed worthy of preservation were well fed and carefully attended to, until some final disposition was made of them. The ASPCA would generally try and find good homes for the remaining unclaimed dogs and cats. Eventually if the owners did not come to retrieve their dogs or no adopted home could be found, the animals were asphyxiated by illumination gas. Death occurred within 12 seconds it was claimed.

In 1895, Brooklyn, then still a separate city from New York, abolished their dog pound and gave control of strays to the APSCA.

The era of drowning dogs in New York City had come to an end.

1 thought on “New York City Used To Kill Its Stray Dogs By Drowning Them

  1. Sam Scott

    Hello, Thank you for this article! It was upsetting but very informative. I’m wondering where you got the illustrations from?


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