Happy endings were rare for the stray canines hauled to the Minneapolis dog pound on Nicollet Island in 1888. Unclaimed dogs were killed after three days. How did the pound masters dispatch the luckless hounds? Let’s just say widespread use of the euphemism “putting dogs to sleep” was still decades away. The Minneapolis Tribune offered readers this euphemism-free -- yet oddly cheerful -- look inside the city pound.

KILLED WITH AN AXE.

The Way in Which the “Happy Dispatch”
Is Performed at the Dog Pound
in Minneapolis.

But Electricity Has Been Suggested and Next
Season Will Be Applied in Disposing of
Unlicensed Canines.
 
“To live and yet to die,” that is the question that many members of the canine species were promulgating amongst themselves yesterday as they visited back and forth in their respective kennels in the city pound, in a feverish restless manner. And well they might feel ill at ease and curse their ingrates of masters and mistresses for not coming to redeem them before the execution, because today is “killing day” at the pound. This institution which in a certain sense is “a thing of beauty and a joy forever” and a valuable accessory to the city laws, is located on Nicollet Island just below the Pillsbury mill.
 
 
  For some reason dog pounds were not a popular subject for photographers of the 1880s. I can't find a single photo of a dog catcher or a dog pound in the Minnesota Historical Society's online collection. Always striving to look on the bright side of life, I offer instead some of the many upbeat canine images of the era, including this 1892 photo of "Papa" Charles Jackson of Stillwater with his dog King. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
George Bevers is lord high executioner there, as the poundmaster’s sway is just as great in the dominion over which he reigns supreme, as that of a curate over his country parsonage. It is in here that all the luckless wights of dogs, who are not fortunate enough to have a home, or whose proprietor does not love his “doggy dog” sufficiently to pay his license, are incarcerated. They are scooped up as it were from every nook and corner by the pound master’s horde of dog catchers. These latter gentlemen are artists in their profession and their trade is above board and a legitimate one. They do not take the witching hour of midnight for their work, as do the body snatchers; but grab the “purps” in broad daylight, wherever they can find one which has not the talismanic license check attached about it scraggly, lean, fat or curly neck as the case may be. After they have been captured and the dog coop is full of the growling, whining canines, they are taken over the river and far away and dumped into the inclosure.
 
As stated before, today is “killing day,” that is all dogs who have not been claimed by their owners, and the necessary $1 paid, are led out to the execution. Dog killing has now become a veritable science, and ingenious men are every day burrowing in the hirsute growth that adorns their heads, endeavoring to discover some more artistic and painless method – to the dogs – for disposing of them. In many eastern cities electricity is employed to put an end to their dog lives, and in France the ancient and effective guillotine is used.
 
Here in the Northwest, where everything is done in the simplest manner possible, the dogs are put to death in a simple way. It is probably not what a professional executioner would term beautiful, but it is old-fashioned and effective. After three days have elapsed and no claimant put in an appearance, the dogs are led out, one at a time, by a string and tied up to the execution post – an old oak tree – and after given a few moments to look at the fleeting clouds above and say a prayer in their doggish way, they are pounded on the head with an axe. Sometimes a billet of wood is used, but the axe is supposed to be the public weapon. In this manner are the superfluous dogs of the city sent to their last sleep in dogdom.
 
 
  Photographer James E. Rich, a New York native, moved to Iowa in 1858 and plied his craft in Mason City, Dubuque, Red Wing and Minneapolis. This 1885 carte-de-visite was produced at his studio at Washington and 2nd avenues. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
The old adage says: “All things come to him who waits,” and if the public will only be patient and wait, why undoubtedly there will be some wonderful change in the dog-killing business. This same question has puzzled the noddles of the city Pooh-Bahs for a long time, and a scheme is now on foot to put some secret process into use that will revolutionize everything and make a dog’s death a luxury.
 
A dog-catcher’s life is not a hard one and there is a sort of delicate odor of romance that clings about it that is fascinating to anyone who has tried a season of it. When the dog catching season is mature, they start out early in the morning with their coop and a book about the size of a directory, ready for business. The romance of the trade does not lie in grabbing the dogs, but in the little incidents pertaining to it. For instance, one of them in his meanderings about the back stoop and yard of a house, discovers the pet poodle of the establishment. He sees the poodle has no license check and grabs it. He has a right to grab him, as that is his business. In doing so he hears a pretty little feminine shriek, and looking up encounters a pair of witching black eyes. “Oh, he mustn’t take Fido, as it would break her heart.” Again he will run athwart an old maid who cannot afford to pay the license for her ugly looking “spitz,” and when he attempts to take it to the asylum for all such dogs he has the sour and vinegar exterior of the lady herself, together with a number of emphatic exclamations to brave. All those little incidents tend to make the life of a metropolitan dog catcher pleasant and romantic.
 
One of the keepers at the city pound talked amiably about his vocation and the dogs.
 
Said he: “Yes, the way we dispose of the animals is somewhat brutal, but they are getting things in shape now so that everything will pass off smoothly. They intend to use electricity, the same as they are doing in the East. It is simple enough in method, as it consists merely of applying the full current from a wire used in street lighting. Two ends of the wire are placed against the dog’s spine and the current passes through him, making the death instantaneous. Oh, dear, yes, we have all kinds of dogs there during the year, and some very valuable ones too. Now here, for instance, is one that is worth a good deal of money to a dog fancier,” and this sage of dog lore proceeded to open one of the kennels and point out a handsome little fox terrier.
 
 
  In the early 1880s, Mary Heywood Falwell, daughter of the University of Minnesota's first president, enjoyed the companionship of a handsome dog named Lion. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

“Now that dog is a valuable one,” continued he, “and is a mighty clever little fellow with the exception that he has bad feet. The dog is a strayed one, and the check has probably been lost off his neck. There is no danger of that dog being killed, as some one who knows what is what will buy him before the hammer is dropped. Lord bless you, I don’t mind killing ‘em, as I am used to it, although it does make a fellow squeamish at first. We kill, I think, about an average of 100 dogs a month. If anybody will come and pay the license, why he can have all the dogs he wants. We sell quite a number, but would get rid of a great many more if people wouldn’t wait until the time is up and get around too late. It’s not necessary for us to keep them any longer than three days; so if they are not around by the fourth why they get left, that’s all.

"The men are not the only ones who come around here, as women are frequent visitors. One of them will miss a pug or a poodle, you know, and, of course, think that horrid dog-catcher has taken it, so down they come, all flurry and excitement. I had a pug in here the other day that belonged to a lady in St. Paul. It was a beauty, and carried both ears perfectly and had a good wrinkle. The lady search St. Paul all over and finally, in despair, came over here and found her dog. She said that she wouldn’t take $100 for it. Perhaps she wouldn’t, but I know that I wouldn’t give that much for it. The majority of dogs we get here, however, are of no special breed, but belong to the mongrel class of curs. They are neither useful nor ornamental, and it is a benefit to the human race to put them out of the way. They are the kind of dogs that never say a word during the day, but as soon as the shades of night have fallen set up a howl and snarl, and keep it up until day break. Those kinds of dogs, with the back fence cats, ought to be drowned when quite young or have premiums placed on their heads.”   

 

In 1887, at least one dog that managed to avoid the cruelties of the pound was instead subjected to the taunts of a kitten-wielding country squire. Or is that a puppy? (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

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