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Kit Burns’ Rat Pit at 273 Water Street

“Most of our readers have witnessed a dog fight in the street. Let them imagine the animals surrounded by a crowd of brutal wretches whose conduct stamps them as beneath the struggling beasts, and they will have a fair idea of the scene at Kit Burns’s.”

Secrets of the Great City, Edward Winslow Martin (1868)

Just down the block from the Hole in the Wall is a three-story brick building at 273 Water Street. Built in 1773, 273 Water is the third-oldest building in Manhattan, behind only St. Paul’s Chapel on lower Broadway and the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Harlem Heights. The first resident was a mahogany trader named Joseph Rose. Captain Rose built a comfortable two-story home with a steep-pitched roof, three fireplaces, a wooden sidewalk out front, and a dock out back where he moored his brig, the Industry. Later occupants would include tenant Abraham Walton, a vestryman at Trinity Church and a delegate to the First Provincial Congress in 1775, and son Isaac Rose, who ran an apothecary here until his father’s death in 1807.

Isaac sold the building to Elisha W. King, a prominent lawyer and alderman who would go on to run for Mayor in 1827. He received exactly one vote. According to a Historic American Buildings Survey, King leased the building to several shopkeepers, including a watchmaker, a cobbler, and a grocer named William Pearsall.

Interestingly, the Historic American Buildings Survey leaves out 273 Water’s most colorful tenant. In the 1840s, Christopher “Kit” Burns had been a lieutenant in the Irish gang, the Dead Rabbits. (The name comes from the Irish ráibéad, which meant “a hulk” or “a man to be feared” depending on the context, and dead was common Bowery slang for “very” or “undoubtedly,” as in “dead center.”) By the 1860s, Burns had opened a three-story bar, brothel, and gambling den called the Sportsmen’s Hall. Not named for any manner of athleticism, it referred to the “sporting life” that centered on gambling, women, and drink. The main draw was the “rat pit,” an amphitheater on the first floor where fox terriers would fight starving rats and audiences would bet on the winner. The amphitheater was on the first floor, a dirt floor surrounded by zinc-lined wooden walls 4.5 feet high and 8 feet long. The arena could fit “250 decent people and 400 indecent ones” during a match.

“The performance is greeted with shouts, oaths, and other frantic demonstrations of delight,” wrote a contemporary observer. “Some of the men will catch up the dog in their arms, and press it to their bosom in a frenzy of joy, or kiss it as if it were a human being, unmindful or careless of the fact that all this while the animal is smeared with the blood of its victims. The scene is disgusting beyond description.”

Rat baiting was one the most lucrative forms of gambling on the waterfront. The average purse was around $125. More than boxing (50 cents) or cockfighting ($2), a buy-in for a good ratbaiting match could rise as high as $5 depending on the number of rats. Only bearbaiting was more lucrative, but that brutal sport had mostly died out by the 1840s. With such a high demand for prey, some would earn money just by collecting rats, being paid 5 to 12 cents for each rat.

The crowd at Kit Burns’ was a colorful one (“a more brutal, villainous-looking set it would be hard to find”), none more so than Burns himself. He once told a preacher, “”I’d like to be an angel and bite Gabriel’s ear off.” Another time, he threw his arm around a reporter and asked him, “Did you ever see such a kicking-in-the-head-knife-in-a-dark-room fellow as I am?” The terrified reporter mumbled no. At the same time, he could be surprisingly sentimental, especially about his dogs. Unlike other ratbaiters, he always fed his dogs well and they appeared to reciprocate his affections. One of his favorites was Jack, who killed a record 100 rats in 6 minutes and 40 seconds. When Jack died, Burns had him stuffed and mounted over the bar.

In 1868, a strange incident happened in the dives surrounding Water and Cherry Streets. Starting at John Allen’s bar at 304 Water, the Rev. A.C. Arnold began holding prayer meetings at saloons across the Fourth Ward. These sessions attracted gawkers to come to hear sermons in some of the roughest bars on the waterfront.

“The roughs and dry clerks piled themselves up as high as the roof, tier by tier, and a sickening odor came from the dogs and debris of rats’ bones under the seats. Kit stood outside, cursing and damning the eyes of the missionaries for not hurrying up. Kit said, ‘I’m damned if some of the people that come here oughtn’t to be clubbed. A fellow ‘ud think they had never seen a dogpit before. I must be damned good looking to have so many fine fellows looking at me.'”  – New York World, 1866

Unsurprisingly, it seems the “Water Street Revival” was mostly a publicity stunt, as Allen and Burns were paid $350 and $150, respectively, for the use of their locations.

The rat pit at Sportsmen’s Hall was eventually shut down by Henry Bergh in 1870, who had founded the ASPCA four years earlier. Kit Burns died that same year, six days before Christmas, and control passed to his son-in-law Richard “Dick the Rat” Toner, who changed the name to the Band-Box.  Toner had been the best ratcatcher in Manhattan for a time. While most boys used their bare hands, Toner developed a pair of rasped tongs that would prevent rats from wriggling away before they were dropped into a canvas sack. Police once caught him carrying a bag with a full night’s load and brought him in on suspicion of burglary. A captain ordered Toner to show him what was in the bag, and so he dropped the bulging sack on the floor as over a hundred rats went scurrying through the police station.

273 Water Street faded after the days of Sportsmen’s Hall and the Band-Box. It was severely damaged by two fires. The first was in 1904, after which upper floors were built. The other, more devastating, fire occurred in 1974, which left 273 Water a mere shell of a home fit only for storage. (You can see in the above picture that the entire roof is gone.) In 1997, Frank J. Sciame bought the house for one dollar and spent $1.1 million renovating it into luxury apartments.

 

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