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Animal Grief in the 19th Century – Mimi Matthews

Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1827.

During the 19th century, attributing human feelings to animals was generally considered to be more sentimentality than science. Nevertheless, Regency and Victorian era reports abound of dogs who wasted away at their masters graves, cats who refused to eat or drink upon the death of their mistress, and even a pet monkey who committed suicide. Some of these stories were, indeed, mere sentimentalism. Others were poignant accounts of the behavior of indisputably grief stricken animals.

Greyfriars Bobby, circa 1865. (National Galleries of Scotland)

Some of the most well-known stories of animal grief in the 19th century involve dogs. The most famous of these is, undoubtedly, the tale of Greyfriars Bobby. Bobby was a terrier whose owner died and was subsequently buried in Greyfriars churchyard in Edinburgh. In his 1887 book Dog Stories and Dog Lore, author Thomas Knox writes:

Bobby was one of the mourners at the funeral and for nearly fourteen years he kept watch over his master’s grave. Every night he lay there regardless of the weather; the sexton of the churchyard tried to persuade Bobby to leave the place and live with him but all to no purpose, as the dog would howl in the most dismal tones until allowed to return to the grave. He was ultimately found dead one bitter morning in winter and was supposed to have perished of age and cold.”

Doubt has since been cast on the tale of Bobbys unrelenting devotion to his master, but there are countless other similar tales involving 19th century dogs that grieved for their deceased owners. An 1849 article in the Norfolk News relates the story of a spaniel whose mistressthe wife of a coal-heaverhad taken deathly ill. The spaniel remained on his mistress bed, occasionally emitting a melancholy howl, until she passed away. After her death, the spaniels grief redoubled. The article reports:

Taking by the coffin a similar position to that which he had occupied in the sick chamber, he refused to quit his post, and would have been starved if his meals had not been taken to him.

On the day of the funeral, the spaniel followed along with the mourners to the graveyard, after which he was not seen again until well past midnight when he was discovered scratching at the door of his masters house. As the article states:

On ingress being afforded, the faithful brute was found nearly covered with soil, and appeared greatly fatigued. It was found next day that he had visited the grave, and displaced a considerable quantity of the earth in his attempts to reach the coffin. He refuses food and is literally dying by inches.

For the Last Time by Emily Mary Osborn, 1864.

An 1858 edition of the Northern Whig also published a story of a dog who kept vigil at his masters grave. In this particular case, on the day of his masters burial, the dog took up residence in an aperture near the grave that led to a gloomy little cavern wherein the dog would curl up, inconsolable, for days at a time. A gentleman in a house across from the churchyard took pity on the poor creature and began to offer him food. The dog accepted the food, but he could not be lured from his owners grave for long. The article states:

As soon as he had finished his hasty meal, he would gaze for a moment on his benefactor. It was an expressive look, but one which could not be misunderstood. It conveyed all the thanks that a broken heart could give. He then entombed himself once more for three or four days, when he crawled out again with his eyes sunk and his coat disheveled. Two years he remained faithful to the memory of the being he had lost, and then having been missing several days, he was found dead in his retreat.

Old Woman by a Hearthby August Alleb, 1875.

Cats were not as popular as dogs in the 19th century, nor were they endowed with as many noble qualities. Even so, Victorians could not deny that cats were often capable of a great bond with their master or mistressand equally capable of grief at losing them. An 1887 edition of the Leeds Times relates the tale of a lady and her beloved pet cat, stating:

Upon her death the cat was removed from her room, but it made its way there the next morning, lamenting its dead mistress with piteous cries. After her funeral it was found stretched dead upon her grave, having apparently died from excess of grief.

The Leeds Times goes on to report the story of a cat who was greatly attached to a little boy. When the boy was taken ill, the cat attended him most devotedly. Later, whenthe boy died, the article states:

The cats grief was pitiful to see. After the child was interred the cat disappeared, and it was not until a fortnight afterwards that she returned, quite emaciated, but refused food and again escaped. At length, impelled by hunger, she returned every day at dinner time, leaving directly after. It was discovered that she passed all the rest of her time in the burying ground, close to the grave of her favourite; and from that time till the family removed to another place, five years afterwards, she never, except in the greatest severity of winter, passed a night anywhere but close to his grave.

Reports of animal grief in the 19th century were not limited to tales of pets grieving over the death of a human master or mistress. Many newspaper and magazine articles of the day reported stories of animals grieving deeply over the loss of an animal companion. As an example of this, an 1845 edition of the Wiltshire Gazette published a story of two horses who had served together during the Peninsular War. These horses had drawn the same gun and had been inseparable companions through many battles. The article reports:

One of them was at last killed; and after the engagement, the survivor was piqueted as usual, and his food brought to him. He refused, however, to eat, and was constantly turning round his head to look for his companion, sometimes neighing as if to call him. All the care that was bestowed upon him was to no avail. He was surrounded by other horses, but he did not notice them; and he shortly afterwards died, not having once tasted food from the time his former associate was killed.

Horse by James Ward, 1769-1859.

Sometimes, at least according to the Victorians, an animals grief went beyond the passive refusal of food or shelter and advanced to the animal actively hastening his own demise. Animal suicide, in fact. In 1889, the Star published an account of a gentleman in Paris who owned a very well trained pet monkey. During a bout of low spirits, the gentleman took his own life by shooting himself through the head. As the article relates:

The monkey was present at the death of his master, and probably took in every particular. In any case, when a doctor was called in to see if life was extinct in the man, he was astonished to find himself in presence of a double suicide, the monkeys body being stretched beside that of his master with the revolver clasped between its fingersIt is stated that the animal picked up the pistol after his master had blown out his brains, and imitated what he had just seen done, sending a bullet through his head precisely as the man had done.

Today, the above incident sounds more like mere mimicry than an instance of what the Star calls Suicide by Grief. But though the 1889 report of a monkey suicide may have had little to do with actual grief on the part of the monkey, it is important to note that 19th century tales of animal suicide were not uncommon. In her 2013 book How Animals Grieve, anthropologist Barbara King quotes an article from an 1847 edition of Scientific American titled Suicide by Gazelle. The article reads, in part:

A female gazelle having suddenly died from something it had eaten, the male stood over the dead body of his mate, butting every one who attempted to touch it, then, suddenly making a spring, struck his head against a wall, and fell dead at the side of his companion.

Much as in the case of the monkey, the gazelle suicide could easily be explained in a less sentimental way. Nevertheless, the examplehelps to illustrate the 19th century tendency to explain animal behavior in terms of human emotion. Does this mean that all reports of animal grief in the 19th century arenothing more than anthropomorphism? That animals are not capable of mourning a lost loved one? Not at all. Modern scientistsincluding renowned animal behavior expert Professor Marc Bekoffhave proven that all animals have the capacity for grief. As Bekoff writes in his 2007 book, The Emotional Lives of Animals:

..careful scientific research is validating what we intuitively understand: that animals feel, and their emotions are as important to them as ours are to us.

King echoes this statement in her own book, assuring us that “animals grieve when they have loved.” And it certainlyseems clear that in many reported cases of 19th century animal grief, the animals in question lovedtheir companions very much and, when those companions were taken away,mourned them just as deeply.

Attachment by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1829. (Saint Louis Art Museum)

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History. If you would like to learn more about animal grief or animal emotions in general, I highly recommend the books below:

The Emotional Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff

How Animals Grieve by Barbara King

Works Referenced or Cited in this Article

Affections of Animals. Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette. May 29, 1845.

Bekoff, Marc. The Emotional Lives of Animals. Novato: New World Library, 2007.

A Dog Dying of Grief. Whitby Gazette. March 27, 1875.

A Dogs Grief. Northern Whig. December 28, 1858.

Death of a Dog from Grief. Morning Post. July 18, 1872.

Faithful Cats. Leeds Times. March 12, 1887.

Instance of Canine Attachment. Norfolk News. February 10, 1849.

King, Barbara. How Animals Grieve. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Knox, Thomas Wallace. Dog Stories and Dog Lore. New York: Cassell & Co., 1887.

Suicide from Grief. The Star. May 4, 1889.

2016 Mimi Matthews

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