In a Cruel and Bizarre Twist, the Champion Fighting "Dog" of Victorian London Was An Ape Named Jacco
In a Cruel and Bizarre Twist, the Champion Fighting “Dog” of Victorian London Was An Ape Named Jacco

In a Cruel and Bizarre Twist, the Champion Fighting “Dog” of Victorian London Was An Ape Named Jacco

Tim Flight - August 12, 2018

Life was hard in the smoggy climes of Victorian London. Thieves and thugs hid amongst soot-blackened slums, malevolently eyeing the lords and ladies negotiating the piles of horse dung and puddles strewing the road. The poor shivered in darkened alleys, their stomachs rumbling a symphony in praise of the joys of living without a welfare state. Children hunched like old men, carrying brushes to clear yet another chimney belonging to yet another rich, apathetic family. Such unfortunates were kept in check by abject poverty and Draconian laws. In this miserable time, bloodsports were amongst the most popular forms of entertainment.

Chief amongst these dreadful sports was dog-fighting. Dog-fighting is the pitting of two or more dogs against each other in an enclosure in which they either fight to the death or until one is unable to continue due to the seriousness of its injuries. In the nineteenth century, the sport was popular amongst the hoi-polloi and riff-raff alike, as vast sums of money could be won by betting on the outcome of the fights. Into this vile and unforgiving ‘sport’ came the diminutive figure of Jacco Macacco, an ape whose fighting record is alleged to have brought fifteen victories.

In a Cruel and Bizarre Twist, the Champion Fighting “Dog” of Victorian London Was An Ape Named Jacco
A Dog Fight at Kit Burn’s from James McCabe, The Secrets of the Great City, Philadelphia, 1868. Library Company

According to William Pitt Lennox, an army officer and sporting writer, Jacco was brought by boat from Africa to Portsmouth, where he was immediately pitted against some provincial curs, before being taken to the wider audience of London (in a manner resembling theatre directors trawling through local theaters to pinch the best talent, notes Lennox). He won a fearsome reputation as a fighter, but turned on his own master, and was sold to the proprietor of the Westminster Pit, one Charles Aistrop. Aistrop has a differing, more entertaining, account of Jacco’s origin: an exotic pet gone very bad indeed.

In a Cruel and Bizarre Twist, the Champion Fighting “Dog” of Victorian London Was An Ape Named Jacco
Battle of the Bulldog and the Monkey by Samuel Howitt, London,1799. Wikimedia Commons

Aistrop claimed that Jacco had turned on his first owner, a sailor, over a saucer of milk, lacerating three of the man’s fingers. The sailor sold Jacco to Carter, a silversmith from Hoxton, who soon wearied of the ape’s ceaseless attempts to attack him. For Jacco, the erstwhile-pet, had turned extremely savage, and Carter had to buy a thick sheet of iron to protect himself from attack when he approached the creature. Carter took Jacco to a field and set a dog on him, which the ape killed with little difficulty, before swiftly dispatching two further would-be canine assailants.

Sensing a use for Jacco’s uncontrollable aggression, Carter pitted him against fighting dogs in local dog-fighting pits, most of which he killed within minutes by tearing out their throats. Jacco’s fame saw him sold to Charles Aistrop, after which his fame grew exponentially. The Westminster Ring Jacco now graced was amongst the biggest in London, and tales of his exploits were celebrated not just in gin-soaked taverns but reported in newspapers. Soon, owners of the most ferocious dogs in London wanted to pit their pets’ wits against the great Jacco Macacco, for with celebrity came a fortune in betting slips.

In a Cruel and Bizarre Twist, the Champion Fighting “Dog” of Victorian London Was An Ape Named Jacco
Fight between Jacko Maccacco a celebrated Monkey and Mr Tho. Cribbs well known bitch Puss by Thomas Landseer, London, c.1820. Wikimedia Commons

Jacco’s Finest Hour

Jacco’s fame culminated in a match against the unusually-named Bull and Terrier bitch “Puss”, another celebrated fighter on the London circuit, in June 1821. This bout was very much the ‘Thriller in Manila’ of its day: the veteran Puss was highly successful, and twice the weight of the undefeated newcomer. The exact outcome, however, is unknown, as we have conflicting accounts. According to Lennox, Puss ‘shared the same fate that fourteen canine predecessors had suffered, and was obliged to knock under to the champion of that animal which so closely resembles the human form’. No more is said of Jacco.

 

Horror Leads to Humane Legislation

The fight attracted wider interest, and was discussed in Parliament by Richard Martin, an MP and passionate advocate of animal rights whose work helped form the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the outlawing of bloodsports altogether. ‘Humanity Dick’, as he was known, had been appalled by this advertisement: ‘Jacco Macacco, the celebrated monkey, will this day fight Tom Crib’s white bitch, Puss. Jacco has fought many battles with some of the first dogs of the day, and has beat them all, and he hereby offers to fight any dog in England of double his own weight’.

According to Martin’s account in Parliament, the fight lasted for half an hour before Jacco severed Puss’s carotid artery, and in return had his mandible severed. Both animals died within two hours. This account was disputed by Aistrop, who claimed that Puss was killed in two-and-a-half-minutes, and that Jacco died of an unrelated illness fifteen months later. Aistrop also claimed that Jacco had been stuffed and sold to a Mr. Shaw of Richmond Common. Nevertheless, Martin’s impassioned 1822 account of the fight between Jacco and Puss helped pass his animal rights bill, and dog-fighting became illegal in 1835.

In a Cruel and Bizarre Twist, the Champion Fighting “Dog” of Victorian London Was An Ape Named Jacco
Tom and Jerry Sporting their Blunt on the Phenomenon Monkey Jacco Macacco at the WestminsterPit by George and Isaac Robert Cruikshank, London, 1821. Daily Telegraph

Fame Beyond the Pit

Such was the fame of Jacco that he was not only mentioned in Parliament, but immortalised in Lewis Strange Wingfield’s novel, Abigail Rowe. Wingfield included an account of a hundred-guinea fight between Jacco and ‘Belcher’s celebrated dog Trusty’. Pierce Egan also included a scene involving Jacco in one of his Tom and Jerry stories, which was illustrated by the eminent George and Isaac Robert Cruikshank. The illustration captures the squalid and intimate nature of a Victorian dog-fight, and the Hogarthian expressions on the faces of the punters is borne out by evidence for the bloodthirsty sport’s wide popularity.

Jacco’s fight with Puss was also the subject of an etching by Thomas Landseer, the brother of Edwin, painter of Monarch of the Glen and sculptor of the lions in Trafalgar Square (see above). A less-accomplished illustration of Jacco was made by Thomas Sutherland (also above), based on an original by Henry Thomas Alken, which shows the creature with a disconcertingly human face. The first two of the afore-mentioned illustrations depict Jacco’s favoured tactic of attacking opponents’ throats by lying on the ground, which meant that Jacco’s bouts usually lasted fewer than ninety seconds, producing theatrical amounts of blood.

In a Cruel and Bizarre Twist, the Champion Fighting “Dog” of Victorian London Was An Ape Named Jacco
A mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx). Quora

Species?

The exact species of Jacco is uncertain. Jacco’s surname, Maccaco, is misleading, as it may suggest him to have been some sort of macaque. The term ‘macaque’ was actually used colloquially at the time to refer to any sort of monkey. Lennox ascribed his origins to Africa, describing him to be ‘of a cinerous or ashy colour, with black fingers and muzzle’, and believed him to be a member of the gibbon family. Neither gibbons nor macaques are particularly renowned for their aggression, however, and it’s unlikely that either would have the strength to kill a larger, trained fighting dog.

Umberto Cuomo has suggested that Jacco may have been a Mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx), the largest monkey in the world, which seems to be more plausible. Mandrill fur is the same ashen colour Lennox ascribes to Jacco, and the size and aggression of the species is also a good fit. Mandrills, however, are known for their colorful faces and backsides, which parts on Jacco occasion no comment from Lennox. Mandrills, though, are sexually dimorphous in this respect, and only males exhibit these colorful features, which makes it likely that if Jacco was indeed a mandrill, ‘he’ was, in fact, a female.

In a Cruel and Bizarre Twist, the Champion Fighting “Dog” of Victorian London Was An Ape Named Jacco
An Olive Baboon (Papio anubis) photographed in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area,Tanzania. Wikimedia Commons

Yet the creature depicted in the first-hand illustrations we have discussed – excluding Sutherland’s human-faced chimera – most resembles the smaller baboon, specifically the Olive Baboon (Papio anubis), which matches Lennox’s description and whose pugnacious behavior also recalls the character of Jacco. Jacco’s method of rolling on his back to access the throat also fits these monkeys’ considerable intelligence. Both the mandrill and baboon would also support Aistrop’s story about the pet that became unruly, as an inexperienced naturalist could easily be duped into assuming that their endearing young would stay at a manageable size. Ultimately, Jacco’s species will remain a mystery.

A Story not to be Forgotten

Having reviewed this awful episode in the history of Victorian London, then, what can we deduce? Given the role of Jacco’s exploits in the ultimately-successful animal rights campaigns of Richard ‘Humanity Dick’ Martin, perhaps the suffering of the poor animal was not in vain. Let’s finish, however, by drawing a comparison between the society which subjected this unfortunate animal to such violence and our own. Doubtless, you have shuddered at the thought of dogs fighting one another, and even apes, for human entertainment, and reflected how fortunate you are to live in a more civilized time. Think again.

Dog-fighting is still, lamentably, a pastime in some communities around the world to this day, including the West, where specially-trained animals are smuggled across borders to fight one another for entertainment. Though far less mainstream, and now a criminal offense, it still goes on, as does badger-baiting and illegal hunting with dogs, to say nothing of less-specialized forms of cruelty to beasts and birds. It is truly a stain on civilization that there are still some today who have not shorn themselves of the cruel instincts that led to the widespread enjoyment of bloodsports in the Victorian period.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Brooke-Hitching, Edward. Fox-Tossing and Other Forgotten and Dangerous Sports, Pastimes, and Games. Atria Books, 2015.

Cuomo, Umberto. Il Bulldog: Storia, Educazione, Alimentazione, Allevamento, Salute. Lugano: Elvetica Edizioni, 2002.

Egan, Pierce. Life in London: or, The day and night scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom. London: Sherwood, Neely & Jones, 1821.

Lennox, Lord William Pitt. Pictures of Sporting Life and Character. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1860.

Phillips, Peter. Humanity Dick: The Eccentric Member for Galway. Tunbridge Wells: Parapress, 2003.

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