THE history of San Francisco is rich with fascinating and inspiring characters, but this story is just about a man who kicked a dog.
Consider Henry Rippey. It won’t take long. Henry Rippey was a drunk. That’s it, that’s literally all anyone knows today about who the man was. This one night in November of 1865, Henry Rippey was staggering through the saloons of Montgomery Street - drunk, as was his custom - and almost stumbled over a stray dog blocking his path. Henry Rippey kicked the dog.
Despicable. An unnecessarily cruel act, by any modern standard. Yet probably not an act Henry Rippey gave much thought to. In his time, the streets of San Francisco were foul with stray and feral dogs - this was true of the whole of California, and in Los Angeles, supposedly, dogs outnumbered people two-to-one. Dogs were everywhere, and it was acceptable, even encouraged, to kill or impound them. And so Henry Rippey the drunk kicked a dog, thinking nothing of it.
And it was a cruel thing, but so much worse than Henry Rippey knew. This was not just any dog. The name of this dog was Bummer. And when Henry Rippey learned that, a chill should have run down his spine.
The people of San Francisco had met Bummer five years earlier, as a stray Newfoundland begging for scraps from the patrons of a Montgomery Street saloon. “We shall call you Bummer,” it was agreed. They liked the stray and kept him well fed because he was good - exceptionally good - at killing rats, another of the city’s ubiquitous problem animals. Even beyond that, Bummer had something that the average ratter dog didn’t have. He had the heart of a lion. (Not literally - he had a dog heart.)
Bummer’s lion-heart moment came when he fought back a bigger dog in the act of savaging a young cur. The younger dog had been gravely wounded, and Bummer took him into his care. As the dog rested and recovered, Bummer brought him food from the saloons, which he carried in his mouth, and at night, cuddled the little dog to keep him warm. This dog would be named “Lazarus”.
Bummer and Lazarus became best friends, as you’d hope. Together they were a team of super ratters, and had many adventures, like hiding inside stores until closing time and then ransacking them, and even on one occasion stopping a runaway horse and cart. Their stories were chronicled and mythologised by the local press, many of whom frequented the Montgomery Street saloons and found Bummer and Lazarus an endearing local interest alternative to the other top stories of the day, e.g. the Civil War. A reporter for the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletini> described the pair of Bummer and Lazarus thusly: “Two dogs but with a single bark, two tails that wagged as one.”
Such was the public affection for the tales of Bummer & Lazarus, that when Lazarus, along with a host of other strays, was snatched up by a city dogcatcher, the people of San Francisco demanded his release. The incident prompted the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to officially exempt Bummer and Lazarus from the local ordnances regarding stray dogs, permitting them to roam as they liked.
Lazarus’s luck would not hold. Allegedly, the dog bit a young boy, and in retaliation he was fed a dose of revenge meat. What looked like a tasty treat was laced with the poison of ratbane. Lazarus died in October of 1863. Despite a promised $50 reward, the poisoner was never identified.
From there, it was all downhill for poor Bummer. In Lazarus, Bummer had lost not just his closest friend and partner, but the story premise that the San Francisco press had relied upon. Solo Bummer wasn’t as interesting to the media as Bummer & Lazarus had been, and while the popular affection for Bummer remained, he had peaked as a local celebrity. So Bummer continued doing what he had always done, killing rats, begging for the occasional scrap of food and sleeping in the streets, but he did it alone now, without friends and without notice, until one night as he slept Henry Rippey kicked him down a flight of stairs and he died.
When Rippey’s crime was discovered, he was taken into custody by the local sheriff. For his own protection: the sheriff feared a flare-up of street justice. Henry Rippey had a cellmate, a San Francisco popcorn vendor with the improbable name of David Popley. When Popley heard what Henry Rippey had done, he was so incensed that he punched Henry Rippey right in the face - or, as contemporary accounts phrased it, “popped him in the smeller.” Even David Popley’s assaults were popcorn-themed.
Many of us, I think, wonder whether our lives have been important enough to be remembered at all. The victory of Henry Rippey is that this no-name, unaccomplished drunk can truthfully say that against all the odds, history has remembered him, albeit for the twin indignities of killing a hero dog and getting popped in the smeller by a criminal popcorn vendor.
When Bummer died, his eulogy was penned by none other than Mark Twain, in the pages of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. Henry Rippey’s obituary was recorded 150 years late and by the Ombudsman of a small video game company. So it goes.