- Research Note:Material Culture and the Meaning of Rough Sports in Nineteenth-Century Canada: The Case of “Champion Hecter”
In the winter of 1865, for reasons lost to history, Toronto innkeeper William Vine received an unusual gift from his friends. Accompanied by its “gaffs,” or steel spurs, the taxidermied fighting rooster was mounted in a wooden case that bore the inscription, “Presented to William Vine by his friends as Champion Hecter [sic] of Canada, Feby. 20 1865.” Clearly, the bird was significant, or at least intriguing, to Vine and his descendants, as it remained in the family for almost a century and a half. In 2013, Vine’s great-great-granddaughter, Audrey Sanford, donated the rooster and his accoutrement to the Canadian Museum of History.
This research note suggests that a close reading of the Vine rooster offers new insights into the culture of rough sport in nineteenth-century Canada. Where judicial records and the press tend to favor the view that rough sports were relics of barbarism, the Vine rooster illustrates the practices of a coherent cockfighting subculture with its own networks, customs, values, and vocabulary. At the time of the rooster’s manufacture, the rules of cockfighting [End Page 220] were undergoing a process of formalization, paralleling trends in more “respectable” sports. The rooster’s equipment speaks to the regional and cross-border dimensions of this process and of the cock-fighting community. Meanwhile, blood sports in Canada faced mounting hostility and scrutiny, culminating in federal legislation that outlawed cockfighting in 1870. In this context, the rooster may be read as a symbol of resistance to state regulation. My research suggests that attention to material evidence can enrich our understanding of the social and cultural history of rough sports in North America.
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Over the years, U.S. historians have documented cockfighting’s popularity, especially in the American South and the perspectives of its critics.1 Mid-nineteenth-century accounts indicate that cockfights occurred in Canada also, observing, for example, the “evil propensities of card-playing and cock-fighting” among French-Canadian lumbermen or warning children that watching cockfights could turn people into “a race of tigers.”2 Historians acknowledge the sport’s practice in Canada but do not explore the sport’s social and cultural significance.3 This significance has been a focus in other disciplines. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s seminal study of the Balinese cockfight, for example, inspired further consideration of the sport as a reflection of social relationships and values.4 Folklorists and criminologists consider late twentieth-century cockfighting a deviant but internally coherent subculture.5 However, historians have not applied these insights to the nineteenth-century sport. [End Page 221]
The difficulty of writing the history of cockfighting in nineteenth-century Canada reflects the sport’s ambiguous legal status. In spite of Canada’s British legal tradition, the law governing blood sports more closely resembled American precedents. England prohibited cockfighting in 1835. In Canada, however, a patchwork of municipal and regional animal welfare and gaming regulations prevailed. Only after Confederation did federal legislation explicitly prohibit cockfighting.6 Canadian authorities, like their American counterparts, tacitly balanced middle-class moral opposition to rough sports with other constituents’ continued enjoyment of these activities. In Toronto, opponents of cockfighting lambasted “rough,” “rowdy,” and “disgraceful” cockfighting participants and the civic authorities who failed to eradicate the foul practice. The city did ban cock- and dog-fighting in 1864.7 However, as one 1863 account noted, cockfights often took place “outside the jurisdiction of the county constable and the city police patrol—a sort of neutral ground, where any amount of mischief and rascality may be perpetrated.”8 Such was also the attraction of Vine’s tavern, located safely outside the city limits.
Vine was born in Little Snoring, Norfolk, England, in 1816. He apparently apprenticed as a butcher, his father’s trade, and he may have been briefly imprisoned for larceny in 1834, two years before his family emigrated to upstate New York.9 Vine moved to Canada in the early 1850s and...