No. 599
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
March 27, 2023

Rat Pit.

September 12, 2011

The Scottish-born James Oliphant worked as a surgeon in Newcastle.  In 1755, he married one Margaret Erskine, and the pair went on to have two children.  From all appearances, the family was one of solid 18th century middle-class respectability.This seemingly ordinary household took a very dark turn in May of 1764.  One of Oliphant’s two maidservants unexpectedly became so ill she had to quit her
Strange Company - 3/27/2023
When Patrick  H. Doherty joined the Fall River Police Department in 1885, he might have been astounded to learn that he would be involved one day in two notorious murder cases- both involving hatchets and axes.  Patrick Doherty was born in Peoria, Illinois on August 10, 1859 to John and Mary Walsh Doherty.  Later the family moved east to Fall River, and we find Patrick Doherty living at 104 Columbia St. (off South Main) and working as a laborer for a time employed by Fall River Iron Works and the Fall River Line steamboat company.  He married Honora (Nora) E. Coughlin on April 25, 1887 at the age of 28, when he was employed at the Fall River Police Department as a patrolman.  The couple would have seven children:  Charles T., Frank., Grace, Robert, Helene, Margaret (called Marguerite), and John. Doherty, (as were several other patrolmen), was promoted to the rank of captain after their work in the case of the century, the Borden Murders of 1892.  Doherty had arrived at #92 after George Allen on the morning of the murders, and was very quickly in the thick of the action, questioning Lizzie upstairs, looking at the bodies with Dr. Dolan, running down to Smith’s pharmacy with Officer Harrington  to question Eli Bence, prowling the cellar for weapons with Medley, Fleet and Dr. Bowen, and making note of Lizzie’s dress.  Doherty stayed on the job on watch at the Borden house until he was relieved at 9 p.m.  When it came time for the inquest, it was Doherty who slipped down to 95 Division St. to collect Bridget, who had been staying with her cousin, Patrick Harrington after the murders.  He would testify at the Preliminary and the 1893 trial in New Bedford. In the midst of the excitement in New Bedford as Lizzie’s trial was about to get underway, yet another hatchet killing took over the front page, the murder of Bertha Manchester on May 30th.  It was a brutal attack to rival the Borden’s with the weapon being most likely a short-handled axe or possibly a hatchet. Doherty went out to the Manchester place with Marshal Hilliard, Captains Desmond, and Connors and Inspector Perron  on June 6th with the  suspect, Jose Correa de Mello, who revealed his hiding place for the stolen  watch taken from the victim and her purse at that time.  De Mello served time and then was sent back to the Azores, banned from stepping upon U.S. soil again. The Dohertys moved to 1007 Rock St. in 1897 and Patrick was pleased to walk his daughter Margaret (Marguerite) down the aisle in 1913. Patrick Doherty retired from the force in 1915 and succumbed to interstitial nephritis on June 28, 1915.. He, and some of his children are buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Fall River. Resources:, Parallel Lives,: A Social History of Lizzie A. Borden and her Fall River, and Yesterday in Old Fall River: A Lizzie Borden Companion Fall River Globe June 28, 1915
Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 3/3/2023
Bernard Gussow was born in Russia in 1881. But by 1900 he’d made it to the Lower East Side, where he was described as an “East Side artist” in a New York Times article about paintings he displayed at an art show at the Educational Alliance settlement house on East Broadway. [“Subway Steps”] Gussow would […]
Ephemeral New York - 3/27/2023
An article I recently wrote for the British online magazine, New Politic, is now available online. The article, “The Criminal Origins of the United States of America,” is about British convict transportation to America, which took place between the years 1718 and 1775, and is the subject of my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: […]
Early American Crime - 12/17/2021
 17-year-old James E. Nowlin murdered George Codman in a Massachusetts stable in January 1887. Then he took an axe and chopped Codman’s body into pieces. As he traveled home in a sleigh, he threw the pieces into the snow along the road.Read the full story here: Massachusetts Butchery.
Murder By Gaslight - 3/25/2023
Roped-inOmaha Daily BeeJune 25, 1884(Click image to enlarge)  OSSIBLE VICTIM OF THE JEFFERSON R. SMITH GANG.  Omaha Daily Bee June 25, 1884 COLORADO. Col. Fletcher, a tourist from Boston, was roped-in by the bunko men of Denver and relieved of $1,000. NOTES: $1,000.00 in 1884 is the equivalent of $33,472.95 in 2023. According to the Rocky Mountain News there were at least two,
Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 3/12/2023
Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately engaged as a carrier of wine, because he and his brother, with the help of […]
Executed Today - 11/13/2020
A Newspaper Man’s Plight | Interior of a Pullman Parlour Car.

Rat Pit.

Rat Pit

A rat pit is one of those under-ground novelties occasionally seen in Boston by gaslight.

From Police records and recollections, or, Boston by daylight and gaslight for two hundred and forty years, by Edward Savage, 1873:

The pit consists of a board crib of octagon form in the center of the cellar, about eight feet in diameter ad three and one half feet high, tightly secured at the sides. On three sides of the cellar are rows of board seats, rising one above the other, for the accommodation of spectators. On the other side, stands the proprietor and his assistant and an empty flour barrel, only it is half full of live rats, which are kept in their prison-house by a wire netting over the top of the cask. The amphitheatre is lighted with oil lamps or candles, with a potato, a turnip, or an empty bottle for a candlestick. Spectators are admitted at twenty-five cents a head, and take their seats, when preparations for the evening’s entertainment commence. The proprietor carefully lifts the edge of the wire netting over the rat barrel, and with an instrument looking much like a pair of curling tongs, he begins fishing out his game, rat by rat, depositing each carefully inside the pit until the requisite number are pitted. The assistant has brought in the dog, Flora, a favorite ratter, which he is obliged to hold fast by the nape of the neck, so eager is she for the fray. Then commences the betting, which runs high or low according t the amount of funds in the hands of the sports

“A dollar. She kills twenty rats in twelve seconds!” “I take that!” “Half a dollar on the rats!” “Don’t put in them small rats!” “Two dollars on Flora in fifteen seconds!” “Done at fourteen!”  “No you don’t!” “Don’t put in all your big rats at once!” “Five dollars on the rats in ten seconds!” (no takers.)

The betting all seems to be well understood, but it would puzzle an outsider to tell whether there were really any genuine bets or not.

The bets having been arranged, time is called, and Flora is dropped into the ring. Flora evidently understands that her credit is at stake; but the growling and champing, and squealing, and scratching is soon over, and the twenty rats lie lifeless at the feet of the bloodthirsty Flora, when time  is again called, and the bets decided, and all hands go up and liquor. This exhibition is repeated several times, with different dogs, and lasts as long as the live rats hold out.


Savage, Edward. Police records and recollections, or, Boston by daylight and gaslight for two hundred and forty years. Boston: J.P. Dale, 1873.