Location: 273 Water Street
If Michael Vick were alive in the 1860s he would have probably called Christopher “Kit” Keyburns’ Sporstman’s Hall home. A portly, jovial, pock-marked, sodden faced man, Kit operated a dog-fighting arena from this still-standing location. Now the third oldest building in Manhattan, this three story brick structure represented the heart of Water Street’s depravity. But today, the rat pit has gone the way of everything else in Manhattan—luxury housing.
A Start in Prizefighting
As a boy, Kit learned to work illegal prizefights under the tutelage of the bare knuckle boxing champ Yankee Sullivan. During one noted bout, Kit corned for fellow Water Streeter, Charley Lynch, during an eighty-six-round slugfest that ended in the death of Lynch’s opponent.
The Original Octagon
Prizefights made Kit’s reputation, but his real claim to fame was the Water Street Pit, a gas light illuminated octagon, eighteen inches high, sixteen feet long, and eight feet wide.
Wooden bleachers reached the ceiling and seated up to five hundred, and according to Oliver Dryer,
“Some of our city members of congress, state senators and assemblymen and municipal magnates, are Kit’s patrons.”–Oliver Dryer
Rat baiting was one of the more popular games where sportsmen wagered on how many rats a terrier could slaughter. Jack, Kit’s prized 12 pound black and tan terrier, set a world record when he killed 100 rats in 5 minuets 40 seconds. After Jack died, Kit stuffed the champion pup and mounted him on the bar. Hung on walls and nailed to tables, Kit’s clientele could find the taxidermied champions of the past.
Kit’s Fighting Black Bear
Kit even owned a fighting black bear, which he pitted against challengers of any species. When not fighting, the bear had his own seat at the bar until he fell ill. Not wont to waste the skin, Kit skinned the fighter and turned him into a rug.
Bears and rats were all fine and good, but the dandies really came for the dogfights. The rules were simple. Trainers matched dogs of the same weight to fight in officiated battle with a cadre of surgeons at the ready. If an animal did not make weight, the humanitarians at the pit lashed their dog to a treadmill in the basement and whipped their fighter until it sweated off the excess pounds.
After weigh-ins, the coaches scrubbed their dogs with a scalding solution of water, soda, and castile soap. A taster then licked his dog from snout to paw to prevent the opposition from rubbing of their champion with numbing agents capable of weakening their opponent’s biting grip.
I tell you what, a greenhorn don’t stand any chance down here.— Christopher Kit Burns
Fights lasted hours, usually ending in death or a thrown towel. After the mêlée, the tasters licked the dogs again in case, as Kit put it:
…a fellow takes out a handkerchief and throws the stuff on the dog while he is fighting.
A standing bet of $1000 held that Burn’s dog, Belcher, could best any canine on the planet.
The ASPCA Closes In
When Kit wasn’t fighting dogs and rats, he battled the police and the ASPCA. In one instance, the NYPD crashed through a skylight and arrested scores of patrons for disorderly behavior. Kit eventually lost his grudge match with the ASPCA when the police arrested him for animal cruelty in November of 1870. The rat baiter caught diphtheria and died after beating the charges. He was 39 years old.