Blood Sports

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Although the term "blood sports" is no longer in popular usage, the words are sufficiently descriptive to suggest a workable definition. Violent sporting activities that inflicted serious injuries, pain, or death—not as ancillary or accidental dangers but as direct goals—constituted blood sports as they were understood by early modern English people and by colonial Americans. Also called the "butcherly sports," these activities commonly pitted animals against animals, humans against animals, or humans against humans. Few sporting activities in the twentieth- or twenty-first-century United States would qualify as blood sports in the truest sense of the phrase. Boxing and ice hockey do frequently spill blood, but theoretically the rules of each sport are designed to prevent excessive injuries, not encourage them. Bullfighting—illegal and not practiced in the United States—would qualify as a blood sport, as would dogfighting, which is also illegal throughout the United States. So, too, would cockfighting, which is illegal in forty-seven states, but wildly popular in several geographic areas.

Probably most people think immediately of imperial Rome and the gladiatorial contests staged in the Roman coliseum when they think of blood sports. No sport has exceeded them for sheer horror in Europe or the Americas in the fifteen hundred years since. Bears, lions, rhinoceroses, and elephants fought one another or more commonly were pitted against men who were usually slaves, criminals, or prisoners of war. Men often, of course, competed against one another, and the popular culture has attached a patina of romance to many of these contests or famed combatants. Medieval England and Europe created another romantic blood sport, the jousting tournaments of the High Middle Ages, which perhaps rivals Rome for notoriety in the popular imagination. People do not always associate jousting with blood sports, but often these mock battles spilled blood and produced death as if they were real.

Early modern Europe had no grand spectacles such as gladiator contests in large arenas or knights jousting to the cheers of scarf-waving partisans, but, nevertheless, England on the eve of colonization embraced a harsh range of sport, which often had bloody outcomes. Dogfights and cockfights to the death were common. So, too, was bearbaiting, in which participants ritually tortured a bear—as modern bullfighters torture a bull—and then inevitably slaughtered the subject animal to the cheers of bloodthirsty spectators. Falconry also might qualify as a blood sport, but if so, we may have to consider adding modern hunting, which many present Americans would reject on the grounds that causing pain is never a primary goal of a hunter. He or she would prefer a clean shot that delivered a minimum of pain instead of a slow, lingering, ritual death. Although no one referred to public executions as blood sports, in a sense they were: huge crowds in England and the English colonies gathered to watch criminals be hanged sometimes in groups of more than five. Other activities in England on the eve of colonization such as boxing and football were sufficiently intended to cause pain to qualify. Cudgel fighting may have been the most extreme Elizabethan human blood sport and the closest parallel to the cruel gladiator games of Rome. Two men—invariably of low social class, who would be paid for their pain—were tied together by a short rope and would bludgeon each other with cudgels until one could no longer continue. Onlookers bet heavily on the outcome. On the eve of colonization, foxhunting, which may be twenty-first-century England's last "respectable" blood sport, had already established itself as the preserve of the most exclusive members of the gentry and the nobility.

Thus, as they set about creating versions of English culture up and down the Atlantic seaboard in the seventeenth century, the transplanted English Americans had a rich heritage of blood sports to choose to replicate if they wished. In general, they transplanted far fewer than they left behind, but this, of course, varied according to region. Puritan New England imported virtually no blood sports. Puritans, long regarded by posterity as being antisport, were, in reality, not hostile to sport and leisure, but they had many tests they applied to separate acceptable from unacceptable recreational activities. Many of the tests were drawn from scriptural prohibitions, but sociology and empiricism also played a dominant role in assessment. Puritans forbade sports that tended to injure either individuals or the commonweal. Thus, they prohibited boxing since it almost always inflicted pain but allowed wrestling because it did not. The Puritans condemned ball sports, which might seem surprising to modern sensibilities, but makes sense if one considers that English football games usually produced dozens of serious injuries and even death on occasion. Typically played by landless peasants, football pitted village against village. The men of each village—perhaps hundreds of them—would try to carry a ball several miles to the center of the opposing village. The contest could take a day or more and leave casualties all along the way.

The middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware were less abstemious than Puritan New England in many matters, but they, too, generally avoided most organized blood sports. The rough-and-tumble world of the colonial south was a different story. Virginia set the standards in most ways for southern mores and morals and the aggressive, entrepreneurial culture that emerged in the Chesapeake region was unrestrained by Puritan piety, village quietude, or Quaker pacifism. Virginian men competed at virtually everything in their lives and deliberately spilled plenty of blood doing so.

Violence simmered just beneath the surface of the alehouse culture that swathed the ubiquitous Chesapeake tavern and it took little provocation to bring forth an eruption. Gentlemen and laborers alike indulged in an extravagant ritual of repartee that was meant to be charmingly combative but not insultingly contemptuous. Too often an extra beer or two goaded a respondent into crossing the line, and a challenge would be forthcoming for either an apology or a physical defense. Neither a gentlemen nor a roughneck could back down without losing face in this highly status-conscious male society. Fights, therefore, were epidemic in taverns, and they were bloody as a general matter of course, beyond almost anything we could imagine in similar circumstances in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. Gouging eyes, tearing genitals, and biting ears were commonplace. Curiously enough, however, fighters often made arrangements about what was to be and what was not to be tolerated before the fighting began: thus, in a strange way, rules did apply to these battles, and an honor code dictated adherence to them. But these bloody contests were epidemic.

The same spirit of competitiveness and face-saving at all costs frequently turned horse racing in the colonial south into a blood sport. The quarter horse and the quarter-mile race—a slam, bam, twenty-five-second or so duel between two rivals—became the norm of southern racing. But planters often arranged the races to take place in congested physical circumstances, and riders commonly attacked each other during the race. Always a risky business, horse racing in modern times tries to minimize injuries to man and beast, but, in the colonial south, the win-at-any-cost culture promoted injuries to both. Well-praised was the rider who unseated his opponent and left him to be trampled. And, of course, arguments over horse races after they were finished often spilled over into bloody fights between partisans.

More than anything else, the cockfight captured the violent essence of the South. Today, cockfighting is closely associated with less than savory elements of modern society. Not so in the colonial Chesapeake. Cockfights may have originated with the common folk, but before many generations had passed, they came under the shaping guidance of Virginia's well-placed planters. The Chesapeake gentry itself had rough origins. Early emigrants who were sufficiently tough to survive the challenging health and economic rigors of tobacco culture built up large estates by the second half of the seventeenth century and took on many of the airs of the English gentry. Much of the roughness and coarseness of their character remained, however, and was manifested in many cultural activities such as cockfighting.

Planters viewed their best cocks as extensions of their own manliness and competed against their fellow gentlemen with an ungentlemanly ferocity. They hired trainers or trained slaves to be cock handlers, arranged all-day or sometimes two-day battles involving scores of cocks from a large surrounding geographic radius, bet heavily on their own birds, and crowed in bloody triumph when they won. The birds wore sharpened spurs and fought to the death. Males of all ages and stations in life—children, poor farmers, and slaves—all formed the outer rings around the gentlemen who crowded the cockpits. Some particularly successful cocks were known throughout a county and remembered by name for years after they suffered the inevitable defeat.

The cockfight captures the essence of the relationship between blood sports and colonial American society. Absent in New England and the middle colonies where religious impulses sought to reform the world, cockfighting flowered as both reality and metaphor for the excessively masculine and rough south in the seventeenth century. Then in mid-eighteenth century, cock-fighting went underground in the Chesapeake, where it became the preserve of the less-than-desirable elements at the bottom of society. Virginia cleaned up the worst of its blood-sporting traditions in the late colonial years and in the early national period exported some of them across the Appalachians. In the early nineteenth century, Kentucky and Tennessee became famed for the bare-knuckled, eye-gouging, anything-goes bar fights that had previously characterized the Chesapeake. Cockfighting also crossed the mountains.

In the colonies and post-revolutionary Atlantic states, a new graciousness characterized sport, and, as the few old blood sports disappeared, the only new one to emerge was the foxhunt. Never as popular in America as in England, the new-world gentry did begin having ritual foxhunts in the Chesapeake, the Carolinas, and even in the Narragansett country of Rhode Island, where warm-weather sojourners imported several southern traditions. In general, however, and with the above-noted exceptions, the early American world escaped the worst of the excesses that bloodied early modern England's sporting traditions.

See also: Boxing, Gambling, Horse Racing, Hunting, Recreational Fighting


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Bruce C. Daniels