originally published July 30, 2014
Clambering through the sticky alluvium of a daily paper can be a chore. Death, hate, disaster, and the ricochets of the eternal accusatory politic create the illusion of an incurably cacophonic world. I understand – the precipice of doom is a great slab of real estate if you want to attract gawkers, in particular gawkers with a couple of bucks in hand, who are ready to hear the worst and won’t settle for less. But it wasn’t always this way.
Between the stuffy drama of closed-door Washington and the few international events that would pepper the pages of a typical 19th century American daily, readers sought stories with a narrative bent. In particular when the bloody Civil War splattered so much of a paper’s square footage, a Disneyfied, anthropomorphizing puppy story had the power to pluck readers’ eyes away from the carnage into a happier place. I admire that.
Unearthing such a story in 1860’s San Francisco was not a tricky feat; the city was impervious to the anguish and torment on the nation’s eastern frontier. On the contrary, it was awash in lively characters, literary wits and the quivering afterglow of a glorious gold rush. It was from these streets, dusty with optimism and aglow with lucky geography that we find the legend of Bummer and Lazarus, two lively pooches who charmed everyone in the Bay Area.
Nowadays, a dog wandering the streets of a major city is usually a sign that someone’s beloved pet had slipped through a gate or a door and bungled its way free from complacent domesticity. But in 1840’s Los Angeles, free-roaming dogs outnumbered people two-to-one. San Francisco wasn’t quite as deeply mired in canine vagrants, but the situation was still extreme. Dogs were poisoned, trapped and killed like feral raccoons or subway rats. But those few skilled pups who displayed some functional skills and/or a winning personality might stand a chance of survival.
Bummer was one such beast. A black and white Newfoundlander (or perhaps a Newfie-cross), he likely cut a dramatically immense silhouette against the sun. Bummer’s home base was beside a saloon belonging to Frederick Martin. He showed up around 1860 and demonstrated an extraordinary aptitude at snagging rats. Bummer became a fixture of the establishment, living off the kind scraps of strangers and feeding upon the affection of those who drunkenly stumbled from Freddie’s saloon into Montgomery Street, looking for a friend.
Here’s where the Disney aesthetic steps in. In 1861, Bummer noticed two dogs scrapping it out. He chased away the larger dog and took pity on the wounded smaller creature. He brought scraps of his begging bounty to the mutt, and lay down beside him at night to keep him warm. After a few days, the wounded animal was healthy enough to travel, and he was joining Bummer on his begging rounds, even superseding him in catching rats. The locals christened the new guy Lazarus.
Freddie’s saloon was a hot spot for the newspaper crowd, so local journalists had a front seat to Bummer and Lazarus’s exploits. The dogs were easy fodder for a feel-good local piece, earning them curious reputations as San Francisco celebrities. While the rest of the country faced the raging fist of a rebellious Confederacy, northern Californians were treated to the exploits of these canine heroes, who allegedly teamed up to snag 85 rats in one 20-minute stretch.
Such was the state of journalism back then that it really doesn’t matter if such an accomplishment ever actually took place; San Franciscans loved these two.
Every local paper ran a Bummer & Lazarus story. The Californian, Daily Morning Call, Daily Evening Bulletin… these were tales that titillated the public’s imagination. Bummer was the crusty, learned gentleman, and Lazarus was the sprightly, precocious bucket of energy. They were depicted in journalistic prose as lifelong companions, treasured friends. When Bummer sustained an injury and Lazarus ditched him to run with another dog, it was a local tragedy. When the two reunited outside Freddy’s saloon, it was a triumph.
In June of 1862, Lazarus was snatched up by the dog-catcher’s net. A mob of angry citizens, hopefully toting pitchforks and torches, arrived at the pound to demand Lazarus’s release. Even the city executives understood the special rank these two held in the hearts of the masses; Lazarus was dismissed from his date with doom, and a formal proclamation was made that both he and his omnipresent companion were to be perpetually exempt from the dog-catcher’s clutches.
The two dogs were allegedly spotted in the company of another San Franciscan oddity, a man named Joshua A. Norton. Norton famously declared himself Emperor of the United States in 1859, and while his exploits certainly deserve a smidgen of attention during my final 58 kilographs, it’s enough for now to say that Norton was somewhat of a curious local character. He lived in poverty, yet was treated as an imperial figure by the locals, and though only one news story placed him with Bummer & Lazarus, cartoonist Edward Jump frequently depicted them as a trio. The most famous of these cartoons can be found at the top of this article.
Author and local historian Samuel Dickson played into the schtick, claiming that every theatrical opening in San Francisco between 1855 and 1880 made a point of reserving three front-row balcony seats for Bummer, Lazarus and Emperor Norton. While this is most definitely a hyperbole, it makes for a cute story.
Rumor has it Lazarus took a chomp out of a local boy, and earned a malicious slab of poison-infused meat as punishment. Another story claims he’d been kicked by a horse on the local fire brigade. Either way, Lazarus clocked out in October of 1863. His fate? Taxidermy. Lazarus was stuffed and placed behind the bar in Freddie Martin’s saloon.
Bummer, who had faded from the limelight after his companion’s death, was apparently kicked by a drunk two years later, and succumbed to his injuries. While that drunk was savagely beaten in jail for his crime, Bummer’s death brought together the scads of San Franciscans who had adored him. His eulogy – and it should be noted that stray dog eulogies are quite rare in most major journalistic markets – was penned by none other than Mark Twain, who waxed nostalgic in that uniquely Twainesque fashion, commemorating both dogs’ honor and importance in San Francisco lore.
Bummer was also taxidermied and put on display. Fortunately, San Francisco doesn’t do this for all their local celebrities. A plaque stands in honor of the two canine pals, positioned in Transamerica Redwood Park, at the base of that gloriously pointy Transamerica Pyramid. The two may be gone, but they will not soon be forgotten, leaving a cuddly trail of feel-good news in their paw-prints.