The virtue of kindness was an important one at the turn of the 19th century, and the subject of kindness to animals occurred frequently in children’s books. “It is almost inconceivable,” one critic notes, “that so many small boys spent so much time as is alleged in pulling the wings off flies, throwing at tethered roosters, and tormenting puppies and kittens…But whatever the truth, the children’s authors were almost unanimous in protesting against such savagery.”1
The Sister’s Gift, or The Naughty Boy Reformed, a small book published in both England and America around 1800, illustrates this subject vividly. A brother and sister were orphaned and sent to different schools, but, when they lived together during school vacations, the sister frequently observed her younger brother “catching poor innocent flies, thro’ the bodies of which he would stick pins and then fasten them to a coach made of a card; and would thus take pleasure in seeing them drag it along after them until they were quite dead with pain and fatigue."2 He tormented dogs by tying tin kettles to their tails and then chasing them through town; he pounded a sharp nail into the end of a stick and proceeded to gore the hide and flesh of a neighbor’s cattle.
But what most provoked his sister was his taking a friend’s favorite cat, carrying her to the top of the church tower from where, after tying two balloon-like bladders filled with water about her neck, he threw her over the edge. “Though the poor creature was terribly bruised with the fall,” the anonymous author writes, “she with difficulty crawled home…to her indulgent mistress, looked her piteously in the face, as if begging her to revenge her death, [and] expired in the utmost agony.”
The sister soundly admonished her brother, ending with this comparison, “Suppose some great giant was to run a sword through your body; I dare say… it would give you unspeakable torment and is a common sword any more in your body than a small pin in one of these little flies?"3 Most of the children in these books, once their faults were pointed out, resolved to do better. After listening to his sister, the brother wept bitterly at his cruelty and promised in the future to be as remarkable for generosity and compassion as he had previously been for cruelty. “It is with pleasure we can add,” the author notes, “that he faithfully kept his word and is now one of the very best little [boys] in the whole universe.”4
Copyright 2007© Rita Smith
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