‘Reckless Barbarity Toward Animals’ : The Brighton Abattoir, Part I

The Brighton abattoir complex
The Brighton abattoir complex, as seen from the north across the Charles River

In 1873, the complex shown above was built in Brighton to house, slaughter, and render domestic animals, primarily cows, steers, bulls, sheep, and pigs.

But the Brighton abattoir was more than just a slaughterhouse. In many ways, it offers a lens through which to see the ways that westward expansion, technological developments, and environmental awareness changed the experiences of Bostonians in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It also provides us a clearer view of the experiences of creatures so often rendered invisible - the creatures that fed and continue to feed many humans at the cost of their own lives. 

The Long History of 'Cattle' in Brighton

Brighton was home to a 'cattle' market since at least the late 18th century, when the Winship family provided meat to Continental soldiers during the Revolutionary War.

Over time, the market grew considerably. By 1830 a hotel (pictured at right ca. 1900) was built to serve the constant stream of drovers, traders, and various shady characters that hung around the market. The market traded primarily in animals from Massachusetts and New England.

To learn more about this period of Brighton's history, an excellent source is Bridges and Smith's "The Brighton Market: Feeding Nineteenth-Century Boston," published in Agricultural History and available through JSTOR with your BPL card or eCard number and PIN. 

Transport and Travail

As the 19th century progressed, westward expansion and increases in rail and water transport changed the nature of the animal trade in Brighton. Huge expanses of land recently stolen from indigenous Americans in the West could be used to raise large numbers of animals at lower cost.

These animals were then transported back east to places like Brighton for slaughter. By the time the abattoir complex was built in 1873, most of the cows, bulls, and steers coming into Brighton were from the West, often as far west as Texas, like those shown at right. 

The circumstances and treatment experienced by these animals during transport were deplorable. It is probably no coincidence that in 1872, just one year before the abattoir complex was built, George T. Angell published his essay "Cattle Transportation in the United States."

Angell was president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He sought to draw the attention of the general public and elected officials to the conditions faced by these animals during their journey east. 

From Texas, some cows, bulls, and steers were brought to New Orleans and shipped up the Mississippi by boat to Cairo, Illinois. Others were taken on other routes that led to major rail depots. Wrote Angell:

Shipboard 'cattle' pen
Cows or steers packed into a shipboard pen

All authorities agree that the transportation of these animals is attended with great suffering to the animals from want of food, water and rest; also from overcrowding, and the crowding of smaller animals under the larger in the same cars; so that many of them die in transit, many more become diseased...

'Cattle' on riverboats received so little food or water that as few as five or as many as fifty individuals might die each day, their bodies thrown overboard. Rail transport was no better.

It was such practices that Angell, quoting a Cattle Commissioners of New York report, cited as "reckless barbarity toward animals."

The Massachusetts Railroad Commissioners, in an 1871 report, called "the whole system of cattle transportation...an outrage on the first principles of humanity."

Just the Beginning

These animals experienced great miseries during their transport. But for those that survived, their suffering was long from over. Join us in the next post to learn what domestic animals experienced as they arrived at the final stop on their inexorable road toward slaughter

Until then: the welfare of domestic animals during transport continues to be a major issue worldwide today. Check out the documentary below, available to stream on Kanopy, to learn about how the welfare of animals in transport is protected (and undermined) in the European Union:

The Hidden Face of Animal Transport