On a walk up the Lower East Side in January 2013, I encountered an anachronistic building that I either hadn’t seen or hadn’t noticed before, on Madison Street a few doors away from St. James Place. It’s a tiny two-story dormered building — however, it’s not too small that it doesn’t have two separate doors and two separate house numbers, 47 and 49. I’ve always been curious about anachronisms and survivors, being something of an anachronism myself, so I looked it up. Expecting a difficult or fruitless search, I found something by the historian David Freeland, who rote about it in 2009 in the now-defunct, at least in print, New York Press:
For years the house has been something of a mystery, but one glimpse into its colorful history is revealed through a small advertisement from the Spirit of the Times newspaper, as reprinted in the Boston Herald of March 2, 1853: “Rat Killing, and other sports, every Monday evening. A good supply of rats kept constantly on hand for gentlemen wishing to try their dogs, with the use of the pit gratis, at J. Marriott’s Sportsman’s Hall, 49 Madison Street.”
Rat baiting, setting rats against rats, or dogs against rats, was a popular betting sport in the 19th Century in the days before the ASPCA. The building where another former rat baiting establishment was run by Kit Burns, the Captain Joseph Rose House, still stands at 273 Water Street in the Seaport area.
Freeland goes on:
By the late 1850s, the house at 49 Madison Street had been taken over by English-born Harry Jennings, who ran it as a combination saloon and rat-fighting pit until his conviction on a robbery charge sent him to prison in Massachusetts. But later, after returning to New York, Jennings settled into a kind of respectability, winning fame as a dog trainer and, eventually, the city’s leading rat exterminator. By the time of his death, in 1891, Jennings’ clients included Delmonico’s Restaurant and such luxury hotels as Gilsey House and the original Plaza.
Apparently, there’s a comeback in everybody.