I admit it as an axiom, that every animal has more right to the use of its own body than
others have to use it.
Lewis Gompertz, 1822
It was June 16th, 1824. Dusk was falling on the London streets as Lewis Gompertz pushed open the door of Old Slaughter's Coffee House. The shop was already crowded with reformers of all stripes: Arthur Broome, the incompetent clergyman who had organized the meeting; Richard Martin, the dashing Irish M.P. whom the Prince of Wales nicknamed "Humanity Dick;" and William Wilberforce, the benevolent abolitionist who spent most of his time juggling the forty charities dependent on him.
Forty-year-old Lewis Gompertz was a retired diamond merchant with a mission. The youngest child born into a Jewish family, he had been unable to go to college, enter politics, or even take a large part in society. Animal rights had always been his primary interest; now, he had plenty of time to dedicate to the cause.
Two years before, Richard Martin's bill forbidding cruelty to domestic animals had passed in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, the law was often disobeyed. Soon after the act's passage, Arthur Broome had tried to form a society to enforce the statute. This failed miserably, as did a Liverpool-based "Society for the Suppression and Prevention of Wanton Cruelty to Animals."
Tonight, however, these philanthropists who gathered around the table had the prominence -- and the money -- needed to make their venture a success. Soon, the activists had worked out a charter appointing committees to distribute tracts and influence public opinion and for "Inspecting the Markets and Streets of the Metropolis, the Slaughter Houses, the conduct of Coachmen, etc.- etc." The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was born.
Before long, Arthur Broome had spent all the Society's money chasing impractical schemes. Gompertz and Richard Martin came to his rescue. Broome promised not to repeat his mistakes, so Gompertz and Martin went over the account books and straightened things out, paying the remaining expenses out of pocket. Once Broome was out of trouble, however, he resumed borrowing money to throw away on his plans -- landing himself in debtor's prison. Needless to say, these actions reflected poorly on the minister and his entire group. Gompertz stepped in once again to save the Society, bailing Broome out and taking his place as the organization's head.
The Society flourished during Gompertz's six years of leadership. He attended police courts, arranged meetings with magistrates to discuss the importance of upholding the anti-cruelty statutes, coordinated fundraisers, wrote letters, participated in public debates, broke up dogfights, helped in the parliamentary struggle to ban bull-baiting, and endeavored to set a legal limit on the loads horses could pull. A vegan, Gompertz refused to ride in a carriage. He famously wrote, "How can man do without the aid of horses?... That is his business to find out."
Despite Gompertz's competent command, jealousy and strife were rife among the members. Some of them -- the hunters and meat eaters -- were concerned by his veganism. Others resented his Judaism. A man named Greenwood denounced Gompertz for following "Pythagorean" principles and passed a bill saying that the Society would be governed in accordance with "Christian" doctrines and that "certain sects" would be denied entrance. Several members, including William Wilberforce, Countess Selina Hastings (a humanitarian socialite) and many Quakers, were deeply offended by this resolution. Rallying around Gompertz, they encouraged him to break with the SPCA.
Disgusted, Gompertz did resign. With the help of his friends, he started a new group called the Animal's Friend Society. Rather than simply stopping inhumane practices, Gompertz' new association was intended to actively benefit animals. Before long, the Animal's Friend Society was outdoing the SPCA in terms of membership and contributions.
Under the auspices of his organization, Gompertz organized a periodical: The Animal's Friend, or, The Progress of Humanity. In his role as editor, Gompertz kept busy writing articles showcasing his innovative theories. He republished his book, Moral Inquiries: on the Situation of Man and of Brutes, which described how humans ought to interact with animals. In it, Gompertz deplored the practices of hunting, slaughtering animals for food, and vivisection (the dissection of living creatures in the supposed interest of science). A long, rambling text, it also included his observations on the injustice of the property laws and the oppression of women.
Then, suddenly, Gompertz's wife, Ann Hollaman Gompertz, fell terminally ill. To spend as much time with her as possible, Gompertz gave up his activities. Lacking a leader, the Animal's Friend Society disbanded. Following Ann's eventual death, the reformer dedicated his energies to writing.
An avid inventor, he collected many of his ideas into another book with a whopper of a title: Mechanical Inventions and suggestions on land and water locomotion, tooth machinery and various other branches of theoretical and practical mechanics
. Spurred by a desire to lessen animal labor, Gompertz also made improvements on the then-developing bicycle. The existing model had no chain: the rider's feet pushed it along the ground. Gompertz added a pole -- sawed off a hobbyhorse -- and a gear to the front wheel of the bicycle, maximizing the distance one could travel with every step. He even devised methods to keep horses from falling while pulling carriages! Some of his inventions are still used, including the expanding chuck on modern drills.
Although Gompertz's writing style looks stilted today, his dialogues between Messrs. Y and Z are typical of Victorian essayists. This excerpt is from Moral Inquiries:Y: In the first place, you dispute the right invested in mankind of slaughtering other animals for food, and of compelling them to labour for his benefit, for which purpose they have been created, their flesh and their services have been made palatable and necessary to man, without the nourishment of which he would soon grow sickly and unfit for his station - his life would be painful - his death premature.
Z: First, how do you prove that mankind is invested with the right of killing them, and that brutes have been created for the purpose you assert them to be? Secondly, is it to be observed that the flesh of man himself possesses the same nourishing and palatable qualities? And are we then to become cannibals for that reason? ...
Mr. Y goes on to say that animal populations, if left unchecked, will destroy each other, starve, or overrun the world. Thus, he contends, it is better to "cause them to have a short and happy life, than a long and miserable one."
Z: Then it is right for one to kill another, if he fear not the laws of his country, and if he fancy that it is to the benefit of the other... But even allowing it to be so, the two are unconnected with each other, and I do not see what right one animal has to deprive another of its small importance to prevent himself from losing more: if this theory be generally admitted, a young man might kill an old man, to save his own longer expectant life. And are we authorized to kill one animal for the benefit of another of its species?
Other parts of the same book read as essays:Who can dispute the inhumanity of the sport of hunting, of pursuing a poor defenceless creature for mere amusement, till it becomes exhausted by terror and fatigue, and of then causing it to be torn to pieces by a pack of dogs? From what kind of instruction can men, and even women, imbibe such principles as these? How is it possible they can justify it? And what can their pleasure in it consist of? Is it not solely in the agony they produce to the animal? They will pretend that it is not, and try to make us believe so too, that it is merely in the pursuit. But what is the object of their pursuit? Is there any other than to torment and destroy?
In Gompertz's day, the British economy was entirely dependent on animal labor for food, construction, transportation, clothing and glue. Gompertz was consequently labeled a radical and a revolutionary -- a man determined to undermine the foundations of civilization. Yet his persistence paid off: many of his inventions were displayed in public, and Prince Albert awarded him a medal. Though Lewis Gompertz is largely overlooked by today's animal rights activists, he gave an impetus to the movement that can never be forgotten.