The Great Dogfight

Entertainment sometimes being scarce in a small frontier community, the Great Dogfight and subsequent trial caused quite a stir in Pelican Rapids in the mid 1880’s.

The antagonists, one Roland Blodgett and one Ithymar P. Lackey, were neighbors––but also rivals in the local hotel business. Their canine seconds were, respectively, a purebred English pointer whose name has been lost in the backwash of history; and Old Shep, a stockdog of dubious ancestry.

Each dog was like his master––the pointer, delicate, pompous, with aristocratic pretensions; Old Shep, a tireless worker who would tolerate no nonsense. The initial fracas erupted when the pointer trespassed on Old Shep’s turf, in search of victuals left–over from Lackey’s boarding house. Old Shep strenuously objected, grabbing the pointer by the throat with no apparent intention of letting go. Lackey tells it best: "I was in the barn repairing a harness when I heard the ruction… I came out just in time to choke Old Shep off, or he would have killed that noble dog."

The pointer limped home. Blodgett––who claimed to have spent $100 on the dog––was not pleased. He delivered an ultimatum to his neighbor: "Either you shoot that dog, or I will!"

Lackey, Civil War veteran and former California prospector, was a man not to be trifled with. He informed Blodgett of the particulars: the pointer had been the trespasser, and he himself had saved him from certain death; furthermore, Old Shep always stayed home, except when he went out to bring the cows for evening milking.

But Blodgett took no heed. He lay in ambush, and a few nights later, let fly with a load of buckshot. Old Shep struggled home and expired.

Lackey was outraged. He stormed into his neighbor’s establishment with the words, "Prepare for Hell! The devil’s here!"

Blodgett fled to his barn, where he hid himself in the hayloft. Lackey searched in vain, then gave up, contenting himself with maligning Blodgett’s courage and ancestry to anyone who would listen.

Blodgett withered awhile under continual insult, then retaliated by filing suit for slander, asking for $1000 in personal damages and an additional $100 for damages to his dog.

A jury was impanelled with great difficulty, since everybody in town had heard of the events, had discussed them thoroughly, and already formed an opinion. But since juries got paid for their time, and nobody wanted to miss the action, prospective jurors lied infamously for the honor of a ring–side seat.

Blodgett came before the court with a lawyer of sorts, a down–and–out attorney who owned him back rent. Lackey appeared pro–se. The lawyer strode back and forth before the jury, delivered up phrases in Latin, quoted statutes dating back to English Common Law. Lackey flattered the jurors, recalled the particulars of the dogfight, reminded everyone of his Civil War service. His legal argument was summarized by three sentences. Yes, he did indeed call the Plaintiff a coward. But the Plaintiff clearly was. Thus, there was no slander.

The case went into deliberation. Meanwhile, townspeople gathered, anxiously awaiting an outcome. Jugs of strong drink were freely passed, wagers made, while excitement rose in a great feverish babble, Americans, Norwegians, Germans, Swedes, even Indians, loudly voicing opinions, each in his native tongue.

Hours passed. Finally, the jury filed back into court. "What say you, gentlemen of the jury?" There was a long pause. Tied, six to six.

The judge sent them back with further instructions. More time passed. The bailiff, hoping to facilitate unanimity, sent in a keg of beer. Still, no word. The jury filed in again. Eleven to one in favor of Lackey.

The judge then played his trump card. No verdict, no pay.

The jury went back for a third try. The one hold–out for Blodgett was assailed. "You think you know more than eleven men?" "You want to keep us here all night?" "I’ll stay here," he claimed, "till I die and the worms carry me though that keyhole." But, finally, he capitulated.

The judge noted the decision, assessed Blodgett all court costs.

Lackey’s acquittal was met with wild enthusiasm up and down Broadway, the ensuing celebration lasting though the night, and well into the next one. Blodgett, stung with humiliation, sold his hotel and moved to Alexandria.

~Roger Pinckney