They took Kit Burns to Calvary Cemetery three days before Christmas, in a hearse drawn by six white horses. A crowd had gathered for his wake at his daughters’ house in Brooklyn, and after a viewing, the mourners moved outside, into the cold, to escort the body on foot some 10 miles to Queens. The procession was sufficiently numerous—and festive—to form a parade. In a rosewood coffin inlaid with a delicate silver cross, Burns lay dressed in garb more sedate than the bright shirts, golden chains and pantaloons striped with gang colors he had favored in life. His ruddy complexion ornamented a robust prizefighter’s frame, while narrow eyes and a red corsair’s beard lent him some semblance to Van Gogh’s Postman.
Beyond his clothing, death had not much changed his appearance. It was said that those assembled gazed at Burns as if he were a spiritual medium, a religious leader, prophet or saint. In his 39 years, he had survived four bullet wounds, and a knife to the neck taken during a brawl at Dan Kerrigan’s Cherry Street bar. In the winter of 1869, a year before his death, reporters as distant as Kansas and Montana advised readers that complications from a rat bite had placed him in precarious, near-terminal condition. Such were occupational hazards for Burns, a saloonkeeper by trade, who was also perhaps the country’s greatest impresario, before or since, of bloodsport. An assiduous organizer of combat amongst rodents, dogs, men—and, occasionally, bears—he had in his lifetime overseen the slaughter of thousands of rats.
The death notices furnished decidedly mixed reviews: Commercial Advertiser named Burns “a genius in disguise; a democrat by birth,” and “a fellow of the Metropolitan Society of the Slums,” while the Jackson Citizen Patriot predicted that, leaving the temporal sphere, Burns would report directly to “the bottomless [pit].” Citizens and Round Table wrote of his departure, simply: “We are glad of it.” Henry Bergh, the well-heeled scion of a New York industrial family—and the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)—would later boast: “I drove him out of New York and into his grave.”
For Bergh, there could have been scarcely any evil greater than Burns, who’d presided over a dog and rat-fighting pit that was, by the late 1860s, one of few in Manhattan he had failed to shutter. But Burns was incredulous. He considered his occupation legal as any, and could not fathom objections to it. Burns did not fault Bergh for his efforts; he seemed rather to respect the earnestness with which he approached his mission. He could not, however, access the reformer’s logic. For Burns, violence and cruelty were only distantly related—by perversions of which he considered himself innocent. Violence itself seemed to him no sin. “Rats are vermin,” he once said. “And dogs will fight, for ‘tis their nature to.”
Born Christopher Keyburn in Donegal, Ireland in 1830, Kit Burns immigrated to New York around 1845, one of hundreds of thousands who fled the potato famine for American shores. Burns’s parents did not accompany him on the voyage, though his older brother George—who later became a police officer—might have. In 1860, when Burns applied for naturalization, George stood witness. Their father did not arrive until two years later.
The Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan, where Burns first settled, was a squalid district named for the intersection between Orange, Cross and Anthony Streets in modern Chinatown. Between 1830 and 1855, Five Points’s population nearly doubled, to some 25,500, of which Irish immigrants accounted for a great majority. Per capita income in the area hovered far below the citywide average, and the streets were thicketed with cramped tenements dominated on some blocks by cut-rate brothels, the basements of which hosted oft-flooded inebriate flophouses. Beneath these buildings, filled in with earth dug from Bunker Hill, lay the Collect Pond: a lake gone rancid with tannery and slaughterhouse runoff. Outhouses stood close beside wells and alcoholism ran rampant. Practically nowhere was crime more prevalent. Northern abolitionists faced accusations of hypocrisy: Life in Five Points, slavers charged, was far crueler than even the most brutal kind of plantation existence. The Scandinavian activist Fredrika Bremer, among others, saw things in vaguely evolutionary terms: “Lower than to the Five Points,” she wrote, “it is not possible for human nature to sink.”
Still, as the historian Tyler Anbinder notes in his book Five Points, the neighborhood’s turmoil bred an unprecedented and characteristically American social shift. After 1834, the Five Points’s political nobility “comprised saloonkeepers, grocers, policemen and firemen rather than manufacturers and wealthy merchants…the old elite that had governed the city for centuries.” “The liquor-dealer is [the tenement dwellers’] guide, philosopher and creditor,” a reporter for The Nation wrote. “He…is the person through whom the news and meaning of what passes in the upper regions of city politics reaches them.” For a price, saloonkeepers could thus deliver substantial voting blocs to angling politicians, and many Five Pointers viewed bar ownership as a zenith of success.
If conditions in Five Points could bring on despair, they also fostered eager striving: “…most survived and eventually thrived,” Anbinder writes of Five Points’s immigrants, “establishing more prosperous lives for themselves and their families than would have been possible” in their native countries. For many, the underworld presented the most expedient trailhead to prosperity, and practically none found that ingress more inviting than Kit Burns.
In the late 1840s, Burns—like innumerable young men who’ve since grown up without the benefit of parental guidance in rough American neighborhoods—became involved in gang life. The Dead Rabbits were the largest of the Five Points gangs, to which thousands collectively belonged, and Burns rose quickly through their ranks. (In the parlance of the time, a “rabbit”—inexplicably—was a big, tough fellow. A “dead rabbit” then, was a fellow extremely big and tough.) The Dead Rabbits skirmished locally with smaller gangs, and nurtured longstanding vendettas with the Bowery Boys and Atlantic Guards, which roved nearby. They fought with fists and iron bars, brickbats, pistols, paving stones, pitchforks and knives. They wore trousers emblazoned with red stripes and, as was the style, often battled in their undershirts. They drank to near-comical excess. (The journalist Robert Sullivan writes in his book Rats that, as an adult, Burns maintained a strict regimen of 20 glasses of liquor a day.)
As a Dead Rabbit lieutenant, Burns often functioned more like a political operative than a modern gangster. Anbinder writes: “Election day in [Five Points] rarely ended without blackened eyes and bloodied lips,” as gangs representing rival political factions staged polling place riots—destroying and stuffing ballot boxes, and intimidating would-be voters to tip the scales in their favor. (Two months before Burns’s death, the Columbia Register identified him euphemistically as a prominent “protector of the ballot boxes.”) To elect the venal and unprincipled Democrat mayor Fernando Wood, in 1855, the Dead Rabbits fanned out in city cemeteries—compiling names to add to Wood’s rolls—and deposited several chests of unfavorable ballots in the East River. Like virtually all politically active Five Pointers, the Dead Rabbits supported the rising Democratic Tammany Hall establishment, whose anti-abolitionist, pro-immigrant stance and antipathy toward restrictive liquor laws lined up neatly with local sensibilities. (The Bowery Boys and Atlantic Guards were leading enforcers for the opposition “Know-Nothing” party, which maintained a nativist platform.)
Though the riots Burns would captain through the 1850s and 1860s served to perpetrate corruption and fraud, they—like the saloonkeepers who had become neighborhood beacons—also exercised a democratizing influence, affording immigrants access to power structures formerly unavailable to them. Burns never showed interest in public office. But in 1867, when the New York Herald—a paper with nativist sympathies—listed him as a likely political candidate, it was with real and palpable concern. It was also a testament to the trust his community placed in him, and to how far he’d come since arriving two decades earlier, practically a child and all but alone in America.
It is unclear what first drew Burns into the gyre of Five Points politics. But his association as a teenager with Yankee Sullivan, who ran a bar on Walker Street known as the Sawdust House, seems a likely point of entry. The saloon hosted New York’s premier dogfighting pit, which so attracted Burns that he quickly became a regular, sufficiently comfortable in the arena that he often appeared without shoes. A noted Democrat bruiser, Sullivan was born in Cork, Ireland, and had achieved fame in 1841 for his defeat of Johnny “Hammer” Lane in an English prizefighting championship. Wiry and freckled, with a bullet head and cropped hair, Sullivan catered at the Sawdust House to a clientele composed of a class then called “the pugilistic fraternity.”
Boxing, at the time illegal, bore greater semblance to Ultimate Fighting—or perhaps to amateur street fighting—than to the modern discipline. Fighters did not wear gloves. Wrestling-type throws, holds, and a certain amount of kicking were permissible. According to the historian Elliott Gorn, a new set of rules, introduced in 1838, forbade “hair-pulling, eye-gouging, gut-kneeing and neck throttling, tactics too often winked at” under earlier guidelines. Still, the sport remained brutal. Reports of Sullivan’s fights describe opponents flogged senseless: After 66 rounds, Tom Secar could not “respond to the call of time,” and 86 minutes in the ring with Sullivan saw a boxer known as Professor Bell unable to “toe the scratch.” Following the 37th round at a fight at Boston Corners, “a general row ensued,” and “Sullivan took a hand in it,” much to the referee’s dismay.
Though Burns would later become a regular in the press as the nation’s chief spokesman for dog and rat fighting, he appeared first, in September 1856, as cornerman for a boxer named Charley Lynch, at a boxing match held along the Hudson River, in northeastern New Jersey. Lynch kept a saloon on Water Street, and Burns had trained him for the ring. His opponent was the British-born Andy Kelly, an agile and tactful fighter, who moonlighted as an umbrella salesman. Each man weighed 110 pounds. After two hours and fifteen minutes, the Times wrote, prepared for the 86th round, “Kelly sprang from his second’s lap to meet Lynch, but had scarcely advanced a foot, when, turning…tottering a moment, he fell heavily backwards and never spoke again.” Arrested in connection with the fight, Burns emerged from custody enthusiastically unrepentant. In January 1866, he rode a train to Port Jervis, New York to act as second for the fighter and bar owner Dan Kerrigan. With him, Burns toted four metallic stakes and heavy lengths of rope with which to pace off a ring. Burns seemed to go everywhere with these accessories, the way a boy hoping for a game might carry a ball about town. Prizefights drew rough, hard-drinking crowds, and to avoid disturbing the communities near which they took place, organizers sought secluded venues. On Valentine’s Day, 1867, the Boston Herald wrote, Burns pitched a ring outside New Haven on the bank of the Housatonic River, “in a clover field on high ground.” In Goldsboro, Pennsylvania, in a hollow beside railroad tracks at the base of high hills, he sunk stakes in hard earth in a driving January snow. Sandy-haired, with muttonchops and a stubbed wooden pipe, frequently in suspenders, Burns—with ropes coiled around his arms and stakes over his shoulder—made a sight worthy of pastoral landscapists.
He attended fights up and down the coast: near Boston, on the Isle of Shoals, in Milford, Connecticut, and on Fisher’s Island and the island of Mystic. His presence was so constant that on at least one occasion, a journalist felt moved to wonder in print at his absence from a fight. In his slang and his affinity for the gruesome, Burns could occasionally sound like Alex, the debauched narrator from A Clockwork Orange: “Ah! He was a man,” he once told a reporter, gesturing to an image of a prizefighter whose tolerance for alcohol and ability to draw blood he admired. “You couldn’t count up his pints on your fingers. And then he handled himself so tidy. Nothing flabby about him. And such a claret tapper! He always got the ruby flowing.”
Shortly before the Civil War, Burns moved just south of Five Points, into the waterfront district known as the 4th Ward, which is occupied today by the Financial District. In its filth, banditry and depth of vice, the area much resembled the neighborhood in which he’d come of age. (Its gangs also shared Democratic affiliation.) If anything, the 4th Ward was worse: “For at least twenty-five years,” the 20th century popular historian Herbert Asbury wrote, Water Street—the neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfare—“was probably the scene of more violent crime than any other street on the continent.” Burns took up residence there, occupying a three-story frame house marked 273, which is today the city’s third-oldest building. Above the door he hung a large, gilded shingle that read: “Sportsman’s Hall, by Kit Burns.”
Sportsman’s Hall was divided into two main rooms. In the first stood a long black walnut bar outfitted with brass railings, and above which hung the stuffed remains of two of Burns’s favorite dogs. One was Jack, a black and tan who’d once dispatched 100 rats in under seven minutes. His companion, Hunky, had been a dog-fighting champion wounded mortally in his last victory. The walls were adorned with images of bare-knuckle boxers and outdoorsman on the hunt, treading through brush. Burns and his wife—a tough, attractive, buxom woman, also Irish—presided behind the bar, which dispensed home-distilled liquor. The family lived in the rooms above Sportsman’s Hall, and Burns’s frail but pugnacious daughter Kitty, an unlikely adept of heavy wooden clubs, was also often on the premises. From the doorway, one could discern the unmistakable odor of dog.
At the barroom’s rear, a narrow passage designed to frustrate police raids snaked toward an amphitheater. Wooden box seats fronted an octagonal, dirt-floored arena enclosed by three-foot-high wooden walls approximately 17 feet long and nine feet wide. Four gas jets lighted the space. Behind the box seats, encircling the ring, benches rose on risers to the ceiling. A Tribune reporter estimated that the room could hold “250 decent people and 400 indecent ones.” Dogs often lay chained beneath the seats, where the bones of rats had been swept. Until his pet’s death in 1868, Burns reserved one box for his black bear, which he reportedly pitted against any contestant of its weight. (Short of a traveling circus, one wonders where such competitors might have been found.)
In addition to an occasional boxing match, spectators were treated—for the price of 25 cents—to three basic entertainments: rat killing by weasel, rat killing by dog and dogfighting. Rat-based contests consisted of timed killings, on which spectators placed bets. Animals raced against competitors—of the same or another species—or purely against the clock. Relatively slow and bloodless, rat and weasel bouts often served as preliminary events. Regulars thought them tame, best suited to women and children. Attendees occasionally initiated contests between man and rat, which required the human participant to snatch rodents by hand and sever their heads with his teeth, a technique that invariably resulted in scratches and bites to his face. This discipline—superlatively gory in a competitive field—Burns deemed unnatural and coarse. He ejected those who tried it in his ring.
In a typical evening of what Burns termed “interesting exhibitions,” Sportsman’s Hall might have gone through 100 rats, and, as The Boston Journal reported, sporting rats could be “quite difficult to get.” Grey wharf rats were valued for their size and peculiar ferocity, and Burns paid 12 cents a rat to his in-house catcher, whose methods he refused to reveal: “Lots of folks have tried to find it out,” he said. “But it ain’t no use. It’ll always be a secret.” Jack Jennings, whose brother ran a rival pit, hunted by lantern light in alleys near the docks, using canvas bags, iron wire, a crowbar, a non-lethal trap—and, to ward off bites, a solution he called “oil of rhodium.” Rats entered Burns’s octagon 50 at a time, screaming and clamoring in a wire cage. They were extracted for slaughter using specialized tongs, which resembled a curling iron.
One attendee offered the following description of a ratting event:
They galloped about the walls in different directions, meeting and crowding into a file in one of the corners, where they tried ineffectually to scale the top of the pit. Then they would separate again and run frightened about the floor, trying every crevice and corner. One or two ran up the trousers and legs of the cage-holder, whence he composedly and carelessly shook them again.
The Tribune observed: “The rapidity with which a well trained dog kills rats is astounding to the uninitiated…he bites to kill every time, and usually does it.” For Burns, this fact amounted to a realization of instinct: “He must know by the feel when he bites ‘em, that he’s done the business for ‘em,” he advised.
From the building’s first floor, a short precarious staircase descended to a damp, low-ceilinged basement containing wooden stalls enough for some 40 dogs. Dreary and ill-lit, it struck Burns “a fine place for a dog.” His choice specimens, however—including the prized white-legged black and tan bulldog Belcher—dwelled with his family in comfortable second-floor rooms, and enjoyed, Burns said, better cuisine than he did. To condition his pack, Burns employed a system not dissimilar from modern spin classes: Each dog was placed atop a large round table with a rotating top, which, for traction, had been upholstered in wool. With the animal chained in place, a trainer incited the other dogs to bark and growl, infuriating the trainee such that he would run forward in pursuit—thereby creating a feedback loop of aggression, and a treadmill. To hone their fighting ability, trainees fought “cur” dogs—otherwise unfit for the ring—which they often killed outright.
As callous as these practices sound, nowhere in historical accounts of Kit Burns’s Sportsman’s Hall are there descriptions of the sorts of brutalities associated with the dogfighting of today. Contemporary reporters often strove to depict Sportsman’s Hall in the cruelest and most debased terms, and still, none suggested that Burns beat, starved or tortured his dogs. Journalists were rather inclined to note his affection for them, and that he could be deeply wounded by their loss. A Tribune reporter once wrote: “It is claimed by certain scientists and philosophers that a man grows into a resemblance of that to which he most devotes himself, and the theory holds true in Kit’s case.” It appears that in his own mind, Burns was engaged not so much in cultivating aggression as in tapping a primeval vein. His long, semi-obsessive association with prizefighting seems to suggest that he regarded men—at least some men—in much the same light as he did his animals. They will fight, Burns had said, “for ‘tis their nature to.”
To a certain extent, Burns’s view echoed the analysis of contemporary popular historians, who ascribed to Burns and his class the label of “Roughs,” a flexible term with pseudo-racial connotations. “The New York Rough is usually of foreign parentage,” James McCabe wrote in 1872. He is “…familiar with crimes of all kinds for he was born in the slums and has never known anything better.” Junius Henri Brown considered him “cunning as a fox and cruel as a tiger,” an insidious Cro Magnon man: “The facial and cranial appearance of the rough goes far to establish the truth of physiognomy and phrenology. All the animal is in the shape of his features and head; but the semblance of the thinking, cultivated, self-disciplined man is very nearly lost.” In 1870, Commercial Advertiser compared ratters and prizefighters to “the heathen Chinee” and “the heathen Hindoo,” and in the decade preceding Burns’s death, he came to expect a condescending eye from visiting journalists. A New York Herald reporter entering Burns’s bar in February 1870 seemed to anticipate a host shy of his own reputation. But Burns welcomed him as he had other writers, with good humor and an unswerving sense of self: “Yes sir, Kit Burns is my name,” he said. “I am not ashamed of it.”
In the fall of 1868, the Reverend A.C. Arnold prevailed on several Water Street saloon owners to commit their properties to the purpose of daily prayer meetings. (One, John Allen—a pimp known widely as “The Wickedest Man in New York”—endeavored a speaking tour, in which he would describe for audiences his path out of wickedness.) The Water Street Revival, as it was known, inspired frenzied press coverage and the pilgrimage to the 4th Ward of spectators eager to glimpse the underworld at prayer. Convinced of his neighbors’ recidivism, Burns, whose speech roughly resembled Long John Silver’s, regarded these developments with suspicion: “Why, I think it’s nothing but robbery, I tell ye that’s all it is,” he said of Allen’s reformation. “Them ministers and missioners are all in with Allen…It’s as clear a fraud as ever was…Conversion be damned. I knew him 17 years…I’m bad, and he is a worse one.”
When a drinking binge derailed Allen’s speaking tour, Burns was vindicated. Allen and the others were indeed “in with the missioners,” collecting fees for use of their space. With the stink of hypocrisy gone, Burns—finding his business reduced by the presence on Water Street of revivalists and slumming gawkers—rented his property, too. For several hours each day, the dog and rat pit—decorated yet with remnant blood and bones—became a pulpit. Some hoped the preachers’ influence would cure Burns of his passions, but he remained intransigent: “Oh, they can’t come that over me,” he said. “I’m too old for that…No, gentlemen, the games of the house will go on, the same as ever.”
If, as he claimed, Henry Bergh—the founder of the ASPCA—could truly take credit for driving Burns to his grave, a trip he’d made to Russia a year after the start of the Civil War had much to do with it. In 1862, Bergh had traveled to St. Petersburg to accept a diplomatic appointment from the eminent Lincoln cabinet secretary William H. Seward. Despite the United States’ relative youth, Bergh’s family had deep roots in the country. Descendent from German émigrés who had settled in the late 17th century on the Hudson River, Bergh was born in New York City and had attended Columbia College. A tall, serious fellow with chiseled facial features, blue-green eyes, and a melancholy bearing, he kept a home on Fifth Avenue and vacation property on Lake Mahopac—a WASPish upstate haven. Bergh had traveled extensively abroad and authored several minor items of verse, prose and drama. His father was a member of Tammany Hall and the proprietor of an East River shipyard, which during the War of 1812 had built one of the U.S. Navy’s six original frigates. By the time the elder Bergh died, in 1843, no American in history had constructed more ships.
Disinclined toward the family business and unsuccessful at literature, Henry Bergh stumbled, walking in St. Petersburg one day, on a spectacle that would give him new purpose. Before him lay a scene that resembled the beating of the mare in Raskolnikov’s fevered dreams: a peasant cruelly whipping a donkey in the street. Bergh approached to ask that the man cease beating his mount, and the man complied. To Bergh’s surprise, the perpetrator—as well as the crowd that had gathered—appeared awed, even cowed by his filigreed diplomat’s uniform. “At last,” he declared. “I’ve found a way to utilize my gold lace.”
Bergh soon returned to New York, where he continued to intervene on behalf of animals whose treatment he judged cruel. With no need to earn a living, he patrolled the streets daily, accosting coachmen driving overburdened horses and berating farmers shepherding cows in need of milking. He lobbied for passage of anti-animal cruelty legislation, which was unknown before 1865, and gave sanctimonious street-corner lectures. He installed quadruped-friendly public drinking fountains and worked to halt the practice of feeding dairy cattle on alcoholic mash. He fashioned an ambulance suitable for horses. When moved, he brandished aloft a threatening cane. He did not shrink from physical confrontation.
In 1866, Bergh formalized his operations with the inauguration of the ASPCA, eventually establishing an office on East 22nd Street. In its entry vestibule stood a stuffed Newfoundland. In December of that year, Bergh induced police to raid Sportsman’s Hall, and Burns was arrested in violation of animal cruelty laws. As proper guidelines for enforcement of the new laws had not yet been established, their application remained inconsistent, and Burns went free without punishment.
By 1867, the Evening Telegram reported, ratting had been largely eliminated from the city, due to the “irrepressible suppressor of cruelty to animals, Mr. Bergh.” Sportsman’s Hall, though, remained. The following year, Bergh organized an aerial raid, sending a police officer crashing through the building’s rear skylight, to circumvent the interior layout that had stymied previous sweeps. Captured again, Burns was fined $800, and when a Tribune reporter visited Sportsman’s Hall that September, he found Burns in low spirits—“generally out of sorts,” afflicted with “the blues” and “the gout.”
For his stubborn refusal to consider the revivalists’ moral exhortations, the New York Herald dubbed Burns “The Great Incorrigible.” But now, discouraged by Bergh’s increasingly zealous attentions, he showed interest in the aristocrat’s arguments: “I want Mr. Bergh to come down here and give a lecture on dogfighting and ratting,” Burns said. “If rats is cruelty, I’m cruel. But I don’t think rats is cruelty…Tell Bergh I’ll blow the pit to hell if he’ll come down and show me I’m wrong.” On another occasion, his perplexity at Bergh’s ethics showed though:
Mr. Bergh calls a rat an animal! Now, everybody of any sense knows that a rat is a vermin. Bergh takes up for the rat and won’t let us kill rats because he thinks they’re animals. Wouldn’t he kill a rat if he found one in his cupboard? Of course he would.
Bergh ignored Burns’s invitation to 273 Water Street, a version of which ran as an open letter in the Herald, and instead pressured police to conduct further raids. In December 1869, Burns’s favorite dog Belcher was killed in a dogfight at Sportsman’s Hall. Burns attributed the loss partially to the revivalists on his premises: “He was never exactly himself after [the prayer meetings],” he said. “It wasn’t so much the praying as the singing that took hold of him.”
Dejected, grief-burdened and financially hobbled, Burns closed Sportsman’s Hall, renting the building for a term of three years to the Reverend W.H. Boole, who opened in its place the Water Street Mission and Home for Women. A known supporter of the poor, Burns likely considered the Home a good deal more useful than prayer meetings.
A smaller Burns-operated saloon—the Bandbox—soon appeared on Water Street, where the proprietor continued to conduct ratting events. What was to be the last of countless “interesting exhibitions” Burns had hosted was scheduled for a Monday, November 21, 1870. An enthusiastic flyer advertised the affair:
Three hundred rats will be given away free of charge for gentlemen to try their dogs with
Come one come all!
There will be a good night’s sport and no humbug
At approximately eight o’clock that evening, Henry Bergh crept into the Bandbox, trailed by police officers. Tall and somber, he wore a long coat, beneath which was concealed a glowing lantern. As he entered, fifty or sixty dead rats lay piled, with one terrier—still at it—cheered on by some four or five-dozen spectators. Thirty-nine were arrested, including Burns, and Bergh had several dogs on the premises euthanized. He confiscated a cage teeming with live rats, which he rather inexplicably dropped into the East River.
Politicians from the Five Points and the 4th Ward took interest in the subsequent legal proceedings, and Burns promptly made bail. But he had caught cold in his holding cell, and the illness developed swiftly, into what might have been pneumonia or diphtheria. As preparations for his trial moved forward, Burns retreated to his bedroom at 388 Water Street, above the barroom of his new saloon. He became feverish and weak, developing hallucinatory, clairvoyant visions.
During Burns’s last days, the British prizefighting champion James Mace visited his bedside, and the two men reveled in their mutual passion, speaking of Mace’s planned bout with the Irish-American heavyweight Joe Coburn. Burns told Mace that he did not mind to die, but that he hated to leave his wife, and his dog Mustard. Mace felt sure his friend would be all right, if he would only give things a little time. Declining Mace’s offer of a drink, Burns began to shiver, and his wife came to his side. One of Burns’s dogs, which kept him company in his room, began to bark. “Lay still, Snoozer,” he said. “I’m going on a long journey,” he told Mace. “Good bye, Jim.”
In the hours before his death, Burns rose from his bed and crossed the room, thinking he would check one last time on his dogs. “By—” he said, “I’ll tramp the old Bandbox once more.” Lacking the strength, he soon fell back again on his pillow. “His agony and contortions during the last few hours of his existence were fearful,” the Jackson Citizen Patriot wrote. The Evening Post alleged that while only 39, Burns “had the appearance of a man of sixty.” During an era when some 750,000 Americans fought and died in a bitter disagreement over the determinative quality of race, he had put his faith in blood—in the naturalness of its letting, in the indelibility of its influence—and been scorned for his own. He had absorbed the wisdom of phrenology and been unbowed by its implications. Christopher Keyburn had arrived from Ireland, effectively orphaned at 15, and become a heroic figure amongst the abandoned classes, “whose countenances,” one reporter was sure, “told plainly of their character.”
When he died December 19, 1870, he had been Kit Burns, of Water Street. He was not ashamed of it.