A cockfight is a blood sport between 2 roosters (cocks) held in a ring called a cockpit. The sport was popular in ancient India, China, & Persia, before it was introduced into Greece during the time of Themistocles (c. 524–460 BC). For a time, the Romans claimed to despise this "Greek diversion;" but they ended up adopting it so enthusiastically, that the agricultural writer Columella (1st century AD) complained, that its devotees often spent most of their time & money betting at the side of the cock pit. The 1st documented use of the word gamecock, denoting use of the cock as to a “game,” a sport, pastime or entertainment, was recorded in 1646, after the term “cock of the game” used by George Wilson, in the earliest known book on the sport of cockfighting in The Commendation of Cocks and Cock Fighting in 1607.
The combatants usually were specially bred birds, conditioned for increased stamina & strength. The comb & wattle usually were cut off . Cocks possess a natural aggression toward all males of the same species. Cockfighting was usually a seasonal sport. From September to November, gamecocks go through their molting stage (lose old feathers & grow new ones). During this period usually no fighting occurs. Cocks were given the best of care & conditioned, trained much like professional athletes prior to events. Wagers were made on the outcome of the match.
According to a German tourist Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1683–1734) there was a common set of procedures accompanying most cock-fights. Cocks were brought into the cockpit hidden in sacks. At this point the spectators & owners would make their wagers. This happened before the birds were viewed. After the pledges were finished, the cocks were taken out of their sacks & fitted with silver spurs. If the match-up was successful, the cocks will peck at each other & hack each other with their spurs. Usually, when one died then the victor would crow & jump on the loser. If both were exhausted & would not move, they would be replaced.
"This we poor Cooks, exert our Skill & Brav’ry For idle Gulls, and Kites, that trade in Knav’ry"
Cockfights historically occurred in cockpits, which were round arenas, sometimes bounded by wood, where the audience would stand or sit on benches. Betting would commence before the fight & continue throughout. Cockfights often would be arranged in sets called derbies. The owner whose birds won the most fights of the day, won the derby. Just before the actual fight, the birds would be held in the arms of the owners or trainers, while they pecked at each other; this was called billing. Then the birds would be turned loose from lines drawn in the sand & allowed to peck or lash out with their spurs. The natural spur of the chicken often was heeled with artificial metal gaffs, which were slightly curved & sharp like ice picks. When they became too entangled to continue, the fight would be stopped & the cocks separated. Then the fight would resume from lines drawn in the sand. If the action became desultory, the fight might be moved from the central arena to the "drag pits" on the side, where the fight ultimately culminated. A cockfight almost always ended in the death of one of the roosters.
The fights were noisy events at which betting, shouting, & drinking occurred on the sidelines. Cock fights were predominately male entertainment. There is a report in a modern history of a cockfight in Southampton County, Virginia, where the crowd included “many genteel people, conspicuously mingled with the vulgar & debased.” Tavern gardens & yards often served as cockfight sites, because tavernkeepers made money on fight fans for food, drink, & accommodations.
Royal sport pit ticket by William Hogarth, 1759, London
Cock fights appealed to a wide variety of men. A well-dressed, escaped indentured servant was noted as enjoying cockfights in The Pennsylvania Gazette on May 21, 1752, "Bohemia, Maryland, April 9. 1752. Runaway, last night, from the subscriber, a convict servant fellow, named Jacob Parrott, born in the West of England, & bred in the family of a gentleman in Devonshire. He is about 22 years old...he is very handy at anything, so that he may pretend to be a groom, coachman, gardiner, barber, sawyer, shoemaker, &c. His apparel was a new felt hat, a new brown & an old grey wig, a new ash colour duffel great coat, with a large cape, & white metal buttons, a new darkish grey fine kersey coat, with a small black cape, & black button holes, with carved white metal buttons, double breasted short brown holland jacket, with washyellow buttons, new leather breeches, two or three fine Irish linnen shirts, white cotton stockings, & new footed grey yarn ditto, new pumps, & large pewter buckles. He took with him a brown middle siz natural pacing horse, a good bridle, saddle & housing, with plenty of money, which supposed will soon be spent, he being a very drunken idel fellow, & a lover of dancing, singing, carding, racing, cock fighting."
The escaped servant would know where to go for a cock fight; because a bout’s sponsor set a place, a date, & a time, & announced the event in the newspaper. From 1732-1768, cock fights were regularly advertised in The South Carolina Gazette. Notices mentioned not only the place but the process for competing & for wagering. The ad on May 20, 1732, advised, "Two Gentlemen have agreed & entered into articles, to fight on the 29th Instant, 7 pair of COCKS , at the House of Mr. S. Eldridge; 6 pair fights for 40l., a Barrel, the odd pair at 50l. All Gentlemen who are Lovers of this Royal Diversion, & will bring their Cocks , may have them match'd, & fought from 10 to 50l. per Barrel: There will be a good Pit built, & every Person that goes in pays 10s. unless he brings a Cock to be matched & fought for any of the Sums abovementioned." On May 10, 1735, the newspaper reported, "On Tuesday last several Gentlemen of Christ-Church Parrish met several Gentlemen of Port Royal at the Cockpitt, to fight a Cock Match: The Port Royal Cocks got seven Battles in Eight, & a considerable Sum of Money was won & lost on the Diversion." The Virginia Gazette also announced upcoming cock fights through 1767.
Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) & Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) published by J. Hill, & Harraden
An editorial against cockfighting appeared in The Virginia Gazette on January 2, 1752, just a month before this ad in The Virginia Gazette of February 2, 1752, “On Tuesday next will be fought, at the George & Dragon, in Williamsburg, a Match of Cocks, for Ten Pistoles, the first Battle, Five Pistoles the Second, & Two Pistoles & a Half the Third &c. As likewise several other Matches.”
The editorial: To the Printer: SIR, If you'll please to communicate to the Public the following Observations on one of the reigning Diversions of this Country, you'll oblige Your very humble Servant .
THE Right Mankind has to deprive an Innocent Animal of Life, must depend upon the Property every respective Individual has therein. Now, I say, that the Property Men have in every Thing they Possess, is limited; or, that no Man may use any of the T he possesseth, according to his own Pleasure, unless such Using be agreeable to the Divine Law. Therefore the depriving an innocent Animal of Life, must be under certain Limitations.
Whether the Dominion God gave the first Man over the Creatures, extended to the taking away their Lives fro any other Use than Sacrifice, or for Cloathing; or whether the Allowance was only given to Noah after the Deluge, to kill them for Food, I shall not here enquire, since whatever Property Man has in the Creatures, is derived from God; & I shall take it for granted that Mankind has Licence to kill them for the Necessities & Conveniences of Life. The Opinion of same Calvinists , that none but the Elect have such Property, not being worth confusing. But then the Question is, how far this Property extends, or where it stops. Now the Way to find this out, is to examine where the Exercise thereof is supported by any Divine Law, or where it contradicts the same. For Instance. The Domestick, or innocent Animals are not to be killed to gratify an extravagant Passion for Money, out of Wantonness, or with Circumstances of Cruelty attending such killing. Because this is a Transgremon of the Laws that forbid such Crimes. For even the Law of Nature forbids Cruelty. It is grievous to see, or even to hear of an Animal in Torment. Our very Make & Constitution (if it is not vitiated) us from being insensible of the Pains of others. Plutarch says "if we kill an Animal for our Provision, let us do it with the Melting of Compassion, & without tormenting it. Let us consider, that , in own Nature, Cruelty, to put a living Creature to Death; at least destroy a Soul & Perception." And again, " It is than the O of our very B to practise to our own Kind, may be extended through the Order o."
The Scripture tells us, Prev . xii. 10- That the Righteous Man regardeth the Life of his Beast. Then, by the Rule of Contraries, He chat regardeth not the Life of his Beast, is not a righteous Man. But how can he, who wantonly puts a poor innocent Animal to a cruel & lingring Death, be said to regard its Life. Certainly in no Sense. Therefore I infer, that he who does so, is an unrighteous Man, or, so far a Transgressor of the Divine Law.
To apply this to the Practice so much in Vogue here, of late, of Cock -fighting. I would beg Leave, to ask the Advocates for that Diversion, upon what Law is it founded? If it be answered, by asking another Question, viz . Does not the Laws of the Country allow a Man to use his own Property, as he pleases? I answer, By no Means. For either such Laws are agreeable to the Divine Law, or they are not. To say they are not agreeable to the Divine Law, is saying in other Words, no Man ought to observe them. Which is a poor Compliment to the Laws of ones Country. It follows therefore that they are agreeable to the Divine Law. And if so, I have endeavoured to shew that the above Practice is conary as well to the Divine Law revealed, as to that of Nature.
But it may perhaps be objected, That the Animals, for which so tender a Regard is pleaded, are of such a Nature, that they will tear & destroy one another whenever they meet; therefore Cock -fighting is only giving further Scope to this natural Instinct. To which I answer, Admitting the Truth of the Fact contained in the Objection, it will be no Means follow, that because some of the brute Animals are naturally fierce, therefore Men are to cultivate & improve that Quality in them. On the contrary, it is observable that the most civilized of Mankind has always tam'd & render'd useful many of the fierce Animals, as they ought to have done.
And if it be a just Observation (as I think it is) that most of the domestick Animals are only apt to quarrel with such of their own Species, as they don't usually see, but are commonly fond of those they associate with, then I think the Objection turns against the Objectors.
And as the Circumstances of an Action very much affect its Nature, this Practice will be found attended with Circumstances shockingly prophane & impious. This I can assert from my own Observation. For having casually been present at a Cock -fight , some Time ago, I could not but take Notice, with much concern, that some Gentlemen, who, upon other Occasions, behav'd with great Decency, & as if they had been influenced with suitable Impressions of the awful & tremendous Name of GOD, did then speak & act, as if the Divine Law had been for that Time abrogated, opening their Mouths with horrid Oaths, & dreadful Imprecations. And all this when their Passions were not much inflam'd, being early in the Day, & their high Bets not yet begun. I, for my Part was soon tir'd with the Place & Diversion , as 'tis called, & left it, with a firm Purpose, never to be present at another such. To it succeeded Drinking & Gaming, an uninterrupted Violation both of Divine, & Human Laws, for some Days & Nights.
Now admitting that the Practice of Cock -fighting were lawful in itself, which I absolutely deny; yet when 'tis attended with such Circumstances, & follow'd such terrible Consequences, is it not a Shame that it should be allowed in a Christian Country. Were one of the primitive Christians but to revisit this Globe, & be dropt at a modern Cock -fight , he would hardly be persuaded, that he was among Christians; but upon his being assured, that he was in the purest Part of the Christian Church, how great must his Surprize & Concern be, to find such a dreadful Dissolution of Manners, among those that bear the Redeemer's Name.
If then this Practice be so unjustifiable, it is not fit, the more sober & regular Part of Mankind, who have, without duly examining the Nature thereof, or viewing it in the Light in which I have placed it, given too much Countenance thereto, should abandon the same; & thereby discountenance, if they cannot entirely remove the growing Evil: For I'm persuaded, that if those in eminent Stations, would shew their Dislike, not only to that, but to every other dissolute Practice, the vulgar, who are very apt to mimick them, would soon give it up also, at least it would become so infamous, that none who regarded their Character, would be found publickly to practise it.
It may perhaps be thought, that I have exaggerated the Malignity of the above Practice, & that many who love the Diversion, abhor the Consequences thereof; But I would have such consider, what has been said as to the Lawfulness thereof; & then, thought the Circumstances attending be not essential thereto, yet if they are so inseparable therefrom, as the World goes, that they are become almost what Logicians call secondary Qualities, then I will leave it to their Consciences to determine, what it safest to be done in such a Case.
Upon the whole; if any one, who has aught to offer in Support of the above-mentioned Diversion, will please to communicate his Thoughts to the Public, I shall duly consider, & endeavour to answer them, if they contain any Thing like Reason & Argument: But if no better Reason can be given for it, than that it is an old Custom, in itself indifferent, & not to be parted with, because some People of scrupulous Consciences dislike it; then, I hope, Men of Sense will not think it beneath them, to follow good Advice, from whatever Quarter it comes, & abandon a Practice for which so little can be pleaded."
Many agreed with the editorial writer. In The Memoirs Of Elkanah Watson: Including His Journals Of Travel In Europe And America From The Year 1777 To 1842, Watson wrote that he was, "...deeply astonished to find men of character & intelligence giving their countenance to an amusement so frivolous & so scandalous, so abhorrent to every feeling of humanity, & so injurious in its moral influences." By the middle of the 18th-century, authorities in several colonies occasionally tried to suppress cockfighting. In 1752, the administration of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, directed its students to avoid them. The colony of Georgia prohibited them in 1775.
By 1778, The Pennsylvania Packet was reporting that "The House resumed the second reading...of the bill now intitled, "An act for the suppression or vice & immorality,"... An ACT for the suppression of Vice & Immorality. WHEREAS sufficient provision hath not hitherto been made by law for the due observation of the sabbath day, & the preventing of profane swearing, cursing, drunkenness, cock fighting, bullet playing, horse racing, shooting matches, & the playing & gaming for money or other valuable things, fighting of duels, & such evil practices; which tend greatly to debauch the minds & corrupt the morals of the subjects of the commonwealth..."
Cockfight in eastern North Carolina, c. 1857.
Often cock fights were held outdoors at inns or taverns. Word of mouth also drew crowds, as the François Jean marquis de Chastellux, noted in 1782, after watching a fight in Louisa County, Virginia, "Parting from their good hosts they then continue their journey, arriving about noon at Willis's ordinary or inn, a little house placed in a solitary situation in the middle of the woods; notwithstanding which we there found a great deal of company. The inquisitive traveler is curious to know the reason for this assemblage at such an out of the way place. He soon discovers to his great astonishment that the crowd had come to see a cock-fight! This diversion, he says, is much in fashion in Virginia, where the English customs are more prevalent than in the rest of America. When the principal promoters of this diversion propose to match their champions, they take care to announce it to the public, & although there are neither posts nor regular conveyances, this important news spreads with such facility that planters come from 30 or 40 miles around, some with cocks, but all with money for betting, which is sometimes very considerable. While our horses were feeding, we had an opportunity to see a battle. The preparation took up a great deal of time: they arm their cocks with long steel spurs, very sharp; & cut off a part of their feathers, as if they meant to deprive them of their armor. The stakes were very considerable. The money of the parties was deposited in the hands of one of the principal persons, & I felt a secret pleasure in observing that it was principally French. I know not which is the most astonishing, the insipidity of such diversion, or the stupid interest with which it animates the parties. This passion appears almost innate among the English, for the Virginians are yet English in many respects. While the interested parties animated the cocks to battle, a child of fifteen who was near me kept leaping for joy, & crying, "Oh, it is a charming diversion!"
French military gentleman Jean-Baptiste-Antoine de Verger touring the United States between 1780-1783, with Rocambeau's Army noted this about the Americans: “They have another sport, which is cock-fighting. Here is how it is conducted: Certain inhabitants raise cocks that look very strong, & that they bring in covered cage to the battlefield. Those disposed to bet choose one, which is then weighed, & if he is of the same weight as his adversary, the neck feathers that might hinder him are plucked out. The cocks are next fitted with very sharp, long, curved steel spurs which are attached to their natural spurs. Then they are put into a ring enclosed by a rope, around which the circle of spectators sits. Each man launches his cock, & the fight is on. The moment one falls a man picks him up & makes him take a drink. The fight continues until one of the combatants is killed.”
Moreau de St. Mery, the French exile who lived in Philadelphia in the 1790's, noted in his journal, "The commonest form of betting is on cock fights, which take place every day. Some men devote all their time & efforts to the training of fighting cocks. In order to make them pugnacious, nothing is neglected. They are subjected to a diet which excites them, & even to the use of strong drinks. They are armed with iron spurs, their combs are cut to offer less of ahold to the enemy; they are urged on by cries & placed in an enclosure from which they cannot escape. The fight rages amidst a crowd that seems to be wholly made up of Englishmen, but which is composed of their descendants, & the unfortunate cocks tear each other to pieces & dies in order to decide their bets. The public houses benefit, too, by making sure that the atrocious winners--the men, that is--drink up their winnings in the company of the vanquished--men again."
In 1797, The Pennsylvania Gazette, recorded that the yearly meeting of the Quakers asked that the legislators "will discountenance & discourage every species of extravagance & dissipation, especially all horse racing, & all kinds of gaming, cock fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, & other expensive diversions & entertainments." By 1798, the same newspaper published Extracts from the Penal Laws of the State of Pennsylvania.
Sect. 5. Page 548. - Be it further enacted, &c. That if any person or persons, after the first of August next, cause to fight any cock or cocks for money or any other valuable thing, or shall promote or encourage any match or matches of cock -fighting by betting thereon, or shall play at any match of bullets, in any place, for money or other valuable thing, or on any public highway, with or without a bet, or shall play at cards, dice, billiards, bowls, shuffle-boards, or any game of hazard or address, for money or other valuable thing, every such person, so offending, shall, upon conviction thereof before any justice or magistrate, as aforesaid, forfeit & pay three dollars for every such offence; & if any person or persons shall enter, start, or run any horse, mare, or gelding, for any plate, prize, wager, bet, sum of money, or other valuable thing, every such person so offending shall, upon conviction thereof as aforesaid, forfeit & pay the sum of twenty dollars.
Sect. 6. Page 548. - Be it further enacted, &c. That if any tavern-keeper, public house-keeper, keeper of a tippling-house, or other retailer of wine, spirituous, or other strong drink, shall incite, promote, or encourage any games of address, hazard, cock -fighting, bullet-playing, or horse-racing, whereat any money or other valuable thing shall be betted, staked, striven for, won or lost, or shall furnish any wine, spirituous liquors, beer, cyder, or other strong drink, to any of the persons who shall be assembled or attending upon any game of address, hazard, or cock fighting, bullet-playing or horse racing, as aforesaid, or shall permit or allow of any kind of game of address or hazard, playing, betting, or gaming, for money or other thing of value whatsoever, either at cards, dice, billiards, bowls, shuffle-boards, or any game, device, or manner to be practiced, played, or carried on within his or her dwelling-house, out-house, shed, or place, in his or her occupancy, every such tavern-keeper, keeper of a public house, keeper of a tippling-house, or retailer of wine or spirituous liquors, beer, cyder, or other strong drink, who shall be legally thereof convicted before any of the justices or magistrates as aforesaid, or in any court of quarter sessions of the peace or oyer & terminer & general gaol delivery, held for the city or county wherein the offence shall be committed, shall forfeit & pay for every such offence the sum of fourteen dollars; & if such convict be a licenced public house-keeper, or retailer of wine or spirituous liquors or beer, the licence of such person shall be thereupon null & void, & such offender shall be incapable of being again licenced in like manner for one year thereafter, & upon a second conviction of the like offence, such person shall forfeit & pay the sum of twenty-eight dollars, & be for ever incapable of being a public house-keeper or retailer, as aforesaid, within this state.
Emile Claus (1849–1924) The Cockfight 1882
In New York City, cock-fighting continued to be a popular sport. At the sign of the Fighting Cocks—an appropriate sign—in Dock Street, "very good cocks" could be had, or at the Dog's Head in the Porridge Pot. Steel & silver spurs could be purchased in local stores. The loser of a broad cloth coat advertised in the newspaper, that it was lost on a cockfighting night (supposed taken by mistake).
And cockfighting remained popular throughout the 19th-century in many states in the new American republic. In the spring of 1809 the Wig-Wam Gardens in Norfolk, Virginia, announced that the proprietor had spent his winter erecting a cock-pit to stage cock fights every Saturday during the summer season.