Bummer and Lazarus were two stray dogs that roamed the streets of San Francisco, California, United States, in the early 1860s. Recognized for their unique bond and their prodigious rat-killing ability, they became a fixture of city newspapers, were exempted from local ordinances and immortalized in cartoons.
San Francisco, in common with other cities in the United States at the time, had a problem with free-ranging dogs. In Los Angeles in the 1840s dogs outnumbered people nearly two to one, and while the situation in San Francisco had not reached this extreme, the large numbers of strays and feral dogs did cause problems. Dogs were regularly poisoned or trapped and killed. Nevertheless, if a dog turned out to be a good ratter or distinguished itself in some other way it was still possible for it to survive.
Bummer was a black-and-white Newfoundland or Newfoundland cross who established himself outside the saloon of Frederick Martin in 1860 and quickly proved to be an exceptional rat-killer. His ratting talent spared him the fate of the former owner of the territory, Bruno, who had been poisoned with strychnine shortly before Bummer’s arrival. He scraped a living begging scraps from passers-by and the patrons of the saloon and other establishments along Montgomery Street.
In 1861 he was joined by another dog, after rescuing him from a fight with a larger rival. This dog was badly injured, with a deep wound on his leg, and was not expected to live. Bummer coaxed him to eat, brought back scraps from his scavenging missions and huddled next to him to keep him warm during the night. The injured dog quickly recovered and within days was following Bummer as he made his begging rounds in the streets. His remarkable recovery earned him the name Lazarus, and he proved to be an even more prodigious ratter than Bummer. As a team they turned out to be exceptional, once finishing off 85 rats in 20 minutes.
Their ratting talent and unique bond was seized upon by the city’s press. Martin’s Saloon was a favorite haunt of newspapermen and journalists, so, with the dogs a fixture outside the bar, they never had to travel far for a story. The exploits of the dogs were recorded in detail in the Californian, Daily Alta California, Daily Morning Call and Daily Evening Bulletin, the editors vying with each other in their attempts to endow the pair’s adventures with thrills and parallels to the human condition. Bummer was portrayed as the gentleman, down on his luck, yet still faithful and conscientious, while Lazarus, the mongrel, was cast in the role of the sly and self-serving fairweather friend. When Bummer was shot in the leg after only a couple of months, and Lazarus left him to run with another dog, it suited the press no end: Bummer was said to be feeling the sting of ingratitude at the desertion of the cur he had saved from death. Lazarus’ return when Bummer recovered only added to the excitement.
The two dogs had the run of the streets, and when, on June 14, 1862, Lazarus was taken by a new dog catcher, a mob of angry citizens demanded his release, petitioning to have the pair declared city property so they could wander the streets unmolested. The city supervisors released Lazarus and declared he and Bummer were exempt from the city ordinance against strays. A week later the two were reported to have stopped a runaway horse. Despite their reputations, the two could be vicious: Bummer was a sheep killer and regularly fought other dogs in the street occasionally assisted by Lazarus (although normally Lazarus would restrict himself to barking encouragement). They also ransacked shops on occasion when entered unnoticed and been locked in by the owners.
The two dogs were sometimes seen in the company of the “Emperor of the United States”, the eccentric Joshua A. Norton, and a popular legend made him their owner. However, no contemporary records make any mention of Norton being the owner and only one newspaper report made any connection between him and the dogs. The rumor may have arisen because the cartoonist Edward Jump frequently featured the three together, most notably in The Three Bummers which showed Norton eating from a heavily laden buffet table while the dogs wait patiently for scraps. Norton was apparently outraged when he saw the picture displayed in a shop-front window: the imperial dignity was affronted by the depiction of His Majesty in the company of lowly dogs. Despite the apparent antipathy felt by Norton for the dogs, the close association was still being claimed in the 1950s:
Bummer and Lazarus went everywhere with him. No theatrical performance opened in San Francisco from 1855 to 1880 that three complimentary tickets for the first row of the balcony were not put aside for Bummer and Lazarus and Norton I, Emperor of the United States.— Samuel Dickson – San Francisco is My Home
Lazarus was killed in October 1863. In San Francisco Kaleidoscope, Dickson claimed he was kicked by the horse of one of the city’s fire engines, but contemporary accounts say he was poisoned by being given meat laced with “ratbane” after biting a boy. San Franciscans put up a $50 reward for the capture of the poisoner. A wit suggested that he be buried in a place of honor alongside other great men of the city. Jump produced a cartoon of his “Funeral” with Norton as the Pope performing the ceremony and Freddy Coombs, another San Francisco eccentric who claimed to be the reincarnation of George Washington, digging the grave. Notable San Franciscans formed the cortege and Bummer looked on mournfully. This may have led to the rumor that large numbers of San Franciscans turned out for Lazarus’ funeral.The dog was not buried, though, but stuffed by a taxidermist and displayed behind the bar in Martin’s saloon. (According to Dickson, Martin paid the taxidermist $50 to turn the dog over — even though its remains had already been claimed by the city council). The Daily Evening Bulletin featured a long obituary entitled “Lament for Lazarus” in which they praised the virtues of both dogs and recounted their various adventures together.
Bummer continued alone, although Mark Twain reported a year later in the Daily Morning Call that he had taken a small black puppy under his wing. Nothing more was heard of the puppy and without his companion, Lazarus, Bummer was of less interest to the press. He died a slow death in November 1865 after being kicked by a drunk, Henry Rippey. Bummer was still popular enough that, to avoid violence, the city immediately arrested Rippey. He also did not escape popular justice: upon learning of his crime, his cellmate, David Popley, “popped him in the smeller”.
Bummer’s passing did not make the headlines in the same way that Lazarus’ death had, but Jump created a new cartoon showing him lying in state while Lazarus tucked into a table of food in the ether above him and rats paid their respects. Mark Twain produced a eulogy for him in the Virginia City Enterprise which was reprinted in the Californian on 11 November 1865:
The old vagrant ‘Bummer’ is really dead at last; and although he was always more respected than his obsequious vassal, the dog ‘Lazarus,’ his exit has not made half as much stir in the newspaper world as signalised the departure of the latter. I think it is because he died a natural death: died with friends around him to smooth his pillow and wipe the death-damps from his brow, and receive his last words of love and resignation; because he died full of years, and honor, and disease, and fleas. He was permited to die a natural death, as I have said, but poor Lazarus ‘died with his boots on’ – which is to say, he lost his life by violence; he gave up the ghost mysteriously, at dead of night, with none to cheer his last moments or soothe his dying pains. So the murdered dog was canonized in the newspapers, his shortcomings excused and his virtues heralded to the world; but his superior, parting with his life in the fullness of time, and in the due course of nature, sinks as quietly as might the mangiest cur among us. Well, let him go. In earlier days he was courted and caressed; but latterly he has lost his comeliness – his dignity had given place to a want of self-respect, which allowed him to practice mean deceptions to regain for a moment that sympathy and notice which had become necessary to his very existence, and it was evident to all that the dog had had his day; his great popularity was gone forever. In fact, Bummer should have died sooner: there was a time when his death would have left a lasting legacy of fame to his name. Now, however, he will be forgotten in a few days. Bummer’s skin is to be stuffed and placed with that of Lazarus.— Mark Twain