In the mid-1800s, an overwhelming number of stray and feral dogs prompted some pretty brutal anti-stray policies, especially in larger cities. Yet despite these turbulent circumstances, two San Francisco street dogs became so beloved that they remain furry local legends to this day.
Their story begins in 1861 with our first hero, a “coally black,” white-chested Newfoundland mix. Though some accounts give him a somewhat romanticized roguish past of crime and “canine outlawry,” most say he simply showed up in San Francisco one day. Lacking both home and family, he began living off the scraps and scratches of kind shopkeepers. This earned him the name “Bummer,” an insulting term commonly used at the time (with varying degrees of vitriol) for people who relied on the charity of others.
His kind but indifferent personality, along with impressive rat catching skills, quickly made Bummer a welcome addition to the area. He became a familiar sight outside Martin & Horton’s saloon, a spot he soon shared with another furry friend.
As the story goes, Bummer came across a badly injured stray and took him into his care. The smaller dog wasn’t expected to live, but his loyal nurse brought him food, encouraged him to eat, and slept next to him to keep him warm. The new dog’s miraculous recovery led to him being dubbed Lazarus. Bummer’s generosity made him even more popular, and Lazarus became a constant figure at his side.
Newspaper reporters also frequented the saloon, and accounts of the dogs’ adventures became a regular sight in the papers. The stories extoled their gentle personalities, their unity of purpose, their mutual protectiveness, and their ability to win over everyone they met. In one instance, Lazarus was rounded up by a new dogcatcher and the horrified locals rallied together to demand his release. And when San Francisco’s city council passed a “dog law” to address the numerous strays, both Bummer and Lazarus were made exempt.
Many of the stories implied a connection between the dogs and Joshua Norton, a San Francisco eccentric who called himself “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” The trio’s activities were well-documented in cartoons and articles from the 19th century. But the two dogs were never the pets of “Emperor Norton,” as he was known. In fact, the Emperor was offended by the cartoons, which he saw as a blow to his dignity. In reality, Emperor Norton and the two dogs were only ever together in drawings and imaginations.
Lazarus died in October 1863. While some papers chalked it up to old age, others claim he was poisoned. Bummer lived another two years before a kick brought about his own sad end and he joined Lazarus “in dogland.”
Years later, the stories of Bummer and Lazarus live on. In 1992, 130 years after their deaths, the two were honored with a plaque in Transamerica Redwood Park. They were even featured by a local distillery whose labels paid homage to the city’s history (there was also one for Emperor Norton). It’s a mark of the impression these two dogs made that their tale continues to be told, thanks in no small part to the headlines that helped make them famous.
There’s so much more about Bummer and Lazarus than could be shared here. Head to Newspapers.com™ for more articles about these two good boys, Emperor Norton, and other fun San Francisco history. Try a search today!