Ever hear of a badger fight? It’s an event where a badger is pitted against a fierce dog. At the end, only one of the animals is left standing.
Leadville badger fights, however, had a different twist, and the real victim was not an animal, but a visitor to town. In other words, there was no need to call PETA. And there is no such organization as PETT (People for the Ethical Treatment of Tourists).
Local Howard Tritz suggested that I revisit the concept of badger fights so newcomers to town have some idea of how the community used to amuse itself. He provided a written document by a local dentist, Dr. Rose, who described the activity. John and Henry Rose were two dentists who practiced together in the Iron Building, according to the city directory of 1918. I am guessing the article was written by one of the brothers.
An article in the Carbonate Chronicle of Jan. 24, 1921 describes a badger fight in some detail that may or may not have been the one described by Rose. An advertisement also exists announcing badger fights as part of the entertainment during Tabor Days (now Boom Days) in 1941, so the “fights” took place over a period of at least 20 years.
The center of the activity was the Ryan Pool Hall located at Seventh Street and Harrison Avenue. Although the Rose story isn’t dated, it took place during Prohibition. The Ryan brothers and some men who frequented the pool hall devised the entertainment.
First came the victim or tourist, a salesman visiting town or an actor from one of the many stage shows. The victim would be lured to the pool hall where betting was taking place. Some bet on the badger. Others bid on Cuff, a large pit bull that Rose described as “meek as a kitten until someone would say ‘Badger, get that badger.’ Cuff would then bark, cry, pull on his leash and go completely nuts.”
The tourist was asked if he wanted to participate in the betting. He was told that a large covered barrel lying on its side held a badger. The badger in the barrel and the dog would be taken into a back room, away from the eyes of the police. That’s where the fight would take place along with a little illegal drinking. After all, this was Leadville.
Someone would be responsible for letting the badger out of the barrel. If there were more than one tourist, others might be named the time keeper, referee, judge or whatever. The tourists were armed with metal leg protectors made from stove pipes. As soon as the fight was set to begin, the lights would go out and the police would arrive.
The visitors would be taken into custody, formally booked and placed in a cell. Charges would include cruelty to animals, staging a fight between a dog and a badger resulting in the death of the badger, possession of and drinking alcohol, and inciting a riot.
A Ryan brother would then tell the tourists that he would help them get an early trial; as it turns out, a trial would be set for 2 a.m. that very day. The courtroom would fill with spectators and Judge Tom O’Malia would preside. Several men from the audience would serve as attorneys to the accused, and six men were named to the jury. The trial would end when the men were found guilty and sentenced to 60 days of hard labor.
After sentencing, a box was brought into the courtroom, said to contain the body of the dead badger. The judge said that the convicted men were to look at the dead badger as a deterrent to their ever being cruel to an animal again. But when the box was opened, it simply contained a chamber pot. At this point, the tourists realize they had been had, probably with a certain amount of relief.
“This could only happen in Leadville, using the county jail, county courtrooms, impersonating judges and attorneys and using city policemen for arrests,” Rose said.
Of course, that was then. Today it’s doubtful if a similar practical joke would fly. Too bad, isn’t it?
Martinek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.