Why you should care
Stories of Jacco spurred animal rights legislation way back in 19th-century London.
Dogfighting. The first and hopefully last time it crashed into your consciousness was in 2007 when former Pro Bowl quarterback Michael Vick went to prison for his part in running a deadly interstate dogfighting ring. But this vicious blood sport — pitting starved and beaten animals against each other in a death match for the purposes of betting — has a sordid history that stretches back centuries. And its most bizarre chapter doesn’t involve a disgraced NFL star. It isn’t even a tale of dog versus dog. It’s a tale of dog versus monkey.
The scene: 1820s London. The Westminster Pit on Duck Lane, Orchard Street — since renamed St. Matthew Street — is awash in blood. Host to such gruesome spectacles as cockfighting, bear-baiting, rat-baiting and, of course, dogfighting, the Pit was ground zero for the most heinous of activities not approved by the newly formed Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (In fact, it was the SPCA that was responsible for the eventual shuttering of the Pit, but that’s another story.)
Joel Griggs, curator of the True Crime Museum in Hastings, England — where Jacco the monkey’s ashes now reside — says the money riding on some of these contests was regularly as much as a hundred guineas, or the equivalent of 10,000 pounds ($13,000). For these greedy death dealers, no fight was too brutal, no mammalian matchup too lopsided. “These blood sports were legal at the time, and people would pay an admission price to watch a dog fight a badger or a monkey,” he explains. “If they won, the owners would make a lot of money.”
Jacco had originally been the docile pet of a sailor for many years, before suddenly throwing a monkey fit over a saucer of milk and literally biting the hand that fed him.
Enter Jacco Macacco, the dogfighting monkey — species unknown. In one account from the era, Jacco is identified as a gibbon. In another, a mandrill. But the surname “Macacco” was likely derived from macaque, or Macaca, the name for a genus of monkeys with 23 species spread across Asia, North Africa and Gibraltar. Like many details about Jacco’s life, including his origin, fighting career and demise, his genetic specifics remain unclear.
In Pictures of Sporting Life and Character (1860), Lord William Lennox, a prominent sportswriter and former British Army officer who was present at the Battle of Waterloo, claims that Jacco built up his reputation by fighting dogs in Hoxton at the Chick Lane and Tottenham Court Road pits, where he was dubbed “the Hoxton Ape.” At some point, Lennox writes, Jacco was sold to the Westminster Pit’s proprietor, one Charles Aistrop (or Eastop).
Aistrop burnished the tale in 1825, when he told London’s Morning Chronicle that Jacco had originally been the docile pet of a sailor for many years, before suddenly throwing a monkey fit over a saucer of milk and literally biting the hand that fed him. Having lost three fingers, the sailor apparently sold Jacco to a Hoxton silversmith named Carter. Because Jacco was so aggressive, Carter was said to have employed a metal sheet as a shield while he taught Jacco various unspecified “tricks.”
Frustrated by ceaseless monkey attacks, Carter allegedly dragged Jacco to a field and sent a dog to dispatch him. Jacco is said to have killed this canine — and a second canine — with such speed and skill that Carter pitted him against a trained fighting dog. After defeating this third dog, Jacco was ready for his date with destiny in the Westminster Pit.
Jacco reportedly defeated 14 dogs during his time in the Pit. His technique? Jumping on their backs, thus avoiding the jaws, and going for the throat, “clawing and biting away,” Lennox wrote, “which usually occupied him about one minute and a half, and if his antagonist was not speedily withdrawn, his death was certain. The monkey exhibited a frightful appearance, being deluged with blood — but it was that of his opponent alone …”
In other accounts, Jacco was given a stick to defend himself against the trained canines. It’s this version that was favored by the New Hampshire rock band Scissorfight, which released the song “The Ballad of Jacco Macacco” in 1999. “I think it’s entirely probable if such a thing was available, he would have used it,” Griggs says of the stick story.
It seems Jacco met his end in 1821 when he fought a bull terrier named Puss. As with almost everything surrounding Jacco, accounts of the fight vary. (Jacco and Puss may have even fought twice.) An advertisement for the match put Puss’ weight at 19 pounds to Jacco’s 12. The terms of the bout, according to Lennox, were that Puss would either kill Jacco or survive for at least five minutes, which was nearly twice as long as any of Jacco’s previous opponents.
The results of the match remain unsubstantiated, but the version recounted in British Parliament by Richard Martin, an MP of the era, has both animals perishing in agony after a 30-minute bloodbath in which Jacco’s jaw was torn off and Puss’ carotid artery was severed. Martin already had a reputation for promoting legislation for the humane treatment of animals, but in 1822 he gave a parliamentary speech touting his landmark Cruel Treatment of Cattle bill, in which he cited an advertisement he had seen for Jacco’s match against Puss.
Regardless of the veracity of Martin’s account of the fight, his bill passed, and the legislation was later instrumental in the creation of the first SPCA in 1824. Many of the facts about Jacco’s life may be forever lost to history, but in death, he paved the way to improve conditions for other animals — a martyr to a cause he had no idea existed.