Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Cocking Mains Among Celebrated Gamecocks Are Part of Pelham History

During much of the nineteenth century and even into the early twentieth century, Pelham frequently was the locale for major prize fights that attracted national attention, though such fights were illegal.  During the same period, Pelham often was the locale for another illicit sporting activity:  cockfights. 

The blood sport of cockfighting is thought to be at least 6,000 years old.  Two roosters, known as gamecocks, are placed in a ring known as a cockpit to fight each other.  In some instances, metal spurs are attached to the natural spurs of the gamecocks.  Typically, as one would expect, the birds inflict significant physical injury on each other, although the blood sport is not always a fight to the death.  Spectators usually bet heavily at such events as one would expect.  To learn more about this brutal blood sport, see "Cockfight" in Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia (visited May 1, 2016).  

Cocking mains in Pelham during the 19th century were arranged between various gamecock breeders.  A cockpit would be built, sometimes at "resorts" near Bartow Station and Pelham Bridge and at other times within abandoned buildings or barns in the region.  Each side would put up a prize of, say, $20 to $50 per battle between gamecocks.  Each side also would put up an additional prize of about $400 or $500 to be awarded to the side that won the "main" -- i.e., the side that won the most individual fights.  It seems that most cocking mains in and around Pelham consisted of nine fights, although it also is clear that the number of fights could be altered by agreement of the two sides.  Some involved five battles or even seven battles.

Local "sporting men" were designated as referees for such cocking mains and were authorized to call fouls in certain instances.  The referee also would declare the winner.  If, for example, a gamecock tired and refused to fight, the referee could count it out and declare its opponent the winner.  Such fights could be extraordinarily brief while other terrible fights could last thirty minutes or longer.

Such affairs could be quite sophisticated with tiers of stadium-style seating and even bars hastily constructed by, as one report noted, "placing a board across two barrels."  Sometimes the events would be held late in the evening.  At other times they would be held very early in the morning, with spectators beginning to arrive by trains about midnight the evening before.  

The area around Bartow Station and Pelham Bridge when that area was part of the Town of Pelham was the scene of many cockfights.  For example, on the evening of Sunday, December 16, 1883, according to The New York Times, "[o]ne of the most desperate and sharply contested cocking mains ever fought in the neighborhood of New-York took place."  Clearly this now famous cocking main was a particularly brutal affair.  Another account, published in The New York Herald described one of the fights held during this cocking main as "one of the fiercest contests ever seen."  

This cocking main took place near Pelham Bridge before "a large number of sporting men from [New York] City and the annexed district."  It matched birds from two widely-respected breeders:  Mr. Mercer of Pelham and Mr. Corsey of the Town of Westchester (now part of the Bronx).  According to The New York Times, in addition to the prizes of $20 a fight and $500 for winning the main, "large amounts of money were freely wagered on both sides."  

Both Mercer and Corsey had reputations as breeders of fierce and successful gamecocks.  Thus, the cocking main was widely anticipated and attracted far more attention than most.  As The New York Times put it, "expectation was on tip-toe for several weeks as to the result of the contest."  

The two sides agreed to hold five, rather than nine, fights.  Pelham gamecocks won the first and fourth battles.  Corsey's gamecocks from the Town of Westchester won the other two, leaving the cocking main to be decided in the fifth and final battle.  It turned out that the fifth and final battle "was the gamest fight ever seen in the annexed district."

Mercer presented his Pelham gamecock, a Dominick rooster (a breed also known as a Pilgrim Fowl) that weighed five pounds, four ounces.  Corsey presented his Westchester gamecock, a Red Pyle Game Bantam that weighed five pounds, five ounces.  The two gamecocks engaged in an epic battle, fighting each other furiously for thirty-five minutes until exhaustion.  After thirty-five minutes, however, the poor Red Pyle from the Town of Westchester refused to peck or battle any further.  The referee declared Mercer's Pelham gamecock the winner.  As the handler picked up the poor, exhausted Red Pyle once the fight had been declared over, the Town of Westchester gamecock showed renewed vigor and tried to resume the fight, but it was too late.  Mercer was declared winner of the cocking main and took the main prize of $500 -- the equivalent of roughly $16,220.00 in today's dollars.

Similarly, on the evening of Tuesday, March 11, 1884, between fifty and a hundred spectators gathered at an unidentified house near Bartow Station in the Town of Pelham to witness a major cocking main between gamecocks from Pelham and Yonkers.  The event likely was held at or near Pelham Bridge where many such cockfights and prize fights were held.  Nine cockfights ensued.  Gamecocks from the Town of Pelham won six of the fights.  Newspapers in New York City, Mount Vernon, and in White Plains reported the results of the cocking main.

It is clear that by 1884, Pelham and other parts of lower Westchester County were becoming notorious as the region of choice for cockfights and dog fights.  Indeed, one newspaper report put it exactly that way, saying "Westchester county is fast becoming as notorious for dog and cock fights as the neighborhood of Blissville."  Source:  KILLED IN THE PIT, N.Y. Herald, Mar. 13, 1884, No. 17370, p. 4, col. 6.  

The tiny little settlement of Pelhamville that later became the Village of North Pelham, part of today's Village of Pelham, also hosted cocking mains.  For example, on Wednesday, April 29, 1885, spectators gathered for a big cocking main among gamecocks from Pelham and Bronxville.  Various accounts of that cockfight and its violent ending (among both birds and spectators), sheds light on what such 19th century gatherings were like.  

According one account, quoted in full below, on this occasion the prize was "$40 a battle, and $150 the odd fight".  Another account reported that the prize that night was "$50 each battle and $300 the odd fight."  There were only three battles that night before a fist fight broke out among the spectators at the end of the fourth battle, thus ending the cocking main.  A local newspaper reported in a huff that while the "meeting was broken up in a row", police actually "should have broken it up with 'clubs.'"  A different account of the fight noted that at the end of the fourth fight a dispute arose over a foul called during the battle.  A "wrangle" resulted and the owners of the gamecocks from Bronxville withdrew their fighters and refused to continue.  According to The National Police Gazette:  "In the fourth battle there was a foul.  Bronxville claimed it, but the referee ordered the battle to proceed.  Pelham refused and Bronxville withdrew, and Pelham was declared the winner."  (See below.)

Although such accounts might suggest to some that such cocking mains attracted only the most brutish spectators, nothing could be further from the truth.  Indeed, one account of a cocking main involving gamecocks from Pelham quoted below specifically noted that "some of the most wealthy and reputable citizens" of Pelham and New Rochelle attended one such cocking main.

Although many cocking mains were held in the Town of Pelham, occasionally Pelhamites took their gamecocks on the road to battle birds in other nearby communities.  For example, on New Year's Night, January 1, 1881, a cocking main between gamecocks from the Town of Pelham and the Town of New Rochelle battled in five fights.  The cockpit in which the gamecocks fought was built in an unoccupied building in New Rochelle.  The cockfight "was attended by a large number of persons."  The New Rochelle gamecocks won three of the five cockfights that night.  

All such cocking mains held in the Town of Pelham were cat-and-mouse games in which the "cocking main mice" avoided the "predatory police felines."  Occasionally, the cat nearly caught the mouse.  

For example, early in the morning on New Year's Day, Saturday January 1, 1899, Westchester County Sheriff authorities posed as spectators during a massive cocking main held in Pelham.  Deputy Sheriff John R. Breese led twelve additional deputies in an effort to infiltrate a cocking main held in a barn near the Pelham Manor Depot on the New Haven Branch Line in Pelham Manor.  

The cocking main was a big one.  Tiers of stadium-style seating had been built within the old barn.  A bar to serve drinks was constructed from two barrels and a board.  Nearly one hundred spectators attended, including many "sons of wealthy New York, Tarrytown and Rye people."  

Breese and his other deputies were able to sneak within a perimeter line of lookouts set up specifically to sound the alarm if law enforcement authorities showed up.  Breese approached the barn and opened the door to peer inside.  The moment he did, someone inside saw him, recognized him, and sounded the alarm just as the gamecocks were being dropped into the cockpit for the first battle.  Pandemonium ensued.

Spectators fled to every available window and began scrambling out of the barn to their horses, carriages, and conveyances.  Breese tried to seize a couple of them, but those he seized were able to tear themselves away and fled.  The entire spectator group knew to flee from Pelham to the nearby New York City line into Pelham Bay Park where the Westchester authorities likely would end their pursuit.  

Sure enough, the fleeing spectators made it to the nearby annexed district.  Breese and the other deputies ended the pursuit at the New York City boundary, but vowed to arrest anyone they could catch at such fights within Westchester in the future.  Amazingly, the spectators and gamecock owners regrouped and held their cocking main at about 4:00 p.m. the same day within New York City in Baychester.

The cat-and-mouse game continued.  In 1904, rumors circulated throughout Mount Vernon that a seven-battle cocking main had been held in Pelham near Shore Road on the evening of Thursday, April 14, 1904.  The local newspaper, however, could find no one willing to admit that he had attended the cocking main.  Additionally, local police said that no cocking main had taken place.  After investigating, however, the newspaper concluded that the circumstantial evidence supported the rumors.  Many strangers had been seen in the area that Thursday night and many wagon wheel tracks could be found in the area.  Most important to the newspaper's conclusion, however, was the fact that "prize fights and other illegal sports have been held in that village before."   

Throughout much of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century, the Town of Pelham had a reputation as a sporting community.  Many of the sports pursued within the town were quite conventional:  baseball, tennis, steeplechase, riding to the hounds, horse racing, fishing, boating, track and field, and more.  A few of the sports, however, were less than conventional including prize fighting and cockfighting.  Still, the history of all such sports in Pelham help make up the fascinating history of our Historic Pelham.

Depiction of a Cocking Main in 1882.  Source:
"Cockfight in Flanders" by Emile Claus, Oil
Painting, 1882.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

1887 Cocking Main.  Source:  Jan. 22, 1887 Issue of
The National Police Gazette.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

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Mr. Bergh, not happening to be at New Rochelle on New Year's night, a cockpit was arranged in an unoccupied building in that town, where a cocking main took place, attended by a large number of persons, including some of the most wealthy and reputable citizens.  It was between birds owned in the town of New Rochelle and Pelham, and resulted in favor of the former, winning three battles of the five fought."

Source:  COUNTY JOTTINGS, Eastern State Journal [White Plains, NY], Jan. 7, 1881, p. 3, col. 6.  


For some time past much diversity of opinion has prevailed in Westchester has prevailed in Westchester county respecting the comparative merits of the gamecocks kept by Mr. Mercer, of Pelham, and those owned by Mr. Corsey, of the town of Westchester, and a match between nine birds a side was finally arranged at $20 the battle and $500 the main.  The event came off on Sunday in a quiet spot within a short distance of Pelham Bridge, the arrangements being altered by mutual agreement from nine birds to five birds a side.  A well known sporting man from Mount Vernon was chosen referee.  

The first fight was between Mercer's red pyle, weighing 6 lbs. 6 oz., and Corsey's red, of 5 lbs. 8 oz.  This was won by the former in 25 minutes, after a fine display of fighting powers, the Westchester bird being evidently overmatched by his heavier antagonist.  Corsey next showed a red pyle, weighing 4 lbs. 7 oz., which succeeded in killing a black-red of 4 lbs. 8 oz., shown by Mercer, in 12 minutes.  Corsey followed this up with a blue pyle, weighing 4 lbs. 8 oz., which disposed of Mercer's black-red of the same weight in 20 minutes.  In the fourth the hopes of the Pelham men were again raised fromm the despondency of the two successive victories  of Westchester, as after a terrible battle of thirty minutes' duration Mercer's spangle, weighing 4 lbs. 3 oz., fought Corsey's black-red, of 4 lbs. 4 oz., to a standstill and the latter was counted out.  The fifth and last fight resulte also in a victory for Pelham, thus deciding the main.  It was one of the fiercest contests ever seen, requiring thirty-five minutes to decide.  Mercer showed a Dominick, weighing 5 lbs 4 oz., against Corsey's red, weighing 5 lbs. 5 oz.  Both birds fought furiously throughout, until the red, when put to the scratch, refused to peck, and the fight was awarded to the Dominick.  The red, when lifted by his handler, at once showed signs of returning vigor, and pecked vigorously -- too late, however, to save the match."

Source:  COCKING MAIN AT PELHAM, N.Y. Herald, Dec. 18, 1883, No. 17284, p. 6, cols. 5-6.  


One of the most desperate and sharply contested cocking mains ever fought in the neighborhood of New-York took place on Sunday last at a quiet little spot in the neighborhood of Pelham Bridge, and was attended by a large number of sporting men from this City and the annexed district.  The match, for $20 a fight and $500 on the main, was between five birds shown by Mr. Mercer, of Pelham, and an equal number shown by Mr. Corsey, of the Town of West Chester, and expectation was on tip-toe for several weeks as to the result of the contest, and large amounts of money were freely wagered on both sides.  Mercer's birds won the first and fourth battles and Corsey's the other two.  The fifth was the gamest fight ever seen in the annexed district.  Mercer's bird was a dominick of five pounds four ounces and Corsey's a red, an ounce heavier.  The fight lasted 35 minutes, the birds sparring and dodging one another like pugilists.  In the end the red when put to the scratch refused to p[e]ck, thus giving the fight and the main to Pelham.  When the red was taken up by its handler it quickly revived and p[e]cked vigorously, showing every desire to renew the fight, but too late for the hopes and pockets of its backers.  This caused some expressions of dissatisfaction among the West Chester men, but no disturbance occurred."

Source:  A DESPERATE COCKING MAIN, N.Y. Times, Dec. 18, 1883.  


The lot purchased by Mr. May, at the sale by Jenkins & Cameron, on the 29th ult., was not resold on Saturday last, as reported it would be.  Mr. May purchased the lot for $1,240, and will hold it.

On Tuesday night last, between fifty and one hundred 'sports' assembled at a house near Bartow Station, to witness a cocking main between Pelham and Yonkers birds.  Nine battles were fought, Pelham winning six.

The latest report from coaching circles is to the effect that a four-in-hand will be driven daily, after May 1st, from the Brunswick to Bartow-on-the-Sound and return, distance about 18 miles.  Four changes of horses will be made.  Messrs. C. O. Iselin and J. R.. Roosevelt will handle the lines.

On Thursday of last week a bill was introduced in the Assembly, at Albany, entitled 'An Act to authorize the construction of a bridge in the town of Pelham, Westchester County, between the mainland of said town and City Island; and to authorize the acquiring of land therefor, and the issuing of bonds of the said town to pay for said bridge.'

The past few days of open weather has permitted a resumption of work in good earnest, at Carll's shipyard.  Mr. Anderson, the superintendent in charge, is pushing along the work on the yacht Julia, which is being rebuilt.  The planking has been commenced.  Repairs to the schooner Anna E. Safford are about completed.  Repairs to the dredging scow engaged in dredging Eastchester Creek are completed, and work will be resumed as soon as the boiler is repaired.  The work of putting in deck frames, in the new Ferris & Co. barge has been commenced.  

A call has been issued by four members of the Democratic Town Committee to the voters of the town of Pelham, for a primary election, to be held at the Court-house, on City Island, to-morrow (Saturday) for the purpose of nominating candidates for town officers, at the election to be held a week from Tuesday next.  The nominations will be made by ballot, and the polls will be open from three till nine o'clock, P. M.  The call having been issued by the Democratic Town Committee savors of partisanship; but as the call itself is to the electors, without distinction of party, and as six hours time is given in which to ballot, there is certainly ample time and a good opportunity for the people to make known their choice for candidates.  In fact, the election can be settled without a question, at this primary. For the supervisorship, so far as we know, the contest lies between Messrs. Fordham and Hyatt, both Democrats, town clerk.  Messrs. Martin and Perrissoni, both Democrats, with possibly a candidate from Pelham Manor; commissioner of highways, Messrs. Craft and Cochran.  For the other and less important offices, there are numerous candidates."

Source:  PELHAM AND CITY ISLAND, The Chronicle [Mount Vernon, NY], Mar. 14, 1884, Vol. XV, No. 756, p. 3, col. 3.


A cocking main was fought at a well-known resort near Bartow Station, in the town of Pelham, on Tuesday, between Yonkers and Pelham.  Pelham wond the mmain, winning six out of the nine battles fought."

Source:  VICINITY NOTES, Eastern State Journal [White Plains, NY], Mar. 14, 1884, Vol. XXXIx, No. 49, p. 3, col. 4.  


The owners of game chickens in Yonkers and Pelham were interested in a cocking main at a favorite sporting place near Bartow Station, in the town of Pelham, on Tuesday night.  Each side showed nine birds, and of the nine battles Yonkers won three and Pelham six."

Source:  COCKING MAIN AT PELHAM, N.Y. Herald, Mar. 13, 1884, No. 17370, p. 4, col. 6.  


-- A cocking main took place in Pelhamville, Wednesday last, for $40 a battle, and $150 the odd fight, between Bronxville and Pelham.  Pelham won one fight and Bronxville two, when the meeting was broken up in a row.  The police officials should have broken it up with 'clubs.'"

Source:  COUNTY ITEMS, Supplement to Eastern State Journal [White Plains, NY], May 1, 1885, p. 1, col. 4.  

"STRAY TIPS. . . . 

A cocking main was in order at Pelhamville, N. Y., April 29, birds belonging respectively to Bronxville and Pelham parties fighting for $40 a battle and $150 the odd, but at the end of the fourth battle a wrangle occurred over a foul, and Bronxville withdrew."

Source: STRAY TIPS, The New York Clipper, May 9, 1885, p. 127, col. 1.  


In Westchester County, New York, on April 29, the main between Pelham and Bronxville fowls was won by Pelham.  In the fourth battle there was a foul.  Bronxville claimed it, but the referee ordered the battle to proceed.  Pelham refused and Bronxville withdrew, and Pelham was declared the winner.  The stakes were $50 each battle and $300 the odd fight.  The affair gave a great deal of satisfaction."

Source:  SPORTING NEWS, The National Police Gazette, May 16, 1885, p. 10, col. 3.  

"A Cockfight Broken Up.

Nearly a hundred young men, many of whom are said to be sons of wealthy New York, Tarrytown and Rye people, narrowly escaped arrest early last Saturday morning in Pelham, while witnessing a cocking main.  The affair was broken up by Deputy Sheriff John R. Breese, who disguised himself, and, assisted by a dozen or more deputies, pursued the guests until they passed out of Westchester County and took refused in the Annexed District of New York.  

The fight was to have been held in a large barn near the New Haven station.  The barn was arranged with several tiers of seats, and in one corner a bar was established by placing a board across two barrels.  The spectators began arriving about midnight on New Haven trains, and many came in coaches and drags, and passed through New Rochelle.

In some manner Sheriff Molloy learned of the affair in White Plains, and, although the hour was late, succeeded in assembling a dozen or more deputies and sent them to Pelham in carriages.  

Deputy Sheriff Breese was sent ahead by train to locate the fight.  The Deputy Sheriff passed the sentry lines which had been thrown around the barn and was peeping in at the door when some one recognized him and gave the alarm just as the cocks were about to be thrown into the pit.  Great excitement prevailed for a few moments, in which the spectators could not get out by the barn door leaped through the windows and ran out to their vehicles.  Deputy Sheriff Breese seized several of them and tried to hold them, but they tore loose and fled.  

When he entered the barn he found it deserted.  The bottles and glasses on the bar had been overturned and trampled in the haste of the crowd to get away.

The fighters continued their flight, and were pursued to the county line by the posse of deputies.  They finally went over the line and held the fight near Bay Chester about four o'clock.  There have been many attempts made recently to hold cocking mains in Westchester County.  Sheriff Malloy says that the followers of the sport include many well known young men, both in New York and Westchester County.  He has determined to break up the practice, and declares that he will land the offenders in jail at the first opportunity."

Source:  A Cockfight Broken Up, New Rochelle Pioneer, Jan. 7, 1899, p. 1, col. 1.  

Believed to Have Been Near Sound But Story Not Verified.

Several curious stories were current in the street on Friday that a cocking main had been held in a bar near a well known road house in Pelham.  According to the report, there were seven mains and they were attended by many well known sports.  It was practically impossible to find anyone who would admit that he had attended an affair of this kind but a th[o]rough investigation showed that numerous wagon wheel marks were to be seen near a place on the shore road and it was said that many strangers were seen in that neighborhood on Thursday night.

The police said that nothing of the kind could have occurred without their knowledge and they deny that such a thing took place but prize fights and other illegal sports have been held in that village before, and there is no doubt that the chicken fight was run off according to the report. -- Mount Vernon Argus."

Source:  REPORTED COCKFIGHT -- Believed to Have Been Near Sound But Story Unverified, The New Rochelle Press, Apr. 23, 1904, p. 1, col. 4.  For the Daily Argus story on which this report is based, see REPORTED COCKFIGHT -- Believed To Have Been Held Near Sound but Story Unverified, Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Apr. 16, 1904, p. 2, col. 3

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