In 1894, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) agreed to take over the care and control of New York City’s dogs and cats. In order to empower the ASPCA with this authority, a special law was passed in Albany, titled New York Code – Lost and Strayed Animals (Chapter 115 of the Laws of 1894): “An Act for the Better Protection of Lose and Strayed Animals.”
According to the law, any dog or cat found within the city limits without a collar bearing its name and owner’s residence could be seized and disposed of if not redeemed within 48 hours. If someone claimed the dog or cat seized under the law, he or she could retrieve the animal for the sum of $3 – provided he or she could prove ownership.
If a dog or cat was not claimed, the ASPCA would euthanize it via a gas chamber. This sounds cruel today, but prior to 1894 stray animals in New York City were rounded up, put in cages, and lowered into rivers or ponds to drown. In fact, prior to the ASPCA taking charge, dog-catchers were paid by the dog, not the hour, and so some dog-catchers would steal animals from their owners’ yards.
Fast-forward to March 11, 1931. The scene is the second-floor courtroom at the West Side Magistrates Court, located at 314 West 54th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues on the outskirts of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Magistrate Michael A. Ford is presiding.
In the early 1900s, magistrates in New York presided over cases involving misdemeanors or violations of ordinances. On this particular day, the ordinance violation concerned a stray alley cat named Pinky.
According to the story, Pinky had been seized by the ASPCA and may have been headed to the gas chamber when John Bonner and Catherine Borrho of 354 West 52nd Street each came forth to claim ownership.
“He’s my cat. I’ll show you,” Bonner told Magistrate Ford. The cat, wrapped in a blanket with a red ribbon and an ornamental chain, was placed on the floor. Bonner made a loop with arms and told the cat to jump. The cat simply yawned and began washing his face.
Mrs. Burrho’s daughter than took her turn to prove ownership of the cat. “Pinky, wink at the judge!” she commanded. The cat turned his head toward the magistrate and “executed an unmistakable wink” by closing one eye.
“My, my,” Ford replied. “It’s your cat,” he ruled.
The West Side Court
In 1930, Mildred Adams wrote about the “endless drama” in the West Side Magistrates Court in The New York Times:
“To the bar come the common woes of common people, a constant stream of human trouble. ..day after day, week after week, [there is] a demand for decision, patience, and wisdom.”Formerly part of the Police Justice Courts of the 1880s, the Seventh District Magistrates Court—more popularly known as the West Side Court—was built in 1894. The Renaissance Revival building was designed by architect John H. Duncan. Click here for a street view of the building today.
By the early 1960s, local magistrate’s courts were viewed as being too lenient, as virtually everyone involved in the proceedings were neighbors. West Side Magistrates Court and its counterparts in other neighborhoods were consolidated and moved downtown to Centre Street.
In the 1970s, the old court building on W. 54th Street was known as the Court House Cultural Center and was occupied by the American Theater of Actors and The Children’s Museum of New York. The building was designated a Landmark Site by the Landmarks Preservation Commission on June 6, 1989. In their decision, the Commission wrote: “The legal proceedings that occurred in the courthouse played an integral role in the social history of the heavily-populated West Side of Manhattan.”
Midtown Community Court
Today the building houses the Midtown Community Court, an innovative municipal court that focuses on quality-of-life offenses and sentences low-level offenders like prostitutes and shoplifters to pay back the neighborhood through community service. The fourth floor of the building is still home to the American Theater of Actors, Sargent Theatre, a small off-Broadway venue with seating for 65 patrons. Among the actors who have worked here are Dennis Quaid, Bruce Willis, and Kevin Spacey.