Pennsylvania resident Jacob Silverman made national headlines back in 1922 for the crime of owning a dog named Dick within the commonwealth. The law at the time required that Dick be killed simply because he was owned by Jacob. Could something be done to save Dick’s life?
Useless Information Podcast Script
Original Podcast Air Date: April 28, 2018
I thought that I would start today’s podcast with a little story about by father’s dad who passed away in 2014 at the age of 108. He was born Abraham Litwak in Poland and while he was still very young, his father emigrated to the United States in search of work.
The plan was that once my great-grandfather became established here, he would arrange for my great-grandmother and my grandfather to come to the United States. That was never to happen. My great-grandmother never heard back from her husband, so she left my grandfather in the care of family while she made the long trek to the United States in search of my great-grandfather. What she found wasn’t good. My great-grandfather had met another woman and soon my great-grandparents were divorced.
But she still had one big problem. My grandfather was still back in Poland, so she asked family members if they could bring my grandfather to the United States. Sadly, not a single family member wished to move here. She did, however, find a family friend who was planning to come to the United States and he agreed to bring my grandfather with him. My grandfather said that he was either three or five years old when he made his journey to the United States, but my mom always told me that he had to have been five because his memory of the journey was so intact.
It’s been at least a decade since my grandfather told me this story, but I do remember him telling me that at various points he remembers the family friend pushing him along in a hand cart filled with straw, that the friend had to pay off German officers at a border crossing, and at one point he had to hide and remain quiet so that guards wouldn’t detect him. His trip across the Atlantic took weeks and for the rest of his life he always spoke proudly of how amazing it was to see the Statue of Liberty for the first time as his ship entered the New York harbor.
You may be wondering how, if my grandfather’s name was Abraham Litwak, that my last name ended up being Silverman. According to my grandfather, he went through public school in New York City, which back then was up through the 8th grade, as Abraham Litwak. When the Great Depression hit, there was public outcry that illegal immigrants were stealing American jobs and my grandfather needed to provide proof that he was here legally to get work. That was when he learned that when he came through immigration at Ellis Island, the man who had brought him here didn’t know my grandfather’s real name. As a friend of the family, he knew my great-grandmother’s maiden name was Silberman – with a B – so he registered my grandfather as Jack Silverman, which would remain his name for the rest of his life.
So, in my family, the Silverman name starts with my grandfather and ends with my brother and myself. Neither of us had sons, so there is no one to carry on the family name. I am asked all of the time if I am related to this Silverman or that Silverman, but the answer is always no. To the best of my knowledge, there are only seven people currently using the last name of Silverman, including myself, that I am related to.
Which brings us to today’s story, which is about another Silverman named Jacob Silverman. And, as you can probably guess, I am almost certainly not related to him. Jake was born on April 1, 1885 in Lithuania and due to Russian persecution of Jews, emigrated to the United States in 1904. His wife Lisll followed a short time later and the couple ultimately settled in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, which is about 30 miles (48 km) northwest of Philadelphia.
Jake was a literate man in his native tongue, but like so many other immigrants, his spoken English was a bit rough and he could neither read or write in his new language. He worked as a laborer on farms, but eventually was able to purchase a farm of his own.
Fast forward to June of 1922, a little more than seventeen years after the couple’s arrival to the United States, and Jacob Silverman was suddenly front page news across the nation for breaking the law. And just what crime did he commit? Murder? Kidnapping? Spying? It was none of these. Jake Silverman was guilty of owning a dog within the state of Pennsylvania. To be more specific, at least as to how the press reported it, his dog was guilty of “belonging to Jake.”
Huh? What? How could it be illegal to own a dog? I’ll try to explain, but let me back up a bit first:
Jake was the proud father of seven children. In order by birth, they were Fannie, Rebecca, Minnie, Martha, Samuel, and Esther, all of whom were born by the time that this story broke in the news. Another child, Morris, would be born about a year later. One day, while traveling through the country with daughter Rebecca, the two came across a man with a cute puppy which was a mix of part Mastiff and part St. Bernard. Rebecca immediately fell in love with the pooch, so Jake agreed to purchase the dog for $5.00, which would be approximately $62.00 today. While few would make the choice today, the two chose to name their new family member Dick.
And for the next couple of years, Dick would remain a loving part of the Silverman family. He grew to be tremendous in size, but was as gentle as a lamb.
Everything was going smoothly with Dick until Montgomery County Game Commissioner Jeremiah Reinert learned that the Silvermans may possibly own a dog. He hopped in his car and drove right out to their farm to see if this was, in fact, true. Once he confirmed that the Silvermans did own a dog, Reinert had to ask Jacob Silverman one simple question: “Are you a citizen.”
Jacob was an honest man and said that he was not. And with that simple confirmation Dick the dog was handed a death sentence. This is because the Alien Dog Law of 1915 prohibited any non-citizen within the state of Pennsylvania from owning a dog, whether it be for hunting or companionship.
I could read you the law in its entirety, but that would almost certainly put you to sleep. Here are just a few highlights of Pamphlet Law 644, which was approved on June 1, 1915:
“…it shall be unlawful for any unnaturalized foreign-born resident to hunt for, or capture or kill, in this Commonwealth, any wild bird or animal, either game or otherwise, of any description, excepting in defense of person or property; and to that end, it shall be unlawful for any unnaturalized foreign-born resident, within the Commonwealth to either own or be possessed of a dog of any kind. Each person violating any provision of this section shall, upon conviction thereof, be sentenced to pay a fine of twenty-five dollars for each offense, or undergo imprisonment in the common jail of the county for the period of one day for each dollar of fine and cost.”
It goes on to say that the dog, “shall be either killed in a humane manner and disposed of by the owner, or shall be turned over to the nearest agent of society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, to be put to death in a humane way.”
Ouch. Dick the dog was as good as dead. Either Commissioner Reinert was going to shoot him or the local SPCA was.
One has to wonder what the rationale was for this unusual law. That is difficult to ascertain, but a good place to start would be with the passing of the Alien Gun Law in 1909 which forbid any unnaturalized citizen from owning a gun or rifle. The argument at the time was that too many aliens were violating the state’s hunting laws, which supposedly resulted in a significant decline of game. An estimated twenty percent of the state’s rural population was foreign born in the early 1900’s, so it should come as no surprise that by taking away their right to own a gun, game conditions improved.
Yet, hunting conditions did not improved enough. It was determined that aliens living in the rural areas of Pennsylvania typically owned dogs, mostly mongrels, and they were the cause. As these dogs scoured the woods in search of food, they would devour ground-nesting birds, chow down rabbits, and basically consume wildlife of all types. This one-two punch of the “Alien Dog Law”, coupled with the previously approved “Alien Gun Law”, was intended to protect the wild birds and game throughout the commonwealth. The thought that it may be discriminatory was never taken into consideration.
The law, as written, offered no leeway under any circumstances. All that mattered was whether or not the dog was owned by an unnaturalized citizen. If so, there were no if, ands, or buts. The dog had to be put down.
This seemed harsh, so soon some basic guidelines were issued to help game wardens make the correct decision. First, officials were required to provide notices to alien residents in English, Slavonic, and Italian. Second, wardens were instructed to take into consideration the location where the dog was found and the likelihood that it could cause damage to birds and game. For example, if a dog was living in the city or was found to lack hunting instincts, it was far more likely to have its life spared. And lastly, it was recommended that the owner of the dog should be given three weeks to either give the dog away or destroy it.
Yet, these guidelines were not the law, and should a dog owner end up in court, the deciding judge would really have no choice but to follow the rules as written and issue an order to destroy the animal. This was the situation that Dick found himself in. The fight was now on to save his life.
During Jacob’s initial appearance in court, the magistrate denied a petition to suspend the sentence and grant custody of the dog to one of Silverman’s American born daughters. He did, however, issue a ten-day reprieve so that he could review the case.
The law is the law and it became clear that the Silvermans needed a good lawyer. The man that Jacob turned to was attorney Samuel Conver. Jake, with the help of the pennies that his daughter Fannie had saved up, paid him a small retainer fee for his services, but, in the end, Conver waived all of his fees.
On Friday June 30, 1922, Jake, his wife, and all of their children were present in the courtroom as Conver appeared before nearby Lansdale magistrate Howard Fisher Boorse and argued that the he should disregard the law and allow Dick to live based on humanitarian grounds.
Forget the urgency of war, famine, and other the grave problems that humans as a whole were facing at the time. The demise of Dick the dog would have certainly caused the collapse of the United States. This was a matter of incredible importance and there was only one man in the country that could handle such a weighty situation – the 29th President of the United States – Warren G. Harding. The life of Dick the dog would prove to be the most monumental and important decision that his administration would ever be faced with.
Okay, so I am exaggerating just a wee bit here…
In reality, it was his wife Florence who brought the story to President Harding’s attention. While the Commander in Chief was basically powerless to intervene, the pressure of the oval office can sometimes go a long way in helping to decide the outcome of a case.
In a letter that he penned to Pennsylvania Governor William Sproul, Harding wrote, “I think you will have to count this letter a personal one rather than an official communication. I write it at the suggestion of Mrs. Harding, though I am happy to do so, because the appeal which greatly stirred her touches me no less forcibly.
“I enclose you the anonymous letter and the newspaper clipping which came to Mrs. Harding. If the story is correct, a Russian immigrant has a faithful dog which he loves and because the possession of the dog in some way conflicts with the state law the devoted animal has been sentenced to be shot.
“I have tried to put myself, loving a good dog as I do, in the position of this poor immigrant, and I know the perturbation that fills his soul. I once had to have a dog killed that I greatly loved, and I recall it to this day as the sorest trial of my life.
“I am not familiar with the laws invoked. According to the newspapers, an alien is not permitted to own a dog. Surely there must be some way to comply with the spirit of the law and allow this poor foreigner to retain his treasured animal friend.
“If it came within my executive authority I would gladly grant a pardon to the convicted animal. I suppose there is good and ample reason for a statute which makes this dog an unlawful possession, but I have an abiding faith that the man who loves his dog to the extent that he will grieve for him has in him the qualities which which will make him a loyal citizen.
“Mrs. Harding and I are both pleased to appeal for some form of clemency in this case, and hope this note is not too late to enable us to add our appeal in behalf of both Silverman and his dog.”
Governor Sproul immediately telegraphed Judge Boorse and also wired the following message back to the President: “Please tell Mrs. Harding that I have asked the magistrate at Lansdale to delay action regarding Dick Silverman until we can look into all the questions involved. I guess we can save the dog.”
But was this enough? Could the intervention of the state governor and the President of the United States save the life of a dog?
It did. Dick the dog was allowed to live and the $25 fine dropped, but there was one big catch: The Silvermans would not be able to take their beloved friend home. Dick was placed in the care of the Pennsylvania SPCA, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, with instructions to find him a new home.
Almost immediately, Dick’s nemesis, Game Commissioner Reinert, filed a complaint that Magistrate Boorse had acted illegally and Dick should be put down. Does this guy have any compassion at all?
On July 7th, SPCA Secretary William T. Phillips and agent Frederick Carter took Dick to his new home. He was turned over to a farmer named John L. Eberts, who just happened to have been a personal friend of Jake Silverman. Eberts agreed to take good care of Dick until Jake was granted his citizenship.
On that same day, Silverman took the customary oath and filed his papers to do just that. With the help of his daughter Fannie, he planned to study hard for the next two years as he prepped for the examination in English that was required to gain citizenship.
Meanwhile, State Game Commission secretary Seth Gordon penned a letter to Magistrate Boorse on July 12th requesting that the $25 fine be reinstated and collected from Silverman. Governor Sproul quickly intervened: “Under the authority vested in the governor, any fine or forfeiture incurred by Jacob Silverman in the case brought before you, wherein he was charged with the unlawful possession of a dog, is hereby remitted.”
And with that statement, the story of Dick the Dog disappeared from the press. The 1930 United States census indicates that Jacob Silverman had become a naturalized citizen. And, best of all, the story ends well as Dick was returned to the Silverman family and died of natural causes six years later.
By avoiding the death sentence dictated by the Alien Dog Law, Dick was clearly lucky. Many others were not. For example, in 1918 127 people were convicted of violating the law. One can only guess that at least that many of their dogs were shot to death. In 1920, 200 hundred dogs were put down, generating more that $3,500 (over $43,000 today) for the state from collected fines.
So, is the law still in effect?
The answer to that question is a definite no. As time went on, the Alien Dog Law was enforced less and less. The final nail in its coffin occurred on July 31, 1956 when a 60-year-old man named George Welkoff of Hellertown was sentenced to 32 days in jail for failing to pay a $15 fine (approximately $138 today) for owning a German Shepherd puppy named Hector. George had arrived to the United States in 1951 after the communists killed both his wife and son. Hector had become his only companion. With George in jail, Hector was placed into a 3 x 6 foot (about 1 x 2 meter) cage at the Hellertown dog pound.
After the story appeared in the newspaper, Wydnor, Pennsylvania resident A. Vincent Leun took it upon himself to get George out of jail and to get the law changed. “I immediately paid his fine and costs totaling $35.80, even though I had never heard of him before that time.” Leun then proceeded to pen a letter to Governor George M. Leader, along with 260 additional Pennsylvania state senators and assemblymen, requesting that the law be repealed.
Leun received angry phone calls threatening him with bodily injury, but he continued to champion for Welkoff’s cause. He even took it upon himself to care for Hector with the understanding that he would be returned to George Welkoff as soon as legally possible. Both Leun and Hector looked on as Governor Leader signed a repeal of the law on April 5, 1957.
As promised, Hector was returned to George immediately, but the story did not end well. On Monday August 3, 1959, George returned home to find nothing but Hector’s frayed collar. Sadly, 4-year-old Hector and another dog were shot dead the following night after the two had killed fourteen chickens at a nearby home.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.