Bummer and Lazarus: An Epic Gold Rush Tale of Triumph and Tragedy

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Black and white illustration of two dogs with heads up as if howling
Bummer (R) and Lazarus (L), as seen on the cover of Malcolm E. Barker's 1984 book, 'Bummer & Lazarus.' (Public domain)

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old Rush San Francisco had a stray dog problem. Teams of snarling, scrapping mutts roamed the city untethered and reproducing faster than humans could handle. The dogs were as determined to survive as the locals who fed them scraps when there was meat to share. But they were an often-troublesome addition to city streets that were already wild by anyone’s standards. In April 1860, the Daily Alta California reported: “We never knew a city in America so used with the canine nuisance as San Francisco. Sometimes at night, their howling is enough to drive one distracted.”

Two years after that report, the city took brutal measures to prevent the dog population from getting any larger. An ordinance was passed by the Board of Supervisors (est. 1856) that banned canines anywhere north of Ninth Street and east of Larkin. Dogs that had neither leash nor muzzle could be shot on sight by police officers, or else locked up in the pound by the local dogcatcher. The impounded pups were released only when a human companion forked over $5 (roughly $142 in 2022 money). Most were killed. The dogs that outsmarted the catcher weren’t much better off—their human neighbors were not averse to leaving poisoned meat scraps on the street to fell their numbers.

It was a dark time for the dogs of San Francisco—well, most of them anyway. By some miracle, out of the anti-canine maelstrom emerged a puppy pair that the city actually wanted to root for: Bummer and Lazarus.

Bummer was a black and white Newfoundland mix with ears that had been cropped unevenly. He earned his name by patrolling businesses up and down Montgomery Street and begging for scraps on a set schedule. He was understood to be uncommonly intelligent and was particularly popular at Martin & Horton’s. The saloon at 534 Montgomery, at the corner of Clay, was owned by Frederick Martin and renowned for the cheapness of its liquor. It was also frequented by the many reporters who worked in nearby newspaper offices. These journalists would go on to make Bummer famous across the city—but only after he took up with his less streetwise pal, Lazarus.

Lazarus was described in one paper as “part hound, part terrier and a good many parts of several other varieties.” In another, he was merely “a sleek, half-starved mongrel.” After Bummer rescued Lazarus from an attack by a bigger dog, the pair became fast and inseparable associates. Witnessing the friendship form, the reporters at Martin & Horton’s were rapt. Soon, so was the whole city.

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On Jan. 18, 1861, Bummer and Lazarus made their first appearance in the Daily Alta together:

Three or four days ago, a poor, lean, mangy cur [mongrel] was attacked in the street by a larger dog, and was getting unmercifully walloped when Bummer’s ire being aroused at the unequal contest, he rushed in and gave the attacking canine such a rough handling that he was glad to quit the field yelping ... Every night since that, the two dogs have slept coiled up together, close to some doorway—Bummer always giving the lame cur the inside berth, and trying to keep him as warm as possible.

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n the four years that followed, any time a slow news day presented itself, readers of San Francisco’s newspapers could expect an update about Bummer and Lazarus. (The latter named after the biblical figure who was revived after four days of death.) The stories about the duo were frequent and dramatic.

The dogs were hailed as heroes after they apparently stopped a runaway horse and cart. There were reports about them taking scraps to each other when they were too sick to go out and beg themselves. There were tales about their run-ins with local merchants—in particular after the pair got into a jewelry store and smashed some display cases. (On another occasion, Lazarus accidentally got locked in a stationery store overnight.) If it was a particularly slow day, readers could expect a story about the pair stealing bones from other dogs.

Cartoonist Edward Jump often drew Bummer and Lazarus in the company of Emperor Norton. Norton was reportedly so angered by this image of him dining with the dogs, he broke his own cane. (Public domain)

Yes, San Francisco loved the dogs because of their friendship and their adventures together. But, more than that, San Francisco loved Bummer and Lazarus because of one activity they both excelled at: killing rats. And there were enough rats in the city at the time to outnumber dogs and humans combined. The businesses Bummer and Lazarus frequented for food were paid back tenfold in rat population control. Legend has it, the pair once killed 85 rats in 20 minutes. At one rat-catching contest held between Clay and Merchant Streets, the duo beat out all other competition, including pedigree dogs.

One of the only people in the city not to know of the dogs’ ratting prowess—or their enormous popularity—was the dogcatcher who made the mistake of picking up Lazarus in June 1862. “If that dog-catcher had not made good haste out of the neighborhood,” the San Francisco Call reported on July 3, 1892, “he would have been roughly handled for his zeal.”

Within hours of the news spreading down Montgomery, Clay, Sansome and Merchant, enough donations had been collected from saloons, butcher shops and eateries to free Bummer’s BFF from the pound. But people’s relief at the dogs’ reunion was short-lived. Concern quickly spread that one of downtown’s most beloved dogs would soon be caught again. It was then that a plan was hatched to acquire permanent protections for Bummer and Lazarus.

A petition was quickly written up, asking for: “The consecration of the two dogs as city property, whereby they may be exempted from taxation or destruction.” Hundreds of Bummer and Lazarus fans signed the document and then presented it to the Board of Supervisors on June 16, 1862.

The following day, the Daily Alta reported:

A mammoth petition was presented to the Board of Supervisors last evening, praying that the public dogs, Bummer and Lazarus be exempt from the provisions of the present stringent Ordinance for the destruction of the race ... At the hour of convening the board of supervisors they lay crouched at the threshold of the chamber, apparently eager to hear what was to be said and done for their benefit. If any man carried them there, it was a cute dodge to get favorable action on their petition; if they went there voluntarily, they ought to have free run of the town during the rest of their lives.

And guess what? After the hearing, Bummer and Lazarus were granted free run of the town for the rest of their lives, safe and unimpeded by the dogcatcher.

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adly, the freedom to roam the city could not save them from the cruelty within it. In October 1863, Lazarus died after eating poisoned meat. The city mourned his loss, but mourned Bummer’s bereavement even more so. The Daily Evening Bulletin printed an obituary titled “Lament for Lazarus,” which referred to Bummer and his fallen companion as “two dogs with but a single bark, two tails that wagged as one.”

Bummer survived two more years without his pal. And though he occasionally took a new friend under his wing, he never bonded with another dog the way he had bonded with Lazarus. Like his old friend, Bummer died a cruel death, kicked down some stairs by a drunk named Henry Rippey. Rippey was apprehended, punched in the nose by his cell-mate and forced to pay a hefty fine.

Bummer was warmly eulogized just as Lazarus had been. On Nov. 3, 1865, the Daily Evening Bulletin wrote:

[Bummer’s] independence and the novelty of his genius took with the people, and from that day he has been the pet of everybody without distinction of party ... His remarkable friendship for ... Lazarus will now deathless meet its reward, and thee twain can once more walk side by side.

After shuffling off this mortal coil, Bummer and Lazarus were both stuffed and put on display in their former haunts. Lazarus ended up in a Sansome Street business owned by one Gus Van Bergen. Bummer’s taxidermied body was purchased by a Mr. Erlenwein, who had assumed ownership of Martin & Horton’s. The dogs were displayed together at 1894’s Midwinter Fair, donated to the Golden Gate Park Museum in 1906, but ultimately destroyed in 1919. Which is appropriate given that, by that point, what was left of the dogs had definitely seen better days.

The poor, old, taxidermied bodies of Bummer (L) and Lazarus (R). (Public domain)

Today, the memory of Bummer and Lazarus lives on in San Francisco. Bayview’s Raff Distillerie makes a Bummer and Lazarus gin, featuring an ornate label adorned with the dogs. Even more fitting is the tribute that E Clampus Vitus (aka The Clampers) installed in Redwood Park, in the shadow of the Transamerica building.

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Sitting right in the heart of Bummer and Lazarus’ old stomping grounds since March 1992, a plaque dedicated to their memory declares:

Their devotion to each other endeared them to the citizenry, and the newspapers reported their joint adventures ... They were welcomed, regular customers at popular eating and drinking establishments on Montgomery Street. Contrary to common belief, they were not Emperor Norton’s dogs. They belonged to no one person. They belonged to San Francisco.