The “killer fish,” “X-Files Fish”, “frankenfish,” “fish from hell” or, as some Korean anglers have dubbed it, the “fresh water tyrant” is actually called a channa argus – the Northern Snakehead.

U.S.G.S. “Drawing of Channa Argus, 1933, Wikipedia, https://ca.wikipedia.org/wiki/Channa_argus#Subesp%C3%A8cies. Accessed 27 March, 2020.

If you look up images of the Northern Snakehead you will quickly see why it has the nickname the “fish from hell”. It is ugly, some species can walk over land, it can breathe air for up to three days, it has a set of dagger-like teeth, and it isn’t native to our waters – which makes it extra scary.

So, why would the NSLM be interested in this non-native species? There are a few good reasons why we would want to talk about this fish and it isn’t just for the great X-Files references. Northern Snakeheads are considered to be an invasive species with possible negative effects on local waterways. These waterways are where the game fish that we love, like the beautiful rainbow trout, thrive and more competition for them could negatively impact their population. For these reasons the NSLM, which promotes and supports angling, finds it important to discuss any potential threats and it is just a fascinating fish!

“Editorial cartoon on dangers of exotic snakehead (Channa), in Burnaby Pond,” Arnould, The Georgia Straight, 2012. Fishes in the News, https://www.zoology.ubc.ca/~etaylor/fishinnews.htm. Accessed 27 March, 2020. 

Originally John Odenkirk, the Virginia Department of Inland Game and Fisheries (VDIGF) District Biologist and all-around Northern Snakehead expert, was going to give a presentation about the Snakehead population in Virginia and a demonstration on the proper way to clean and prepare the fish for consumption at the NSLM on April 23rd. He is an advocate for not only catching the fish but for consuming it as well. He has informed me that, despite their appearance, Northern Snakeheads are actually tasty. But, as we all know, times have been different with the affects of COVID-19 being seen globally. Educational programs, including Odenkirk’s talk, have been canceled to help flatten the curve of the virus. While the program is no longer taking place, I still wanted to provide some interesting facts about this creature and hopefully ignite a curiosity to cook the fish as well.   If you want to hear from the expert himself about Northern Snakeheads check out John Odenkirk’s work HERE.

Walker , Lee. John Odenkirk Studying Northern Snakeheads. Courtesy of the VDIGF . 
 

Snakeheads have been compared to the “monster from the black lagoon” and other terrifying science fiction references that conjure up images of a monster fish walking on land and eating everything in sight. Since they were first discovered on U.S. soil back in 2002 at a pond in Crofton, Maryland, there have been a lot of myths, horror stories, and interesting facts spread about the Northern Snakehead. The first place that I looked for information on the species was, of course, our Library. Out of 20,000 volumes only one book had any information on the fish! I even poured through our cooking books searching for any signs of the fish, but with no luck (though I did find a porcupine stew recipe). The sole book found was Snakehead: A Fish out of Water by Eric Jay Dolin and I highly suggest you come to the Library when we open back up to hang out and read about the media frenzied 2002 summer of the Snakehead.

Dolin,Eric Jay. Snakehead: A Fish out of Water. Smithsonian Books, 2003. National Sporting Library & Museum, Main Reading Room.

Snakeheads: A Fish out of Water along with the online resources listed at the end of this post, helped me compile a short list of facts on the species. This is in no way an exhaustive list of all the unusual aspects of the Northern Snakehead, but just some of the more interesting ones to me. If you like fun lists of facts then you will like the rest of this blog post!

  1. Snakeheads get their name from the distinctive snake-like shape of their body, their large scaled head, and from the location of their eyes near the top and forward part of their head.
  2. There are 28 species of Snakeheads.
  3. Some species of Snakeheads can “walk” for short distances over land, but the Northern Snakehead (thankfully) is not one of those.
  4. If their skin is kept moist they can survive out of water by breathing air for up to three days.
  5. They are native to China, southern Siberia, South Korea, and North Korea.
  6. They can grow up to three feet and weigh up to 19 pounds.
  7. Their bottom jaw is full of sharp teeth
  8. Insects, small amphibians, and other fish are their favorite foods.
  9. They protect their young.
  10. The Potomac River drainage of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is home to the largest Northern Snakehead population in Virginia.
U.S.G.S. “Caught by Live Bait in Panama City Beach.” Northern Snakehead, Wikipedia, 28 Dec. 2019,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_snakehead#/media/File:Northern_snakehead.jpg. Accessed 27, March 2020.  
“Baby Northern Snakehead.” Northern Snakehead, Animal Spot, https://www.animalspot.net/northern-snakehead.html. Accessed 29, March 2020.  

So, what should anglers be prepared to do if they catch a Northern Snakehead?

The VDIGF recommends that you kill the fish, but you can release the fish back into the water if you wish. You are required though, no matter your decision, to call the Snakehead Hotline in Virginia to report the fish at (804)-367-2925. All anglers should remember that it is illegal to have a live Snakehead in your possession. Since 2002, some anglers have sought to purposely catch the fish to help both with population control and for good sport. In Korea, Snakeheads, known as Sogarli, are a native game fish and are highly prized. This makes for a interesting discussion on Northern Snakeheads as a new game fish in our area because, lets face it, they are established here and are not leaving anytime soon so we might as well make good sport of it!

Hagerty , Ryan. “NAS – Nonindigenious Aquatic Spcies .” NAS – Nonindigenious Aquatic Spcies , USGS, 21 Mar. 2020, https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/factsheet.aspx?speciesid=2265. Accessed 31, 2020. 

How do you catch one?

For catching a Northern Snakehead, Odenkirk suggests that tidal rivers are best, but there are several lakes that have the invasive population near us including, Lake Brittle near Warrenton and Pelham Lake in Culpeper. Try fishing for Northern Snakeheads as you would for a Large-Mouth Bass, but fish a bit shallower, near vegetation, and be sure to use weedless artificial baits.

You caught one – so now what?

First, you must report the catch to the Snakehead Hotline and then you have a few options of what to do next. You can release the fish back into the water, you can kill the fish and remove it from the waters, or kill the fish and bring it home for a very tasty dinner.

There are several ways you can cook a Northern Snakehead and, according to Odenkirk, there is no wrong way to prepare the fish. The meat of the fish is a firm, mild, and dense white meat that is very similar to several saltwater species such as grouper or a swordfish steak.

Perillo, Joseph. “Image of Northern Snakehead.” Northern Snakehead, Sea Grant: University of Wisconsin, https://www.seagrant.wisc.edu/our-work/focus-areas/ais/invasive-species/invasive-species-fact-sheets/fish/northern-snakehead/. Accessed: 31, March 2020. 

Once life returns to normalcy, I want to try my hand at Northern Snakehead wrangling, cooking, and consuming. Until then, I asked Odenkirk for two of his favorite recipes that we could share with everyone.

The first recipe is devilishly simple and sounds divine. All you need is a filet of fish, your favorite dry seafood seasoning, and olive oil.

The second recipe incorporates some Asian flair with freshly shaved ginger, soy sauce, Thai chili flakes, scallions, and a filet of fish.

Research on the impact of the Northern Snakehead on local waterways and native fish continues. Odenkirk has written many papers on the topic and hopefully we will be able to reschedule his visit to the NSLM at some point in the future. The more research that comes out, the more informed anglers can be. Whether you are actively luring a big Northern Snakehead or accidentally catch one on your line, be sure to call the hotline and consider taking it home to make a nice meal for the family.

Send us your pictures, recipes, and what you thought of the Northern Snakehead when you tasted it! We love to hear good angling stories!

Visitors to Middleburg earlier this month were met with an interesting sight.  On the afternoon of Sunday, October 6th the NSLM partnered with Emmanuel Episcopal Church to host an interfaith Blessing of the Animals event and the community turned out in force to participate. 

Pastor Gil Gibson, Reverend Gail Epes, Rabbi Rose Lyn Jacob, and Reverend Gene LeCouteur. Photo by Lauren Kraut.

Our front lawn was full of people who brought their animal friends to receive blessings offered by Episcopal priests The Reverends Gene LeCouteur and Gail Epes, Pastor Gil Gibson of Aldie Presbyterian Church, and Rabbi Rose Lyn Jacob of Culpeper. 

Horses waiting for their blessings. Photo by Lauren Kraut.

There was a festive feel to the day as people enjoyed mingling with other animal lovers and meeting their pets.  The clergy circulated through the crowd imparting blessings to many dogs, a cat or two, a rabbit, several horses and ponies, and even a parrot. 

Reverend Gene LeCouteur blessing a dog. Photo by Lauren Kraut.

In addition there were several community partners that had tables at the event.  Blue Ridge Wildlife Center, Middleburg Humane Foundation, War Horses at Rose Bower, and Potomac Cairn Terrier Rescue, all shared information about their programs with attendees.  The afternoon was a celebration of the animals in people’s lives and the joy that comes from those relationships.

Reverend Gail Epes blessing a dog. Photo by Lauren Kraut.

Interestingly none of this would have happened but for a rich Italian kid born more than 830 years ago.  Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, later known as Francesco, was born in Assisi, Italy at the end of 1181 or beginning of 1182.  He was the son of a wealthy silk merchant and by all accounts lived a privileged and carefree life, indulging in fine clothing and food, and spending his days listening to singers with his friends.  After a brief career as a soldier Francis began to turn away from his life of material wealth and focused on his religious life.  Eventually he would renounce his former life entirely and would go on to found the Franciscan Order. 

By Andrea Vanni – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11140810

Among his key beliefs was that humans were but one among the creatures created by God.  He called all creatures his brothers and sisters and is said to have preached to the birds which flocked around him transfixed by his voice.  He believed that nature is an integrated system to which humans belong but also steward. 

Saint Francis of Assisi, as he is known today, is one of the most popular Christian saints.  He is the patron saint of animals and of ecology.  His feast day in the Christian calendar is October 4th. Blessing of the Animals services are typically held on the Sunday closest to that date in honor of Saint Francis.  If you missed the event on NSLM’s campus this year, mark you calendars for next year’s celebration and bring your favorite animal companion to the party.

*Fun fact: In 1220 Saint Francis is credited with creating the first nativity scene using real animals.


Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the men of England were assaulted by a new and uncomfortable sight: women in masculine clothing! Even worse, these were upper class ladies, and they had donned cavalry-inspired costume to invade the male-dominated pastimes of riding and foxhunting. These daring women were often called ‘Amazons’ and were sometimes ridiculed for their riding habits. In 1666 Samuel Pepys lamented that, if not for their long skirts, these ladies wouldn’t be recognized as women at all! About fifty years later, Richard Steele satirically suggested that Amazons should “complete their triumph over us, by wearing breeches.”

James Seymour (British, 1702 – 1752), A Lady and a Gentleman Riding Out, c. 1740, gouache on paper, 5 5/8 x 7 1/8 inches, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Riding habits first emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries as women’s clothing became increasingly restrictive. They needed specific garments- riding habits- in order to sit a horse comfortably and safely. In the 18th century, skilled horsemanship was the domain of the cavalry, and upper class-women adopted the waistcoat, cutaway coat, and simple trims for equestrian pursuit. Ladies were able to wear lightly boned stays which allowed greater range of motion for riding sidesaddle, and durable wool took the place of flowing silk.

cropped to image, recto, unframed
Thomas Gooch (British, 1750 – 1802), Marcia Pitt and Her Brother George Pitt, Later second Baron Rivers, Riding in the Park at Stratfield Saye House, Hampshire, 1782, oil on canvas, 27 1/8 x 25 1/8 inches, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Despite the lamentations of their male contemporaries, riding habits grew to be popular attire throughout the 1700’s. In fact, Ladies began wearing their habits and other equestrian-inspired fashion as informal gowns, no longer restricted to the hunt field. Ladies made this masculine fashion distinctly feminine, expanding the feminine sphere to include historically unwomanly interests.

cropped to image, recto, unframed
Francis Wheatley (British 1747–1801), Mrs. Stevens, c. 1795, oil on canvas, 26 x 18 ½ inches. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

For example, in the image above, Mrs. Stevens wears a simply cut cavalry coat in fashionable dove gray. We can see that it is tailored to fit tightly, and it is not worn over a masculine style waistcoat. Instead it is pinned to a stomacher, or decorative panel worn over the front of the stays (18th century corset). Likewise, she is sitting serenely in a grove of trees, complete with a stag running in the background. This portrait takes the typical salon portrait of young women day dreaming on padded chairs and wrapped in billowing ruffles and frills, and completely turns it on its head. Here is a new kind of woman, feminine but unafraid of the world around her.

Women in western history have broken rules and changed norms for centuries, and sidesaddle riding and fashion are just one example of that social evolution.

Want to learn more? Visit Sidesaddle, 1690-1935 at NSLM or join us for these programs:

Today we will take a break from writing about the Annual Auction and featured Spring exhibition to cast a spotlight on a subject we haven’t discussed in awhile: The Horse in Ancient Greek Art. Yes, it may seem like ancient history by now, but even though the exhibition left Middleburg in January, it continues to engage and inspire viewers across the state and around the globe.

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Attributed to the Sappho Painter, Greek (Attic), Black-Figure White Ground Lekythos, ca. 510 BCE, Terracotta, Private Collection

In fact, the exhibition was just named the 2017 New Tourism Event of the Year by Visit Loudoun. The award goes to organizations that demonstrate exceptional work in bringing cultural and economic value to the area. The Horse in Ancient Greek Art was Loudoun County’s first exhibition of ancient artwork. During its 16 week stay in Middleburg, the exhibition was seen by visitors from 211 different zip codes, including 30 states and 9 foreign countries.

 

For many visitors, this was their first introduction to NSLM, and their first introduction to sporting art. When planning the exhibition, the idea of interpreting ancient artwork in an organization whose oldest artifact dates to 1523 was daunting. However, the comparison between ancient and modern equestrian imagery connected visitors to the artwork in fascinating ways.

 

Though separated by tens of thousands of miles and thousands of years, the people, animals, and places shown on ancient Greek pottery are familiar to anyone visiting hunt country today.

 

The Horse in Ancient Greek Art is now on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia. Between visitors at NSLM and VMFA, the show has been seen by nearly 75,000 individuals since September! In Richmond, the show is on view near the other ancient art galleries. Understanding Greek pottery within the context of other ancient Mediterranean cultures adds a new layer of interpretation to the exhibition. The Horse in Ancient Greek Art has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and has been called a “must-see” event.

 

Can’t wait to visit? Join NSLM on a special “Site-Seeing” trip to visit Agecroft Hall and The Horse in Ancient Greek Art at VMFA.


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Anne Marie Paquette is the Clarice & Robert H. Smith Educator at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM). Her passion for museum work began shortly after graduation with a Bachelor’s degree in History from James Madison University. Between her expeience working at the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center and the Washington Heritage Museums, she has done everything from designing summer camps to formulating major fundraisers. Have a question? Contact Anne Marie by e-mail

If you are at all familiar with the village of Middleburg, you have likely seen iconic images of the Middleburg Hunt and hound parade in the snow. It just doesn’t feel like the holiday season has begun in this region until Christmas in Middleburg takes place on the first Saturday every December. The celebration brings people from far and wide to enjoy this spectacle as well as the traditional afternoon Christmas parade with brightly-colored floats, a variety of horse-drawn vehicles, and other animals. Even Santa Claus arrives on a four-in-hand.

Although we did not experience a magical snow this past Saturday, there was no shortage of holiday cheer for the festivities. Partnering with the National Sporting Library & Museum, Colonial Williamsburg’s Director of Coach and Livestock Paul Bennett brought and drove the historic city’s Wythe Chariot, a highlight of the parade.

Partnering with the NSLM, Colonial Williamsburg made a special appearance in the Middleburg Christmas Parade on December 2, 2017, with the recently-restored Wythe Chariot driven by Director of Coach and Livestock Paul Bennett.

The royal blue livery brought to mind a wintry, 19th-century French print in the NSLM’s collection…

(after) Henri d’Ainecy, Comte de Montpezat (French, 1817 – 1859), La vie d’un Gentilhomme en toutes Saisons: Hiver (one of a set of four), hand-colored aquatint, 21 ½ x 30 ¾ inches, engraved by Jazet, Paris; published by Goupil et Vibert, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman R. Bobins, 2012

Subtitled Hiver (Winter), the hand-colored aquatint is one of a set of four in the series, La vie d’un Gentilhomme en toutes Saisons (The Life of a Gentleman in All Seasons). First published in 1846, each print depicts a different season of carriage driving in France. The original paintings from which the engravings were made were by Henri Auguste d’ Ainecy, Comte de Montpezat, a French sporting and animal artist.

(after) Henri d’Ainecy, Comte de Montpezat (French, 1817 – 1859) La vie d’un Gentilhomme en toutes Saisons: Hiver (Detail)

The snowy scene shows two postilions, each riding the near post-horse of a double team at a fast pace. (It is typical to ride the left horse of a pair since horses are trained to be mounted from the near side.) The riders are wearing the unmistakable rigid boots of their profession to protect their legs from being injured. Posting was a common mode of transit in England and on the Continent before trains. Postilions were hired through postmasters and traveled from post house to post house, on successive legs of a journey. Tired riders and horses were replaced as needed along the way.

(after) Henri d’Ainecy, Comte de Montpezat (French, 1817 – 1859), La vie d’un Gentilhomme en toutes Saisons: Hiver (Detail)

The carriage depicted is a shooting phaeton, a four-wheel open carriage with room for four passengers, game, and a compartment with ventilation under the seat to transport gun dogs.  Snow flies up from the wheels as the sportsmen return from a successful day afield. The gamekeeper, bundled up in a fur coat with a powder flask at his side, points to a village in the distance. A huntsman and the gentleman holding a shotgun enjoy a cigar while the fourth companion wearing a buttoned-up frock coat and a brimmed cap, crosses his arms, bracing himself against the cold. A gun dog peeks out from the gentleman’s lap blanket while another alert dog is at the front of the carriage. The vehicle is filled with a mixed bag  – a plentiful variety of hare, pheasant, duck, partridge, snipe, and stag – and game bags hang from the back.

Although it’s not a one-horse open sleigh, the scene conjures a line from the classic American melody, Jingle Bells. “Dashing through the snow…”  Carriages, wheeled and sleighs alike, are icons of a long-gone era, but still strongly resonate with the sentiment of the season. Thank you to our friends at Colonial Williamsburg for journeying to Middleburg and “making spirits bright.”

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!


pfeifferClaudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org

The Horse and the Camera from the Judith and Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection
exhibition on view at the National Sporting Library & Museum through January 7, 2018

Whether you love or hate taking selfies, it is hard to imagine a time before photography and the easy access we now have to the news, sports, and images of them. From the first static images, human imagination has turned the camera towards everything from the epic to the mundane. A breakneck evolution of photography has continued to advance since the first grainy, permanent photographic image was produced circa 1827. Developments saw stiff portraits become sharp-as-a-tack studies of motion within 50 years, and the twentieth century brought the wide-spread distribution of them. The history of the development of equestrian sport photography may be traced with photographs in The Horse and the Camera from the Judith and Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection exhibition on view at the National Sporting Library & Museum through January 7, 2018.

Beginning with the patenting of the tintype, by American innovator Hamilton Smith in 1856, photographic portraiture was quickly popularized across the United States. The medium allowed for the production of an image within minutes and gave rise to itinerant photographers who traveled from town-to-town, capturing affordable portraits of people and their prized possessions such as the horse.

Gentleman and Lady in Carriage
Gentleman and Lady in Carriage, c. 1880, tintype, 6 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches, on loan from the Judith & Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection

It was difficult to produce sharp images with early methods of photography, since they required the sitter to be motionless for extended periods of time. The very nature of the medium dictated that the results were stiff and posed compositions.

How then did we come to really understand what a horse looks like when it is jumping, trotting, or galloping? The immediate answer that might come to mind is the name, Eadweard Muybridge. His 1877-8 series of photographic studies revolutionized the way the world views the horse, other animals, and humans in motion.

Muybridge
Eadweard Muybridge (English, 1830-1904), Horse and Rider, c. 1890, collotype, 19 x 24 1/8 inches, on loan from the Judith & Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection

As the story goes, famed photographer Muybridge was hired by the entrepreneur and horse breeder Leland Stanford, auspiciously to settle a bet about whether or not all four hooves of a galloping horse were simultaneously off the ground at any time during the sequence of the gait. The question was a photographic paradox. In the 1870’s, the medium remained an inherently slow and precise process. How could one reliably capture motion with it?

In response, Muybridge devised an industrious and pioneering setup of twelve large-format glass plate cameras spaced apart (The example above is a later twenty-camera version). He outfitted the cameras with innovative and reliable shutters of his own design, tripwires, and plates coated with an extremely light-sensitive emulsion. The combination made a 1/500th second exposure possible.

The technological breakthrough led to a cascade of other camera and film innovations within the following decades, for both consumer-grade and professional equipment and film.

The first photo-finishes forever changed the way races were decided…

Harness Racing
Harness Race Finish, Roosevelt Raceway, 1945, gelatin silver print, 10 x 8 inches, photo Milton Platnick, Hempstead, Long Island, NY, on loan from the Judith & Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection

The implementation of the wirephoto service nationally by the 1920s made it possible to disseminate notable and newsworthy images across the country with ease…

Cossack Jump
Miss Barbara Worth Performs a Cossack Jump, 1933, gelatin silver print, 7 x 9 inches, photo wire caption: Spectacular Jumps This Girl’s Forte. Miss Barbara Worth not only is prominent in California society, but is known as the owner and trainer of some of the best jumping horses in the state. She does more than train, however– she rides them. This photo shows Miss Worth with shortened stirrups executing a difficult Cossack jump. 6-26-33, on loan from the Judith & Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection

…and the result in the twentieth century was that sports photography overtook illustration.

Pimlico Steeplechase, “Mergler Takes a Spill Off Capital Torch Song,” 1941, gelatin silver print marked with pen, crop marks, and gouache, 9 x 12 5/8 inches, on loan from the Judith & Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection

The history of the development of equestrian sport photography is just one of the many threads that runs through The Horse and the Camera from the Judith and Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection exhibition. The intimate survey is comprised of almost 70 tintypes, photogravures, albumen prints, gelatin silver prints, and collotypes created from the 1870s to the 1960s. Works are on loan from the Judith and Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection of over 150 vintage and antique photographic images. The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of Mr. & Mrs. Charles T. Akre.

To learn more about the exhibition, join us for an Evening with The Horse & the Camera on Friday, September 29, 2017 at 6:30 pm for a reception and exhibition talk. Photography expert Jo Tartt, Jr. and the NSLM’s George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art Claudia Pfeiffer will explore how advancements in cameras, black & white film, and stop-motion photography captured human imagination and the horse at rest and in motion. RSVP to ABarnes@NationalSporting.org or 540.687.6542 ext. 25


pfeifferClaudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org

When I first saw the oil study of Proctor Knott winning the First Futurity stakes held at Sheepshead Bay on Long Island in 1888, I didn’t immediately realize that the painting’s title referred to the name of the horse, not the jockey. Shelby “Pike” Barnes was up, one of several leading African-Americans in the sport at the end of the 19th century and the first to win over 200 races in one season (Read more about Pike Barnes’ record-breaking career on the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame website). Following closely in second place was Salvator ridden by Tony Hamilton, another leading black jockey. The purse collected by the winning race horse’s owner was a whopping $40,900 (over $1,000,000 today), the highest race earnings at the time.

Louis Maurer (American, 1832 – 1932), Proctor Knott (The First Futurity, 1888, Jerome Park, Sheepshead Bay, a Close Finish), c. 1888, oil on canvas, 12 ½ x 18 ⅛ inches, Gift of The Margaret Kendrick Blodgett Foundation in memory of Peter Winants, Director Emeritus of the National Sporting  Library, 2001

The hunched figures in the oil study by Louis Maurer in the National Sporting Library & Museum’s permanent collection may be construed by viewers as caricatures, especially in light of the fact that the artist drew conservative political cartoons that are blatantly racist and denigrating by today’s standards. Currier and Ives published them leading up to Republican Abraham Lincoln’s presidential election in 1860. One of the most extreme examples is titled An Heir to the Throne, Or the Next Republican Candidate.

The Library of Congress’s description for the image: “The Republicans’ purported support of Negro rights is taken to an extreme here. Editor Horace Greeley (left) and candidate Abraham Lincoln (resting his elbow on a rail at right) stand on either side of a short black man holding a spear. The latter is the deformed African man recently featured at P.T. Barnum’s Museum on Broadway as the “What-is-it.” (A poster for this attraction appears on the wall behind.) Greeley says, “Gentlemen allow me to introduce to you, this illustrious individual in whom you will find combined, all the graces, and virtues of Black Republicanism, and whom we propose to run as our next Candidate for the Presidency.” Lincoln muses, “How fortunate! that this intellectual and noble creature should have been discovered just at this time, to prove to the world the superiority of the Colored over the Anglo Saxon race, he will be a worthy successor to carry out the policy which I shall inaugurate.” The black man wonders, “What, can dey be?” Source and image: https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3a05736/

Although this is difficult imagery to associate with Currier & Ives and Louis Maurer, the successful lithography firm’s company policy was business before politics. They produced satire expressing sentiments held across the political spectrum. For example, Maurer drew a pro-Lincoln cartoon, The Political Oyster House, also published by the firm in the same year.

Currier & Ives was much more widely known for creating a market for its broad variety of affordable art prints than for its caricatures. Among the last images Maurer contributed to the firm was the completed painting of the 1888 First Futurity race upon which the NSLM’s oil study was based. It was reproduced as a large chromolithograph titled The Futurity Race at Sheepshead Bay to appeal to middle-class collectors who could afford the image that commemorated an important moment in racing history.

inscribed: To the Coney Island Jockey Club this print of The Futurity Race at Sheepshead Bay. Sept 3, 1888. Value $50,000 Won by Proctor Knott is dedicated by the publishers. Painted by L. Maurer. Copyright 1889 By Currier & Ives, New York. Printed in oil colors and published by Currier & Ives, 115 Nassau St. N.Y.  Proctor Knott (Barnes) Salvator (Hamilton) Galen (Turner), Image and source: https://www.loc.gov/resource/pga.00720/

The large original oil on canvas is in the collection of the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York. The painting and print reveal a stylistic consistency between the depiction of the African-American and Caucasian jockeys portrayed in the composition with the crowd in the distance focused on the action of the race.

It’s hard to imagine now, but Sheepshead Bay was in the racing capitol of the United States. From 1879 and 1910, three venues were established in Brooklyn within miles of one another which were accessible by new rail lines. The Brighton Beach track opened in 1879; then the picturesque dirt and turf tracks at Sheepshead Bay were begun in 1880 and 1886 respectively (where the First Futurity took place). The Gravesend Track operated by the Brooklyn Jockey Club was started in 1886. These tracks attracted sportsmen and race-goers from across all walks of life to Coney Island.

Louis Maurer (American, 1832 – 1932) First Futurity (detail), 1888, oil on canvas, 36 x 60 inches, National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame’s Permanent Collection, Gift of George D. Widener. Image Source: https://www.racingmuseum.org/sites/default/files/styles/front_page_rotator/public/1955.15-1140×500.jpg?itok=Lfxvfux4

At the height of their popularity, the races drew as many as 40,000 spectators to the region during the season of May through October. The booming flat racing industry was fueled by sportsmen and supported by jockeys, trainers, grooms, and stable hands who traveled there seasonally. A community of hospitality workers also arose.

Many of these working-class men and women were African-Americans facing the rising tide of racism that would soon culminate in the spread of segregation laws across the United States by the early twentieth century. While race relations were  complex, Louis Maurer’s painting, oil study, and print of the 1888 First Futurity as well as works by other artists of the era capture a slice of history to be embraced and honored for what they represent, a time when African Americans dominated the sport of racing as acclaimed  top athletes and were depicted in this historically significant role.

To read more about this topic, please see They Rode to WinClarice & Robert H. Smith Educator Anne Marie Barnes’s blog and the upcoming public program on June 13, 2017, Race Forms: African-American Jockeys in Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion and Gilded Age Philadelphia by Dr. John Ott, a part of the Heroes & Underdogs lecture series.


pfeifferClaudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org