A Golden Eagle Once Guarded a Cumminsville Saloon

Golden eagles are large, with wingspans approaching eight feet. They are rare in these parts, but one came to roost in a Cincinnati saloon.

Toward the end of the 1890s, a Cincinnati man hunting in Rio Blanco County in western Colorado captured a full-grown golden eagle. The hunter brought the giant bird back home and gave it to a friend who ran a saloon “out toward the stockyards in Cumminsville.”

The saloonkeeper at first displayed the eagle in a big box with a chicken-wire door to attract customers, but it proved fairly ferocious and would snap at anyone who came near. In addition, its ungodly screeching kept the customers on the other side of the room. Eventually, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer [24 February 1901], the saloonkeeper and the eagle got to know one another:

“I was the only person he seemed to take to, and after feeding him regularly for a year he began to show signs of capitulating and allowed me to touch him, then to scratch his head. I then let him out of the box and he followed me about the room with his awkward walk, emitting a soft whistle of contentment all the while. When a stranger approached me he would shrink fiercely and retire to his cage. He at last got so he would come and go at my bidding just like a dog.”

The saloonkeeper let the eagle wander the barroom at will. It accepted raw meat snacks from the customers, poked around in corners and cabinets and abandoned his roost in the cage to take up a perch on the ice chest in back of the bar.

One stormy night, in the autumn of 1900, as the saloonkeeper was preparing to shut the place up, a man walked in. The saloonkeeper described him as the “dirtiest, meanest looking and biggest tramp” he ever saw. The man called for a drink and the saloonkeeper poured him a whiskey. The tramp paid for the drink, to the saloonkeeper’s surprise. He was familiar with tramps who drank and only then announced that they had no money.

The tramp took his drink and sat by the stove. It was almost midnight, the weather was cold and rain poured in sheets outside while thunder boomed. The saloonkeeper had a good fire going and walked over to the stove to stir up the coals.

“Just as I stooped to take up the poker, I was startled by a slight noise from the tramp and turned my head just in time to receive a blow that floored and nearly stunned me. In an instant the big brute was upon me raining blow after blow upon my face and head and trying to clutch my throat.”

With his wits fading, the saloonkeeper cried out, hoping against hope that someone out in the driving thunderstorm might hear him. He was just about to lose consciousness when help arrived.

“There was a bloodcurdling shriek and a rush of wings as my eagle swooped down from his perch upon the ice chest and buried his talons in the shoulder of the thug, while with his powerful beak he tore strips from my assailant’s scalp.”

"Drawing of eagle attacking tramp," from Cincinnati Enquirer, 1901
“Drawing of eagle attacking tramp,” from The Cincinnati Enquirer, 1901

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Now it was the tramp’s turn to scream for help. He rolled off the saloonkeeper and tried to escape, but the eagle had him in a tight grip and kept beating him with its wings while pulling flesh from his head and shoulders. The saloonkeeper crawled behind the bar and retrieved a stout hammer known as a “bung starter” to drive off the tramp, but the eagle was so enraged, he could not get near.

“When I reached the combatants with my weapon, the poor wretch begged piteously of me to take the bird off. He was in a terrible plight, his scalp was literally torn to shreds and the blood flowed down his face in streams. His hands were torn to ribbons almost where the furious eagle had raked them as he reached up to protect his head.”

With a final scream, the tramp fainted on the floor. The eagle released its grip and perched on the back of a chair, where it began to groom its feathers. The saloonkeeper carried the tramp out into the rain and let him lie on the sidewalk halfway down the block. He considered calling the police, but decided the tramp had enough punishment.

“I washed my bloody features after locking the door and then I grabbed my brave bird in my arms and hugged him for sheer thankfulness. He seemed to take his victory as a matter of course, but showed his appreciation of my caresses by a guttural sort of chuckle.”

Now, one might think it unique to have a full-grown golden eagle perched in a saloon, but that is not so. In 1905, John Berne, proprietor of the saloon inside Cincinnati’s People’s Theater at Vine and Thirteenth, briefly kept a golden eagle of obstreperous temper. Berne’s eagle was the gift of a comedian named Pat Riley. On tour of the western provinces, Riley was given the eagle during an engagement in Kansas City. Tickled by the gesture, but puzzled how to travel the vaudeville circuit with a giant bird, Riley shipped the eagle to Cincinnati. After a couple of bloody attacks, saloonkeeper Berne donated the eagle to the Cincinnati Zoo.

The Illinois State Register, in 1917, reported a golden eagle kept in the front window of a saloon in Danville. Passersby were appalled by the sight of this giant bird feasting on live chickens in full view of the public and called in the law. The Danville saloonkeeper was charged with animal cruelty.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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