Dark Sport of Cockfighting Once Flourished in City

Cockfighting is a centuries old combative and often deadly blood sport between two specially bred roosters known as gamecocks, held inside an arena referred to as a cockpit.

The event once flourished openly across the nation, usually being played out on a Saturday night. This contentious activity is now illegal in Tennessee and 47 other states; the interdict also extends to those attending such events. Proponents view it as a long-established pleasurable sporting event; opponents see it as an atrocious form of animal cruelty.

While I certainly do not advocate or attempt to glamorize this long-banned vindictive activity, I do find the local history behind it interesting. The animals’ claws were frequently replaced with razor sharp steel blades. Some birds received drug injections to increase their aggressiveness and stamina during the fast paced grueling matches. Spectators often made wagers on their favorite fowls and cheered them toward victory, hoping for a monetary reward.

Bob Taylor, a former Johnson City native and one of the best-known governors in Tennessee history, and a local city businessman, P.H. Wofford, once became involved with the now prohibited sport. Wofford published an 8-page advertising brochure with a Johnson City address that featured game fowl for sale. Information inside it dates the publication to about 1899. The ad gave a short description of four popular strains being sold – Round Head, Red Quills, Dr. Morrow and Wofford’s Private Strain. Prices included cocks $5.00, stags $3.00, hens $2.00, pullets $1.25, one cock and two hens $7.00, one stag and two pullets $5.00 and 15 eggs for hatching $2.00. 

The turn-of-the-century advertiser stressed the fact that pure bloodlines were critical in breeding superior fighting specimens, referring to them as “feathered gladiators.” The eye-catching item in the pamphlet was Dr. Morrow, a gamecock that had been presented to Governor Bob Taylor by a Tennessee state representative from Middle Tennessee. The celebrated fowl was said to be of perfect symmetry and beauty, having been a three-time winner and was what game fanciers called “a model broad cock.”

In 1897, Governor Taylor’s official business summoned him to Nashville. He brought Dr. Morrow and three of his favorite hens with him and loaned them to Wofford. The breeder kept them for two years, during which time he raised some high quality fowls. The brochure gave no indication that either Governor Taylor or Mr. Wofford actually participated in the ring matches.

Dr. Morrow’s offspring – aggressive, fast and vicious fighters – became highly sought-after. They were described as being representative of “southern blood.” The demand for the birds quickly exceeded the supply, as orders were received from customers all across the country, Canada and Mexico. The small booklet contained 10 testimonials from the many thousands of happy customer responses received by the breeder. Over time, old age caught up with the now celebrated “doctor,” eventually depriving him of what he did best. The elderly bird was summarily chloroformed, mounted and placed in Bob Taylor’s personal library. 

The final entry in the small booklet was an ad for curing Roup, a dreadful respiratory disease that especially targeted game fowl. The remedy, Rupe Cure, sold postpaid for 60 cents a   bottle or $1.50 per dozen.