The Irish setter Dick Swiveler has possibly the most captivating and tragic life story of any show dog in America. Although his name is given a mention in passing in a number of books, there is to my knowledge no biography of the dog anywhere. I was so engaged by Dick’s story, I felt compelled to piece together the agony and the ecstasy in order to share it with fellow dog lovers.
For those wondering where the name came from, we have Charles Dickens to thank. (The spelling on the dog is off by one L and the newspapers sometimes added it in, sometimes not.) It was a popular registered name of the era and there were other dogs, including a pointer, with the name as well as race horses and competition cows.
Dick Swiveler the Irish setter was born on August 5, 1886, bred by William H. Child. He was owned and shown as a youngster by a gentleman named Pierre Camblos of Philadelphia. At the prestigious New York show in February 1889, Dick Swiveler was first in a large open class of 35 dogs. The awards for the breed at Westminster:
It wasn’t until Dick was purchased by George H. Covert of Chicago later that year that his career really took off:
Mr. Covert, who started out calling his kennel Paradise but soon changed the name to Killarney, campaigned Dick heavily. He had a flair for advertising and embellishment:
At the fourteenth annual Westminster Kennel Club show in February 1890, Dick Swiveler was awarded the top prize in Irish setters.
Forest and Stream was not terribly impressed with Dick:
The Fanciers’ Journal however was quite generous in praising the dog:
The President of The Fanciers’ Journal outfit was William H. Child, Dick’s breeder, which would seem notable here.
George Covert took out an ad in The Fanciers’ Journal the following week, using a phrase from the paper’s comments above:
Of course, nobody likes a winner and one with a braggadocious owner has even less friends. A plot was hatched against him. Dick was next shown in Mr. Covert’s hometown but did not win, which gave everybody something to talk about for weeks on end:
At the inaugural show of the Buffalo Kennel Club in April 1890, Dick Swiveller was again defeated by Elcho Jr though still complimented in Forest and Stream:
In February 1891, Dick Swiveler won again in New York. This was a pretty big deal.
The Fanciers’ Journal misspelled the name of Mr. Covert’s kennel next to Dick’s name (above), presumably unintentionally, but still came out ahead of Forest and Stream which left Dick out of the awards entirely:
At the Pittsburgh show in March, more controversy:
Mr. Covert’s response, printed in The Fanciers’ Journal, March 28, 1891:
The Fanciers’ Journal announced in April 1891 that Mr. Covert had purchased Elcho Jr from Dr. William Jarvis. The price paid was reportedly $1000, rather steep for a nine year old dog, although it was not uncommon at this time for big winning dogs to be shown until they died.
Elcho Jr was shown for the first time under Mr. Covert’s ownership at the Mascoutah Kennel Club show in Chicago where he took top honors. The dog was then sent to Denver where he also won.
This was the height of Mr. Covert’s short career in dogs. He had by this time acquired a large number of Irish Setters and was furiously breeding, importing and selling. Another of his acquisitions was Tillie Boru:
Also acquired: the exclusive services of her trainer:
And the largest acquisition of all:
All this activity relates to Dick Swiveler in that it swiftly led to the financial ruin of Mr. Covert, who was heavily in debt and forced to sell all his real and personal property, including his entire kennel. Dick’s fate was thrown to the wind.
Dick Swiveler was sold at auction by order of the court on November 21, 1891 for $105. The buyer, Mr. W. L. Washington of Kildare Kennels, said Dick was suffering from both mange and eczema at the time. Elcho Jr. died just prior to the auction at the kennels in Auburn Park, IL where the dogs were being held. Mr. Covert, according to the sole mention I was able to find of what became of him, died sometime within the next several months.
Whatever Mr. Covert was or was not, he certainly was passionate about his breed of choice and Dick Swiveler was obviously a favorite. Though his aspirations for Dick exceeded the stubborn limitations of reality, it is hard to fault his enthusiastic optimism:
At a time when the national Irish setter club had fizzled, Mr. Covert was one of the men who breathed new life into the organization. His Tearaway X Tillie Boru produced Saga’s Tearaway and Tillie Boru II, both with field trial wins and placements in 1892.
Mr. Covert was reportedly a younger man and he learned as he went along, as we all do. He paid a hefty price for his mistakes and was treated rather cruelly by the kennel papers. I was unable to find an obituary for him despite an extensive search. Mr. Covert made a significant contribution to the breed at a critical time in its history and deserves recognition for that.
(Post concludes with Dick Swiveler, Part Two.)
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