In 1925, There Was a Rabies Scare in the Northwoods

Aug 3, 2018

This week on A Northwoods Moment in History, local historian Gary Entz takes us back to a rather bizarre incident that took place in downtown Rhinelander in 1925.

When we think about history and how people lived in earlier times we often reminisce about less complicated days.  It is often said that people lived simpler, more innocent lives in the past.  Of course, this is true only when we view the past through the lens of nostalgia, which evokes a wistful feeling for a romanticized past.  The truth is that our ancestors lived lives that were just as complicated and morally ambiguous as our own.  The technology may have been less advanced, but that does not mean life wasn’t full of thorny issues.  Take a bizarre incident that happened in downtown Rhinelander in 1925.

In October 1925 there was a rabies scare in the Northwoods, and in Rhinelander City Health Officer J.T. Elliott issued an ordinance requiring dog owners to muzzle their pets.  Any unmuzzled dog found within a five mile radius of the city was to be shot.  Rudolph Zacharias, who was appointed as the city’s official exterminator, took his job very seriously and shot four dogs his first day out.  It was a busy day, to be sure, but it was the events that followed that illustrate the moral ambiguity of the situation.

On the morning of October 13, 1925, Zacharias spotted a small, unmuzzled dog on Brown Street near the Majestic Theater.  By all accounts it was friendly, but nonetheless unmuzzled.  Pulling out his double-barreled shotgun, Zacharias approached the dog, aimed, and fired.  His shot only wounded the animal.  Howling in pain, the dog scampered to the nearby Oneida Paint and Wall Paper shop.  This was not the early hours of the morning.  Businesses were open, and people were out on the sidewalks.  Outraged witnesses demanded that Zacharias take the wounded animal to a back alley to finish his gruesome work.  Ignoring the protests, Zacharias again let loose with his shotgun, this time missing the dog completely and peppering a young woman named Dee Clark in the leg.  Having exhausted both barrels, Zacharias pulled out a revolver, walked up to the dog, and finished the job.  Seemingly oblivious to the howls of indignation from the crowd, Zacharias walked home, collected his pickup truck, and returned a short time later to dispose of the dead animal.

Legally, Zacharias was fulfilling his appointed duty and was not prosecuted.  Morally, people in 1925 questioned if the dog or Zacharias’s indiscretion represented the greater threat to public safety.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.