Security with a Bite

By Brooke McManus
May 29, 2013
Index Magazine

Security with a Bite

Wanted ad for museum guard dog, 1927. Courtesy Harvard Art Museums Archives.

Before hi-tech security systems were available, guard dogs were standard employees of places like the Harvard Art Museums. Documents from our Archives reveal that Fogg administrators filled out their staff roster with some canine workers when the museum moved to its Quincy Street location in 1927, the current site of our renovation and expansion project.

On January 25 of that year, Fogg Museum Director Edward Forbes wrote to Adolph Lederhos soliciting his help in finding a distinct breed of security guard with “intelligence and character and courage” to patrol the newly constructed museum. Lederhos, president of the Shepherd Dog Club of New England, was happy to oblige the request, placing a classified announcement in the Shepherd Review for a young watchdog that was “absolutely firm in character, but not oversharp.” The ad indicated show dogs need not apply.

An early hire, German shepherd Zilbert, was deemed too ferocious and was sent to be cared for by a superintendent at the Harvard Athletic Association. But Forbes soon found the right dog for the job in Astor von Leibusch. Astor, also a German shepherd, accompanied the Fogg’s human guards on their evening rounds from the spring of 1927 until his death in December 1936. He was succeeded by his son, Rex, in January 1937. Both watchdogs received a good bit of publicity for their work: Astor was featured in a flattering Boston newspaper article in 1928, and Rex was profiled in the Harvard Alumni Bulletin in 1941.

We asked Marjorie (Jerry) B. Cohn, Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints, Emerita, to share her memory of the guard dogs at the Fogg. Here is what she recalled from the early 1970s:

The dog was penned in a raised, dirt-floored niche, an anomaly in the building’s exterior off the driveway, which was created when the Naumburg Wing was added on in the early 1930s. There was a chain-link fence to prevent the dog from escaping when not on rounds . . . 

At this time there was a dog culture at the Fogg. Miss [Agnes] Mongan, who was the longtime drawing curator and [eventually] became the director, always owned black standard poodles and loved all dogs. She kept biscuits in her purse and would always stop to pat and feed any dog; she even, in retirement, had a stock lecture, “The Dog in Art.” Her dog did not come to the museum, but she looked kindly on the succession of standard poodles owned by Bonnie Solomon, the photographer hired by the Fine Arts Department to make slides for faculty and students, back in the day when lectures were given with slides, not digital equipment.

Anyhow, back to the guard dog. The dog was a handful. It barked at night, which really bothered the neighbors on Prescott Street and Broadway, and, finally, it bit Miss Mongan.

Miss Mongan’s love for dogs had a limit: after the biting incident, the dog was fired.

Brooke McManus is the Archives Assistant at the Harvard Art Museums.