- Robert Hodge
Long before Lassie became a famous film star there was another collie who was courted by movie directors. This remarkable "dog with a human brain" had his day in a Fredericksburg court room and escaped the death penalty.
Mac was a pedigreed collie belonging to Leon W. McWane, an employee of the State Highway Department, who in 1924 was living in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Mac was smart. His owner had trained him to pick out colors, tell his age, ring doorbells, and do numerous other acts, but he was, until he was jailed, known only locally.
It was on Monday afternoon, February 11, 1924, that little Mary Van Rawlings, daughter of J.R. Rawlings, was skating home from school. Mac was lying near the sidewalk at the Knoxana Apartments (403 William Street) and Mary skated on his tail. Mac snapped at her leg and punctured the skin with one tooth. That same afternoon Meredith Alrich, son of J. Elton Alrich, had been playing with Mac and the dog had bitten him slightly under the nose.
The children's parents, filled with anxiety concerning the possible presence of rabies germs in the dog, invoked a city ordinance which provided that the mayor could, upon the request of persons having been bitten, order the offending animal killed so its head could be sent to the Burea of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C. for examination.
At an early Wednesday morning police court hearing, Acting Mayor W.S. Embrey (Mayor King was indisposed) ordered Police Chief S.B. Perry to kill the dog at 6 p.m. and turn its head over to the city health officer, Dr. J.N. Barney.
Mac's owner, Mr. McWane, employed the services of attorney W.B.F. Cole to challenge the order. At a 3:30 afternoon session of the Corporation Court, Judge John T. Goolrick held that the dog could not be arbitrarily killed, but ordered Mac (who was in the court room) be taken into custody by the police for fifteen days of observation.
On Friday, March 1, 1924, after having been examined daily by an expert veterinarian who assured Judge Goolrick the dog was suffering from no disease, Mac was released to his master.
This small legal incident in Fredericksburg was picked up as a "human interest" story by a news service and a picture of Mac, standing behind prison bars, appeared in a number of publications, one of which was the New York Daily News.
The account of Mac's plight immediately prompted well-known author Albert Payson Terhune to write a letter to Mac's owner. "The photo of gallant old Mac reached me today...Splendid old Mac!" wrote Mr. Terhune. "I shall put him in a story some day. Mac is worthy of a number of stories and I doubt if any of them can do him justice. You must be very proud to have him for a chum."
To avoid further problems, Mr. McWane sent Mac to Lynchburg to live, but in October of 1925 a Harrisonburg, Virginia movie director, James A. Fitzgerald, expressed via a letter to McWane, a desire to see Mac perform. Mr. Fitzgerald said the public was tired of having the police dog (Rin Tin Tin, Strongheart, Peter the Great) "stuffed down their throats" and was inclined to believe the day of the American collie was here.
Mac returned to Fredericksburg, and after seeing him perform, Mr. Fitzgerald was impressed with his display of "human intelligence" and assigned a personal assistant, Lee K. Holland, to make some arrangements.
"It is my intention," declared the motion picture producer, "to surround Mac with stars whose names are household words, provide him with stories which will have large distribution through the newspapers and to produce pictures which will cause the world to know that the German Police Dog cannot surpass the American Collie."
In the May, 1926, issue of The Dog Fancier, published at Battlecreek, Michigan, appeared a full two-page layout, including illustrations of Mac, Police Chief Perry, Attorney Cole, and the late Judge Goolrick. The story was captioned "Mac, the Dog with the Human Brain" and dealt with his probable moving picture career.
In the story, George Allan England wrote: "A good dog is a jewel of great price, and Mac is certainly a good dog, if ever one lived. More power to him!" The story was circulated in periodicals from Palm Beach, Florida, to Portland, Oregon, and had an aggregate circulation of more than three million.
It is uncertain whether Mac ever made a movie, but on Friday, April 29, 1927, the Richmond Times-Dispatch carried a large advertisement that contained a splendid likeness of Mac. It stated that at the Dixie Collie Club Specialty Show (a benefit for the Sheltering Arms Hospital), Mac would drive through the streets of Richmond, with the minimum of human assistance, a big Chandler Royal Eight car. It was later reported that Mac created a great deal of interest with his performance at the booth of Polk Miller products.
A year later in April of 1928, Mac received an official engraved invitation to attend, in May, the International Conference to Investigate Vivisection to be held at the Biltmore Hotel in New York. The invitation was not accepted.
In January, 1929, Fox Film Corporation of New York sent a Movietone-Pathe news film truck to Fredericksburg to film som colonial sites. They were also to take pictures of the "dog curb" in Fredericksburg's City Park. As Mr. McWane had charge of the dog curb, we can be sure that Mac appeared in the same films as the minuet at Kenmore.
On August 28, 1930, the dog disease black tongue resulted in the death of Mac, but his remains were placed in hallowed ground, for by special permission of J.B. Colbert, Mac was buried on Ferry Farm--the boyhood home of George Washington.
This article originally appeared in the October, 1983 issue of the Fredericksburg Times magazine. It is posted here with Mr. Hodge's permission.