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Dried Cats August 12, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

In prehistory there were, by definition, no written records. In antiquity there were few. In the Middle Ages few or several. And, then, from the invention of the printing press onwards, in Western Europe at least, the flood of the written word is almost painful. Yet notwithstanding this deluge, incredibly, there are whole facets of life that entirely escape notice. Take, for example, the medieval and modern dry-cat custom: a dead cat is taken and bricked up in the wall or a cavity in a house. Tens of cases of this phenomenon have been found over the years in Europe: yet there is not a whisper that Beach has been able to find in medieval or modern records, save when, latterly, one of these creatures is found.

When Beach first came across this ‘custom’ he smiled and thought otherwise. Cats get everywhere and builders all too often don’t care. How easy it would be to accidentally brick an over-adventurous moggie up and then leave the poor creature to its fate. So much for the custom… But this doesn’t even begin to work as an explanation – though conceivably it may be right in a couple of cases – because the animals are often posed.

‘Cat with two rats, found beneath sixteenth-century wood-work in a house in Borough High Street, Southwark, London. It holds in its jaws a rat which appears to be struggling to escape, with its legs extended, its mouth wide open and its tail erect. Another rat, beneath the cat’s forefeet, writhes upwards as if to bite its captor. Artificially arranged, since no accident could have killed all three simultaneously in such dramatic attitudes.’

A sick, isolated builder’s joke?

‘In a house in Lothbury in the city of London, demolished on the construction of the Bank of England in 1803. The cat was between the wall and the wainscotting of a room, and had a rat in its mouth’.

So a sick custom limited to the metropolis?

‘Cat and rat found in the thatch of a cottage at Pilton [Somerset], which was pulled down in 189o. The cat was pegged down with fair-sized wooden pegs, and as now mounted is about four inches away from the rat’s tail, which it appears to be pursuing’.

A sick British custom then?

‘Cat found in 1946 at Dalbäcken Farm, Bjurtjärn parish, Vairmland, Middle Sweden. Discovered when the steps to a front door, which had been put in place 25 years before, were removed. In a very contorted position, with head and tail raised, mouth wide open and claws extended, not at all a natural position of death’.

As to what mummifying cats means the leading study (which dates back to 1951!) offers two possible explanations. One is that the cat is a form of blood sacrifice such as is sometimes found in the foundations of ancient and medieval buildings: enough to get any folklorist salivating. The second, instead, is that the cat is – get ready for this – a kind of cat scarecrow left behind the walls to scare – magically or truly? – any passing rodents: hence the poses.

Beachcombing would like to update the list. Any mummified cats since 1951? Any from North America? Poses are particularly interesting. drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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12 August 2011: Chris Manning writes in with an update of modern research on the question ‘Saw your post on dried cats and felt I should update you on the developments in dried cat research since Howard’s 1951 article. There are several scholars working on this topic worldwide including myself. Ian Evans just completed his doctoral dissertation on ritual concealments in Australia and documented 17 cases of dried cats from that country. His dissertation is available online. Brian Hoggard in the U.K. estimates 100 cases of dried cats have been found there (also online), and Ruben de Somer has tracked down additional cases in Europe. As for the U.S., I’m still working on it, but I’ve only identified three or four possible cases of deliberate concealments (versus accidental enclosures) so far and only two of those were dried, the others being disarticulated bones and/or taxidermied examples. There is other literature from the 70s-90s, but these are the researchers I know who are currently working on the topic.’ Invisible meanwhile has been working up a list on her own. ‘Here is a mummified cat from Ohio. This is the website with the ‘Ghost Cat’ info.   There is a video on the page that shows images of the cat as well as gives the history of the lighthouse. Here is a photo of the cat. I researched this mummy cat in 2003 and here is what I was told by Carol, a woman who was startled by the cat in the basement. ‘I was there by myself. It was getting dark and going down into the basement was always kind of creepy. I got to the bottom of the steps and I saw this THING. There was a mummified cat kind of standing on all fours, its face turned towards me. I screamed and ran back upstairs. Of course, I’d always heard the stories about the ghost. ‘Then I got to the top of the steps and said to myself, ‘This can’t be. I have to go back down.’ So I actually got up enough courage to go back down the stairs and I saw that it was a mummy. It had its whiskers, its eyelashes, its feet so perfectly formed, its claws… Of course, I had no idea how it had gotten there.’ It was discovered when workmen installing air conditioning were working in the basement. One of the men climbed into a tight crawl space with his flashlight. ‘He was looking at something and laid his head down on something which just happened to be a mummified cat.’ The workmen who discovered the cat didn’t know what to do with their desiccated discovery. They left it at the foot of the basement stairs to snarl out of the twilight at Carol. The original light and keeper’s house (where the cat was found) were a nightmare of shoddy construction, cracked foundations, and cost overruns. I do not think it outlandish to suggest that some English or Irish workman privately decided a quiet foundation sacrifice might help save the rebuilt Fairport Light from disaster. Incidentally, the date of the rebuild of the Fairport Harbor Light was 1871 – this is probably when the cat was placed in the foundation. Brian Hoggard has a section on ‘dried cats’ on this astonishing site. (I’m very keen on concealed shoes.)’ Then Invisible gives a list of other sources: Trenton Evening Times (NJ) 8-2-1916 p. 13 DISCOVER MUMMY CAT AT PRINCETON PRINCETON Aug. 22 The naturally embalmed body of a mummy cat discovered by workmen excavating under the real estate office of O.H. Hubbard [illegible address] Nassau Street Princeton yesterday is the chief attraction here today. The mummy is of a color between a grey and brown and is splendidly preserved. Its…skin and ?ings and all four legs being almost intact.The cat is all there, except the fur. No ancient sarcophagus bears the form in winding sheet and there is no evidence of the art of cat preservation practiced by the Egyptians. The whiskers of the late pussy are remarkable, extending two inches or more on each side of the mouth like thick frozen hay whisps [sic]. The claws too are perfect.’ The newspaper scan was very difficult to read – thus the ellipses and question marks. The San Antonio [TX] Light 9-26-1926 p. 63 MUMMIFIED CAT IS CLAIMED BY THREE Bodies of Mother and Kitten Walled Up 100 Years Starts Dispute Harrrodsburg, Ky., Sept. 25 The question of ownership of a mummified cat and kitten found in the wall of a century-old house being torn down here is causing wide interest and some agitation. There are three people who claim the relics. Berry Lawson, tearing away the residence of Dr. J.T. Price, found the mummified felines walled into the building. It was evident the mother cat and kitten had been caught in the space inside the wall, unknown to workmen, who had built around them. This was early in the last century. PAY TO SEE MUMMIES Lawson took the curious remains and so many persons clamored to see them that it was reported a small admission fee was charged. The question of ownership arose when Lawson claimed the mummies by right of discovery and proprietorship of the house. Dr. Price said the cats belonged to him as he sold the house to Lawson, but not the contents of the building. The third claim has attracted the most attention of all. Beriah Magoffin of McAlester , Okla. , who has been spending the summer here, says the cats’ remains belong to him by right of inheritance. The old house was built by his grandfather, Beriah Magoffin, the second, who was governor of Kentucky during the Civil War and held Kentucky as neutral ground in that struggle. LEGEND IN FAMILY Mr. Magoffin says that the first Beriah had a pet cat, whose mysterious disappearance became a family legend, handed down through the generations. The mummy cat, he believes, is the lost feline of his grandfather, and he wants to link the past and present to that extent anyway. Mr. Magoffin is about 80 years old. He has heard from his family many times the story of the cat which crept out of the living room one day and never was seen again, unless it be the one who, with its kitten, rested in the venerable building for about 100 years. These first two are unverified items: According to Wayne Hodges of the Cooper Union Museum (in the 1960s), it was common practice to provide a mummified mouse for the mummified sacred cat. Different from walled up cats with rats and mice, but interesting. The Portuguese place pottery replicas of cats on their rooftops to ward off intruders. Well, where to start? There is an embarrassment of riches. I have over 2 dozens clips of (nearly all) North American mummified cats. I think I will just include ones of unusual interest or with accessory animals. European Stars and Stripes 1-5-1984 p. 33 Hesse, Darmstadt , Germany Mummified cat. A few hundred steps from the Sudbury church is the Mill Hotel, which has a most unusual attraction aside from a working water wheel dividing the bar and the dining room—a glass coffin containing a mummified cat sunk in the floor of the lobby. When the mill was being converted to a hotel, the centuries-old cat was found in one of the walls being removed. Such a find is not particularly unusual, since cats often were placed in a new building’s walls in the 17th century to ward off evil spirits. There may be something to the superstitious practice of entombing a cat. During the conversion, workmen discarded the cat as rubbish. Soon afterwards the hotel mysteriously caught fire. After the fire was extinguished, the cat was retrieved from the trash bin. The hotel has not had a fire since. Evening Times, Cumberland , MD 08-31-1911. MUMMIFIED CAT FOUND. Perfectly Good Animal Except For the Lack of Breath. New York, Aug. 31 Stone masons altering the front of the Episcopal Diocesan House, 416 Lafayette Place , tore out the stonework at the top of the second story yesterday. Patrick Shine, the boss mason, discovered a dusty object which he dug out with a trowel. It was a mummified cat, ‘a perfectly good cat except for lack of breath’, said Shine.  The Diocesan House was built in 1828, so Shine easily figured that the cat was born 83 years ago at least. He said he would give the mummy to a relative, a taxidermist, to mount. Daily Iowa Capital 6-17-1896 p. 6 Des Moines , IA A Mummified Cat. A mummified cat was found last week at Dover , N.H. , between two store buildings where repairs are in progress. The body was in a cramped position, as if the cat was trying to come back, but was caught in the act and held fast by the walls. The eyes were as bright and wide open as in life, and the body as hard as stone. The air circulating freely had no doubt caused the body to mummify. Racine Journal Times, Racine , WI , 8-22-1950 p. 1 Find Mummified Cat With Mouse in Mouth Moorhead, Minn. (U.P.) Workers tearing down a buggy shed said today they found what appeared to be a mummified cat with a mouse in its mouth. The cat and mouse were found in a wall along with a newspaper dated March 31, 1876. The house to which the buggy shed was attached once was owned by W.H. Davy, early Moorhead civil leader and philanthropist. It now is owned by Mr. and Mrs. John Nelson. Morning Avalanche, Lubbock , TX 07-24-1948 p. 10 Mummified Cat and Rat Are Found in Wall of Old House Charlotte, N.C., July 23 (INS) Workmen tearing down an old Charlotte rooming house got quite a start today. They saw a mummified cat in between the walls standing on all fours ready to jump on a mummified rat. The animals are believed to have been there some 70 years. The Post-Standard, Syracuse , NY 4-3-1904 p. 30 Mummified Cat. In the accompany picture is shown a mummified cat, which was discovered in the British man-of-war Menelaus when she was broken up. It is supposed that when the vessel was being built the cat, probably in pursuit of a rat, jumped between the lining and the outside planking and there remained wedged until the ship was taken to pieces. This interesting specimen of a mummified animal, which has been brought to light from the grave in which it has lain for nearly a century, is now carefully preserved at the Customs Watch House on Ryde Pier. [illustration too dim to reproduce. Seems to show a standing cat.] Burlington Hawk Eye, Burlington , IA 1-10-1896 p. 6 Whenever I passed, some few years ago, a certain shop window in the west end of London , I usually had an additional peep at a large card to which was attached a mummified cat grasping a mummified rat firmly in its jaws. If I remember rightly these animals were discovered in a preserved, albeit shrunken and dusty condition, imprisoned between some rafters in the house during repairs. Evidently the unfortunate cat got jammed in its peculiar position accidentally, and being averse to releasing its own prisoner, and thereby being better able to release itself, held it securely until suffocation to both ensued. It was a striking illustration of the powerfulness of determination, exercised by even the smaller class of animals. The Strand . The Progress, Clearfield , PA 03-20-1986 p. 2 MILWAUKEE (AP) New York Times columnist Tom Wicker will be this year’s recipient of the Milwaukee Press Club’s Sacred Cat Award.  Wicker, whose “In the Nation” column started in 1966, will receive the award at the press club’s Gridiron Dinner on May 3.  The award, given annually to ho [sic] or a distinguished journalist, is named after the club’s ‘mascot’, a mummified cat found between the walls of one of the club’s first buildings. [displayed at the club bar] The Kingston Daily Freeman, Kingston , NY 6-27-1946 p. 19 Cat Catacombed A mummified cat was found above the ceiling of a room by workmen on bomb repairs at the All-England Tennis Club, Wimbledon . The animal is thought to have climbed in during construction of the building 26 years ago and to have been accidentally bricked in while asleep. Amarillo News-Globe , TX 09-01-1946 p. 28 The Dick Whittington Church , founded in 1422, which bears the plaque ‘Richard Whittington, 4 Times Mayor of London’. The vicar now declares that in the ruins of the Whittington Church , after the bombing, he found a mummified cat. [a tad too good to be true...] Lethbridge Herald, Alberta, Canada 4-17-1946 p. 4 London Letter by Jack Sullivan mentions ‘Dirty Dick’s pub on Bishopsgate. ‘Where else could one gulp a pint staring into the empty eye-sockets of a mummified cat, its legs tangled in years-old cobwebs, the layers of dirt and dust matted so thick on its fleshless body that its appearance is deceptively sturdy? Dead cats by the score hang from the low ceilings at crazily-grotesque angles, some by their necks, others by their tails and legs. If ‘mck brings luck’, as one visitor scribbled in the guest books years ago, Dirty Dick’s has been thriving on one, or all, of its many cats’ nine lives for more than a century.’ [This sounds like the opening of a Stephen King story! No idea if the place still exists. [[It does Beach]]] Many of the articles are mere squibs – no real detail. Very few of the articles mention the animals being sealed up for luck or protection. Most suggest that they somehow were trapped accidentally. You find the same lack of documentation with concealed shoes: either people never knew or no longer remember the rationale for the practice. And, finally, not far from my home is a local college called Sinclair Community College. It is built over the old red-light district and hanging ground of early Dayton. Reputedly, when the present college buildings were being built in the early 1970s, a workman lured stray cats with scraps of food, and then poured cement on them, entombing them in the structure. It is said that you can still hear the ghostly cats wailing in the walls.’ Thanks Chris and Invisible!

25 August 2011: A friend of the blog, Gareth, writes in with this extraordinary photo: perhaps the best dry cat that I’ve seen: ‘It was found in the walls of Deadbeer Farm in Clayhidon, Devon during renovations in 1978. Parts of the house date back to the 14th century.’ The object in its mouth may have been a mouse tail? Thanks Gareth!

14 May 2012: Philip W got in touch: ‘Recently while helping in a renovation of a home built in 1832 – we came across a mummified cat.  The owner was going to toss it out – but intrigued I decided to keep it. The home is located in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island Canada.  It has been modified many times over the years and finally converted into apartments – so it would be hard to pinpoint when the cat was placed there.  The home does have a n extensive history tho – which I am trying to get more info on. I have never heard of the practice of mummifying cats on PEI before – I have spent a lot of time in old buildings and this is the first I have ever found.  Most people I talk to have never heard of the practice either. I have attached some pictures.  I am unsure what I will do with the cat – tho it is in my mind to frame it and display it. Thanks Philip!

25 Sept 2012: Thanks for this to April: I have been long negligent in sending this missive regarding mummified and/or desiccated cats. I hope that what follows will bring to light the far wider diaspora of  cat (dead cat) usage than is normally recognized. Because most, if not all, listeners and readers, and perhaps even you, will find (or have found) what I am about to tell to be a fairy story of sorts, I have come to accept that it is expedient  to tell the tale in the-before-mentioned genre.  I do this not to keep my own image pristine (which it hardly is in this or any regard for that matter), or even to avoid the sting of ridicule, but rather to eliminate, as much as possible, the future chagrin of my audience when they discover the truth of my words.  I will not be addressing any of the numerous ‘timber lesbian’ tales as they, the TL as they are sometimes called, are well known to live in our woods and often entice hunters, tree fallers and even the occasional choker setter deeper into the woods than they should go, sometimes keeping them occupied for hours and in rare cases even a day or two (though generally with no apparent harm except an embarrassing case of poison oak). I will also refrain from the mention of splinter-cats (though the temptation to do so will be great), snipes, jackalopes,  hidebehinds, hoopsnakes, fur-bearing trout, gumberoo, wapaloosie, and other suchlike woodland residence; and certainly hodags or squonks, which are truly mere nonsense here in the Northwest being so far out of place and time,  will not be included.  So with those provisos …  Our story begins in the semi-mythic, I confess, land far from your home called The Pacific Northwest or sometimes The State of Jefferson (but normally only by somewhat militant separatist residents).  Now relax and let your mind wander into the past, all the way back to the middling 1990s.  I know, I know but if you will relax and try very hard I’m sure your imagination can allow itself to be carried back so far. And so it came to pass… that in the summer prior to her marriage a young woman — we could call her Princess, but that’s probably pushing thing — decided to acquire some earnings byway of working for a local building contractor who had successfully bid, and won, a federal grant project (no easy task) which involved raising a number of old mill houses and building foundations for them (they, the houses, never having had said foundations before). Each day when she returned to her home the young woman would share with her parents details of the strange findings which came to light from beneath these old mill houses. It was sheer luck — and an unwillingness to give up her job — that this young woman’s father  was not made aware of the fact that it was she, the young woman, being the smallest person on the crew, who was sent into the crawl spaces beneath these old houses before each was raised to disconnect pipes and drains and so on. This being the case it was the young woman, more often than not, who discovered the strange, and sometimes wonderful, findings. Now it just so happened that the mother of the young woman, was (and, truth be told, is) ever so fond of not only found treasures from years past and other such items as are discovered in dark old places, but also the shear natural beauty of skulls and bones and the curious vestiges of desiccated flora and fauna, but, perhaps most of all, she (the mother) delighted in myths and legends, not to mention history of the more obscure types.  One could speculate as to whether it was this interest in esoteric knowledge which led to a belief by friends and foes alike that the young woman’s mother (when she herself was a young woman in the 1960s) was a witch, or if the reverse were true (not that this belief was discouraged, mind you, since a certain degree of power was and is afforded to those thought to have super natural knowledge, abilities and/or connections whether they do or do not possess such connections); but this story is not about all of that, it is about cats when mummified, desiccated or otherwise preserved in a dried out condition and their usage. Getting back to the curious and unusual finds drawn forth from beneath these old mill houses, most built in the late 19th to very early 20th century… Of all the strange & delightful finds one seemed always to stand out: cats.  Not moldering piles of long since (and not so long since) decomposed, not easily identifiable animals, but rather fully furred and at times appearing to have been posed, found under most of the houses, cats. When the cats were placed there or perhaps more to the point how they were still there considering  the wet climate of the Pacific Northwest and the less than to-code conditions of the underpinnings (or lack thereof) of these old houses, remains a mystery. But why they were there became more and more apparent with each new find. To begin with, the first cat found (I like to imagine it was black but honestly I haven’t any idea) was no sooner dragged from its resting place beneath its house, than the young woman’s boss took the cat in hand, with great delight, and placed it in his truck where he kept it to show anyone who was interested (or more often not interested). That he kept it as a talisman of sorts one can, arguably, surmise. As each newly discovered cat came to light, along with old bottles, a few coins, marbles, milk bottle caps and the occasional doll’s head, arm or leg, the good fortunes of the construction work improved. Accidents almost happened but were averted, the weather remained perfect for such work, and even the annoying, get-in-your-way locals lost interest and kept to themselves. But it wasn’t long before the young woman’s mother began to wonder, ask, and receive no concrete answer as to what became of the rest of the mysterious cats after having been found. That is until the very last of the construction work was finished near the end of the summer.  It was a Saturday when the young woman and her mother decided to go on a short walk taking their usual route over the river and through the parking lot of the town hall/library/police station (there wasn’t really a river but it seemed to add a certain flare to the story). They, the young woman and her mother, no sooner stepped into said parking lot than they saw, coming from the opposite direction, two young girls of perhaps 6 or 7 (if they were, in fact, girls at all… but I’ll leave that further fairy-fare for another time, perhaps).  The girls seemed to be discussing, in an animated way, the dark item one was carrying, but as they came closer (before realizing they were being observed) they began to swing the item between them, while one was saying in a cheerful singsong, almost chanting sort of way, words that neither the young woman nor her mother could make out. Then, things changed quite rapidly, dramatically one might even say, as the girls looked up and saw that they were not the only personages walking, albeit in the opposite direction, across the parking lot. The girls stopped as if frozen except to drop the dark item they were carrying; the young woman and her mother stopped also, unsure of what to do next but well aware by then of what the item being carried was.  Yes, it was a cat. A particularly large and very flat, almost silhouette like, dark, maybe blackish, cat. Just as the young woman’s mother was about to suggest that a dead, even if desiccated, cat might not be the best play thing, the taller of the girls (though only taller by a very small amount) picked up the cat by its tall, being careful not to drag it across the ground, and resumed walking forward again, though rather more rapidly, with the shorter, but not by much, girl struggling to keep up. And as they approached the cat carrying girl began to say, more and more loudly as they drew nearer, “I hate carrying dead cats…I HATE carrying dead cats…I hate CARRYING dead cats…I hate carrying DEAD cats…I hate carrying dead CATS…I HATE CARRYING DEAD CATS!” These words spoken as the girls (sweet faced and innocent in appearance) walking passed, rather stiffly, almost mechanically in point of fact, were so obviously a mantra and certainly taught to them to be said in a very specific fashion, under very specific circumstances, that it seems unnecessary to go any further with the story except to suggest, no state plainly, that the cats found over the summer months were being collected up, one after another, by someone (or some thing?) through the use (or misuse) of mesmerized children (if they were, in fact, children at all). One more point which seems worthy of note is that the cats, clearly, were not being collected to ornament a tavern, at least not one in those environs, and one can only hope that the cats are now being used to good purpose, perhaps beneath some newly built home somewhere. But what if the final purpose for the cats is less than good? What if the little girls were not girls at all? One must (at least should) shudder to think of the uses for powder of desiccated cat!