The Current

Think your cat is a troublemaker? Check out these 'agents of chaos'

Stories about cats in the archives of the New York Times show that a feline fascination existed long before the cat videos and memes that now flood social media.

New York Times archives reveal feline fascination that predates the internet

a cat sits looking at two glasses, one filled with milk, the other a martini.
In this New York Times image from 1955, a cat is offered the choice between a glass of milk, or a dry martini — and chose the milk. The picture was taken at an event to promote the adoption of stray cats. (Arthur Brower/The New York Times)

Originally published on Jan. 25, 2023.

Combing through more than a century's worth of news stories about cats, New York Times archivist Jennifer Parrucci started to notice a theme: cats as "agents of chaos."

"They're constantly interrupting things or just causing problems," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Parrucci is co-author of Cats: From the Archives of The New York Times, a compendium of articles about cat shenanigans from 1854 to 1964. She explained that a quirk of newspaper layouts meant there were plenty to choose from.

"You'd have these kind of strange holes or spots you need to fill — so a lot of these stories are pretty short … these kind of tidbit, entertaining stories," she said.

A black cat with white fur on its neck, belly and four paws, lounges on a ornate rug.
The newest resident member of the Harvard Club of New York made his debut in March 1964. Bootsie Mitten was 'a mixed-breed tomcat from the wide open spaces of Texas who couldn’t make it socially in Darien, Conn.' In 18 days, he killed five mice in the bar. 'He is well worth his salt — a good ratter.' (Allyn Baum/The New York Times)

One story is of a cat who slept the night on the top of the Washington Monument, while it was still under construction in 1880. When the cat was rudely awoken by workers in the morning, she jumped off the edge, falling nearly 50 metres to the ground.

"In the descent, the cat spread herself like a flying squirrel and lit on the ground on all fours," the news report explains.

Having survived the fall, the cat tried to slink away — but ran into a dog, and was duly killed in the ensuing scuffle. The cat was stuffed and given to the Smithsonian Institution, where it was put on display. 

Parrucci said these stories show that a feline fascination existed long before the cat videos and memes that now flood social media.

"Animal stories have been popular for a long time," she said.

LISTEN | The cat who leapt from the Washington Monument, and (briefly) survived:

Kitten and the killer 

In 1907, a cat was running amok at Park Hotel in Orange, N.J., with the hotel's night watchman in hot pursuit. 

When the cat dived under a piano, the worker reached in to try to grab it. Instead, his hand closed around a furnace poker — covered in blood and hair. 

"Days earlier, there had been a murder in the hotel and they hadn't found the murder weapon," Parrucci said.

Frederick R. Romer had been murdered in his room, and a suspect was in custody. Police had already completed their inspection of the hotel, but later admitted they had ruled out that room and left it unsearched. 

"If not for this cat running under the piano, they may not have found the murder weapon," she said.

A cat sits on a ledge in front of a microphone emblazoned with the callsign WGY and the GE logo.
A shortwave radio broadcast to 1,000 Rotary members worldwide went dead just as this feline walked across a studio sound stage in Schenectady, N.Y. 'A jinx,' they whispered. 'That black cat has spoiled this broadcast!' (The New York Times)

The puss who crashed Puccini

In 1926, a cat became a surprise star at a performance of Puccini's Turnandot at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

"A black cat, just in the middle of a production, wandered on the stage and very leisurely walked around," Parrucci said.

"Apparently one of the actors, a tenor, was supposed to be pretending to be asleep and the cat investigated him, sniffed him — was kind of unimpressed."

The cat then went to investigate the conductor, but seeming equally unimpressed, returned to the actor, who was having a harder time pretending to be asleep.

"This whole time they're trying to keep the opera going and the actors and the conductor are just laughing and cracking up," Parrucci said.

"Eventually the cat just left and everything went back to normal. But no one knows where the cat came from or where the cat went. It just made an appearance."

A cat experiences a moment of weightlessness in the cockpit of a fighter jet, as the plane completes a maneouver to induce the condition.
In this 1958 photo from the New York Times, a cat experiences a bewildering moment of weightlessness in the cockpit of an F-94C jet, as the plane completes a manoeuvre designed to temporarily counteract gravity. (Sam Falk/The New York Times )

Everyone's a critic — even cats

One story involves cats not causing chaos, but perhaps seeking out a little peace and quiet. 

In 1883, the New York Times reported that cat populations in Manhattan and Brooklyn had fallen by as much as 50 per cent.

LISTEN | The cat who took revenge on a disrespectful house guest:

Parrucci said there were lots of theories around the reduction. Some argued that newly built train platforms, elevated above the city streets, could pose a risk to cats. Others suggested the noise of the trains could be scaring away the rodents the cats preyed on.

"But the ultimate theory that they settled on was that it was because of the popularity of playing cornets, which is a type of horn, by amateurs on every street corner," she said. 

A contemporary musician, Jules Levy, had made the cornet very popular, she explained. 

"His quote unquote disciples were playing it all over the city and causing a racket — so that must have scared the cats away."

LISTEN | Listeners share stories of the secret lives of cats:
Listeners share cat stories, including one who starred in a Christmas pageant, unbeknownst to his owner.

Audio produced by Mary-Catherine McIntosh.

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