Black Cats: An Enterprising Hoax in 1891

Everyone has probably heard about the many superstitions surrounding cats, particularly black cats. For instance, one of the oldest and most enduring superstitions about black cats is related to them crossing your path. In America it was predicted that if you such a thing happened you would suffer bad luck whereas in Britain, Ireland, Japan and Germany, there was no such misfortune. Those citizens believed that encountering a black cat would prove to be a very fortunate and lucky event.

Black cats

A black cat. Public domain.

Many people have also heard that a every color of cat has nine lives. However, in 1891 it appeared that perhaps black cats had just one. That was because The Reno Gazette-Journal mentioned that a new industry raising and selling black cats for their skins had been proposed by “Enterprising Americans.” It was rumored that in San Francisco there had been an application submitted to the New York Stock Exchange by the “Black Cat Company” to have its bonds listed and to also float blocks of “Consolidated Black Cat” stock in London “as a favorite form of investment.”[1]  

Of this new black cat enterprise, The Reno Gazette-Journal wrote the following article provided here verbatim:

“There are many large and successful cattle raising companies in the United States, but there has never heretofore been a cat-growing company. Large amounts of capital and many broad blue-grass acres are employed in rearing fine horses for the market. Thoroughbred dogs are bred by fanciers and sold at the bench shows and on the streets. Yet no one has ever thought it worth while to engage in the culture of cats. The financial reason is that cats are so plentiful that it would be difficult to give them away. This phenomenal cheapness of cats has hitherto prevented capitalists from entering the cat industry. Unlike dogs, cats have had up to the present time no commercial value in the world’s market.

Of all cats, the black cat has been the most despised and the most feared. In early colonial times the only people who would keep black cats were witches. Black cats were supposed to be the silent partners of people whose business occupations were of a supernatural character. Until a comparatively recent period black cats had been the recipients of more objurgations and bootjacks than any other kind. Yet it is precisely the scorned and despised black cat that is the most valuable of them all.

The gray cat, the yellow cat, the dappled cat, and the steel-blue cat have no market value now. But it is entirely different with the jet-black cat. This cat that travels about clad in the mystery of darkness, and at night is but a pair of eyeballs and a voice, is valuable for its fur. The glossy and shining coat of the black cat is made into ladies’ muffs and ladies’ fur. It keeps ladies’ hands warm when its owner’s ninth life has departed.

The Consolidate Black Cat Company has been incorporated to found a cat raising industry in the Northwest. It will engage exclusively in the culture of black cats. Most of the large stockholders live around Puget Sound, though there are a few gentlemen holding blocks of stocks in San Francisco. Great care will have to be taken to prevent the black cats from becoming white or grey, and therefore the black cats will be kept on an island in Puget Sound, miles away from all other cats. The Tommy cats will stay home nights and the Tabby cats will not have to regret the absence of their liege lords.

The island is well wooded, and a pleasant one, and on moonlight nights the Tommy and Tabby cats may sit on the branches of a tree and sing to the pale moon. The black cats will be the nightingales in the little island Elysium in Puget Sound.

Tabby cats are good mothers, and they often raise and educate fifteen young and attractive kittens a year. The Consolidate Black Cat Company will start with a working capital of 1,000 black cats imported from Holland. It is estimated in the prospectus of the company that at the end of the first year’s business there will be 8,500 cats. At the close of the second year this number will have increased to 63,750. When the books are balanced at the Christmas end of the third year it is believed that there will be the handsome balance of 510,000 black cats in favor of the company. The probable number of cats at the end of a twelvemonth is found by multiplying the present number of 7 1/2 and adding the original capital, for cats, like money, increase at compound interest.

Common house cat with kittens. Author’s collection.

The theoretical number of cats is greater than the actual number will be, for the Consolidated Black Cat Company will harvest a large number of cats every autumn for the fall and winter fur trade. However, they will keep a good stock of cats on hand to guarantee the fur supply. Furs will become cheap and may be worn by people of limited means. A rug made of electric skins of black cats will make a fine rug to lay before the cheerful fireplace, where, on long winter nights, it may scintillate with electric sparks.

The Consolidated Black Cat Company is regarded favorably by investors, for the cats cost nothing or next to nothing. They are almost self-supporting, for they will subsist by catching birds and tree mice. The company will buy fish for them, and in Puget Sound fish are cheap. The island itself is not good for much except to raise cats, and it was purchased for a small sum.

The Alaska Fur Company, which obtains sealskins beyond Sitka, has shown a small and jealous spirit toward the Consolidated Black Cat Company, but all public-spirited American citizens wish the new enterprise success. It is proposed to ask Congress to put a high tariff on foreign black cats so as to protect the well-fed American black cats from the pauper labor black cats of Europe.”[2]

The Sioux City Journal also reported on the new black cat venture stating:

“A company was organized with a capital stock of $200,000, and an island of about 1,000 acres in extent located in Bellingham bay in the upper part of Puget sound was obtained to carry on the farming. Then a grand skirmish was made to get black cats. The Pacific coast states were ransacked, and nearly every incoming train was loaded with black cats, which were immediately taken to the island or ‘cat factory,’ as we called it. They were in charge of a number of men, who furnished them with food by seine fishing in the bay, and a certain number were killed during the year to pay the current expenses. When I left, a good black cat’s pelt was worth $2, and the company was making a mint of money. Cats’ fur makes up elegantly into muffs and capes.”[3]

There was also this tidbit printed in Pennsylvania’s Fulton Democrat some years later:

“‘I had heard of skunk farms, rattlesnake farms, and other novelties in the farming line,’ said Nick Hansen yesterday … ‘but I never heard of a black cat farm until I went out to Washington. The year that I went out there Jim Wardner, an old timer, who used to stage it with Fred Evans … conceived the idea of raising black cats for their fur, and proceeded to organized a stock company to push the enterprise.”[4]

Despite all the hype from The Reno Gazette-Journal, The Sioux City Journal, and the Fulton Democrat no such business existed. Supposedly the story of raising black cats for profit started as joke by James F. Wardner. The whole thing was a hoax, just like England’s Berners Street hoax in 1810, America’s Cardiff giant hoax in 1869, and the European automaton chess player called the Turk.

Wardner, born in 1846 and a boomer and well-known entrepreneur in Idaho and Washington, was interviewed in 1891 by reporter E.G. Earle of Washington’s Fairhaven Herald. Wardner told Earle that he had a new venture called “The Consolidate Black Cat Company.” Wardner probably didn’t expect Earle or anyone else to believe his outlandish claims when he stated that his new venture was to be based on Eliza Island in Bellingham Bay where he would raise black cats for their fur. He then provided a plethora of convincing details about his new venture and Earle published all the juicy facts.

James Wardner from his memoirs. Public domain.

Other newspapers picked up the story of Wardner’s novel scheme. In fact, the story soon took on a life of its own, which was then magnified with each retelling and despite Wardner often being credited with the idea of raising black cats for profit, the first mention of a cat raising venture seems to have appeared several years earlier. Moreover, it had nothing to do with Wardner as the first mention of cat raising for profit happened in January 1883 when several papers, including North Carolina’s Goldsboro Messenger, reported:

“Two gentlemen, not of Verona, but of Greene, have purchased a farm of fifty acres for the express purpose of raising pointer pups and raccoon dogs. Can’t some enterprising citizens start a cat farm too?”[5]

A few months later, on 20 April 1883, the Bismarck Tribune went a step further. It claimed that such an enterprise had been established when it reported:

“An Iowa man has established a cat farm and will raise cats for the market. Watch the papers closely and you will probably soon come across a little vigilance committee item from down in Iowa [to protest his cat farming].”[6]

Perhaps Wardner read about these cat farms in the paper and got the idea. At any rate, after telling Earle his black cat for-profit story he was amused by the interest it generated. He thus kept the hoax alive until about 1900, which was the same year that he published his memoirs where he gave readers no clue that his cat business was fake and instead marveled how all sorts of writers and speakers had promoted his black cat business. Among those he mentioned was the Seattle Times, which had made surprising claims including that Wardner was trying to feed the cats he was raising to one another:

“We are reliably informed by Mr. Samuel Weller, late general manager and purveyor to Wardner’s black cats, that the vicious and cannibalistic experiment of putting cat into cat by means of soup resulted disastrously to the cats. He says that Mr. Wardner’s idea of an endless chain won’t work in this industry. He says that any company can make a conservative profit but to use these cats as an article of food for one another is avarice, and promotes cannibalism.”[7]

Wardner died in El Paso, Texas, in 1905. However, tales of his black cat venture continued to survive. Although newspaper journalists reported that he was a “remarkable man,” established the mining camp of Wardner, Idaho, and was responsible for large-scale mining deals that ranged from the Klondike to the Isthmus of Panama, some reporters also kept the idea alive that his black cat farm existed. They noted that among his most notorious celebrated schemes during his lifetime was “‘The Consolidated Black Cat Company,’ … with its ranch for raising cats in Washington.”[8]

Despite Wardner’s death and his ultimate confession that no Consolidate Black Cat Company or anything like it ever existed, the idea that he raised black cats for profit continued to circulate years later. This was due in part to some uniformed people continuing to give credence to his claims without verifying the veracity of his story. For instance, as late as the 1950s a Seattle newspaper columnist reported:

“[Wardner] bought a 2,000 acre island near Bellingham, after which ‘as nearly as possible every black cat on the Pacific Coast was rounded up … From 500 to 1,000 cats a month were killed and their hides hung up to cure. It is said that hundreds of bales of Jim Wardner’s cat-skins reach the Eastern fur dealers as ‘hood seals.’”[9]

References:

  • [1] Reno Gazette-Journal, “The Black Cat Market,” December 3, 1891, p. 3.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] The Fulton Democrat, “A Black Cat Farm,” April 7, 1893, p. 4.
  • [4] ibid.
  • [5] Goldsboro Messenger, “Greene County Letter,” January 15, 1883, p. 1.
  • [6] Bismarck Tribune, April 20, 1883, p. 5.
  • [7] J. F. Warnder, Jim Wardner, of Wardner, Idaho (New York: The Anglo-American Publishing Co., 1900), p. 6.
  • [8] The Ogden Standard, “James F. Wardner Dead,” March 30, 1905, p. 6.
  • [9] The Bellingham Herald, “Jim Wardner’s ‘Black Cat Farm’ Weird Hoax but Hardy Perennial,” February 13, 1955, p. 6.

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