Cat Superstitions in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

There are many cat superstitions, much more so than dog superstitions. In fact, superstitions surrounding cats have existed for a long time. One example is Ancient Egypt where cat sacrifices were made to the gods during the Hellenistic period and where mummified remains of cats have been discovered. Cat superstitions were also known to have existed during the Middle Ages, although by that time cats were often associated with witches.

cat superstitions

Common house cat with kittens. Author’s collection.

Another reason for so many cat superstitions is that by the eighteenth century the cat had a solid reputation of being weatherwise and that then gave rise to much folklore about cats. For instance, it was regularly believed that when a cat was engaged in washing its face it signaled that a rainstorm would happen within the next ten hours or “that good weather may be expected when the cat washes herself, but bad when she licks her coat against the grain, or washes her face over her ear, or sits with her tail to the fire.”[1]

Supposedly cats did more than just possess knowledge on the state of the weather during the eighteenth century. Sailors assumed cats had the ability to affect the weather and they thought that throwing a cat overboard would raise a storm. Many sailors in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries also believed it was unlucky to take a cat to sea, but such bad luck did not stop seafarers from embracing a cat-rich vocabulary as noted in the Louis Globe-Democrat where several cat-related words used by sailors was mentioned:

“[Cat] means a short stumpy boat (Whittington’s cat was a catboat), a nine-pronged lash and a tackle, used to hoist the anchor on board ships. The ‘cat-head’ is the beam to which the anchor is hoisted, the cat-boat is a rope used near it. A ‘cat’s’ nose’ is a cold northeast wind; ‘cat’s-paws’ are flurries on the water caused by the wind, and a ‘cat-skin’ a larger patch. … Certain ropes on board ship are named ‘cat-fall,’ ‘cat-tail,’ ‘catharpin,’ and a ‘cats paw’ is also a kink in a rope. There is the ‘cat-hook,’ the ‘cat-block,’ and … [a] hole in the ship’s quarter, through which hawsers pass, is a ‘cat-hole,’ and the French apply the same name to the ‘luber-hole’ in the top.”[2]

Cat superstitions were also centered around marriage because another belief held by some nineteenth century people was that if a black cat followed a soon-to-be wedded couple into a church their union would be happy. Moreover, the newlyweds would enjoy “innumerable blessings and unbounded earthly prosperity.”[3] There was also the nineteenth century test for “matrimonial triumph.” This involved shaking a cat in a newly finished quilt after it was removed from its frame:

“[The single] girls all gather around and each one takes hold of [the quilt]. The cat is brought in and dumped in the middle of the quilt. Immediately everyone falls to shaking the quilt as hard as she can, and the bewildered cat makes a desperate effort to escape from the unexpected assault. In getting away the cat usually jumps toward one of the party who is taking part in the merriment. The result of this test is that the girl toward whom the cat jumps will be a bride within a year. This experiment is the most conclusive and unerring of any that are tried and is always performed with the entire satisfaction to all present ― except the cat.”[4]  

Besides weather and marriage, another of the cat superstitions in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries were those associated with folk medicine. For instance, it was believed that cats offered medicinal benefits and that they could cure cows or other domesticated animals that might be “seized by disease.”

“One mode of cure was to twist a rope of straw the contrary way, join the two ends, and put the diseased animal through the loop along with a cat. By this means the disease was supposed to be transferred to the cat, and the animal’s life was so saved by the cat dying. … A remedy for crysipelas lately practiced in the parish of Locharron in the northwest highlands, consisted in cutting off one half of the ear of a cat and letting the blood drop on the part affected.”[5]

It was also alleged that cats could prevent, help, or cure various human ailments. There were numerous stories published that touted how cats achieved this feat. For instance, the Dickinson Press reported in 1889:

“[In Cornwall, the little gatherings which come on children’s eyelids, locally termed ‘whilks,’ are cured by passing the tail of a black cat nine times over the part affected. As recently as the year 1867, in Pennsylvania, a woman was publicly accused of witchcraft for administering three drops of a black cat’s blood to a child as a remedy for croup. She admitted the fact, but denied that witchcraft had anything to do with it, and twenty witnesses were called to prove its success. Again, ‘in many regions … a three colored cat protects against fire, and a black cat cures epilepsy and protects gardens.’”[6]

cat superstitions - three-colored or calico cats

Three-colored or calico cats. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although cats might be able to cure diseases, there was also the belief that they could cause health problems. For example, it was considered extremely unfortunate when a cat sneezed indoors three times. People believed it indicated that the family would all catch colds. So, whenever a cat (even a favorite cat) would sneeze, it would be immediately locked out of the house to prevent the family suffering from “colds and coughs.”

Another regularly mentioned cat superstition was that cats possessed the ability to charm other animals. A pond owner with fish claimed he saw a cat mesmerize a good-sized trout “and that then, as snakes charm birds and squirrels, the feline charmed or mesmerized the fish, which approached nearer and nearer until the puss could almost grab it.”[7] However, it wasn’t just fish that cats allegedly charmed. One tale of a cat with mesmerizing abilities was reported in Atlanta, Georgia in 1882. In this case the cat was claimed to have entranced a crow:

“Mr. J.E. Gurley’s house cat charmed and caught a full grown crow a few days ago. The cat was on the fence; the crow lit near it, when the cat fastened its eyes upon it, and so strong was the charm that the crow showed no resistance.”[8]

Some cat superstitions involved only black cats.† That was because they were typically thought of as a symbol of evil omens. When the Pilgrims* arrived at Plymouth Rock in America they brought with them a devout faith in the Bible along with a suspicion of anything deemed Satanic. They also viewed the black cat as a companion, or a familiar to witches. Moreover, during the nineteenth century most people in Europe considered the black cat a symbol of bad luck.

“In Ireland, where cats are regarded as especially demoniacal, and where it is said the devil frequently assumes the feline shape, black cats are looked upon as witches’ familiars. They are regarded as more intelligent than other cats, but at the same time, as unamiable artful, malignant, and deceitful. They possess reasoning facilities, and can talk if they wish to, and are possessed of that unenviable thing, the evil eye.”[9]

Black cat. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite all the unluckiness and superstitions surrounding black cats, there were some people who also deemed the creatures lucky as explained by The New York Times in 1884:

“Why a black cat should bring luck into a household is not very clear. In investigation the question it must be conceded at the start that we do not know whether luck is due to a microbe or to something. That fact, however, does not hinder … We have merely to look at the career of [Benjamin] Franklin, {Samuel] Morse, and [Thomas] Edison to perceive that luck is closely associated with electricity … Whether the electricity itself is favorable to the development of luck or whether luck is germinated by the ozone produced by an electrical discharge is uncertain. This, however, is a mere matter of detail. That electricity either directly or indirectly promotes good luck is probably the explanation of the intimate connection between black cats and luck. The amount of electricity contained in a black cat is enormous. It is estimated in the case of an ordinary sized animal to no less than two thousand ohms, and it increases at the rate of two hundred ohms for every additional ounce of cat. When the cat is stroked, or when she comes in contact with a conductor any sort, a certain amount of electricity … is discharged, and constant discharges of this kind must very soon fill the atmosphere of the house with ozone. If, then, it be true that electricity or ozone is one of the conditions favorable to luck … we can understand why a black cat carries luck with her.[10]  

cat superstitions - Benjamin Franklin electricity

Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Experiment in 1752, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Cat superstitions also existed around death. For instance, in Alabama it was reported in 1890 that African Americans “believed that after death the spirits of old maids [took] possession of black cats.”[11] Another cat superstition stated that if a mewing cat was seen on a house’s rooftop, it was a sign that a member of the household was going to die. There was also the belief that a cat could “suck the breath of young children, and so cause their death.”[12] In fact, this was reported as having happened in the Annual Register on 25 January 1791:

“A child of eighteen months old was found dead near Plymouth; and it appeared on the coroner’s inquest that the child died in consequence of a cat sucking its breath, thereby occasioning a strangulation.”[13]

In 1894 a black cat caused all sorts of problems on a Brooklyn trolley car line because of one motorman’s superstition related to black cats. According to the Kansas Farmer, the cat completely blocked the line thereby bringing movement of the cars to a grinding halt.

“The animal sprang from a fence, and seated himself between the rails in front of an approaching car, and refused to budge. The motorman, who believed that to kill a black cat is unlucky, stopped the car so violently that many of the passengers were thrown from their seats. Canes and umbrellas were flourished at the animal, but it refused to move, and it held to this determination even when the motorman pushed the front of the car over it. Finally, after nine cars had been blocked, a conductor seized the cat by the tail and threw it on the sidewalk, and the procession moved on.”[14]


*Pilgrims were also deeply suspicious of other Christians, including members of Catholic, Quaker, Anglican or Baptist denominations.
† Since the 1880s, the color black has been associated with anarchism and the black cat, in an alert, fighting stance, was adopted as an anarchist symbol in the early 1900s. Furthermore, the black cat—often called the “sab cat” or “sabo-tabby”—became associated around the same time with anarcho-syndicalism, a branch of anarchism that focused on labor organizing and also included wildcat strikes by unionized workers without union leadership’s authorization, support, or approval.

References:

  • [1] The Dickinson Press, “Superstitions About Puss Religiously Held By Many,” December 21, 1889, p. 4.
  • [2] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “Some Ideas About Cats,” May 13, 1888, p. 27.
  • [3] The Daily Herald, “The Bridal Cat,” October 20, 1898, p. 6.
  • [4] The Buffalo Enquirer, “An Old-fashioned Quilting Bee,” November 17, 1893, p. 3.
  • [5] The Dickinson Press, p. 4.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] The Kansas News and People’s Advocate, “Can a Cat Charm Like a Snake?,” July 13, 1899, p. 3.
  • [8] The Atlanta Constitution, “A Cat Charms a Crow,” July 29, 1882, p. 2.
  • [9] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, p. 27.
  • [10] The New York Times, “Luck,” November 23, 1884, p. 8.
  • [11] Popular Science Montly (1890), p. 241.
  • [12] Thomas Firminger Thiselton Dyer, English Folk-lore (London: W.H. Allen & Co., 1884), p. 107.
  • [13] T. F. T. Dyer. 1884, p. 107.
  • [14] Kansas Farmer, “Cat Causes a Blockade,” December 19, 1894, p. 7.

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