Cats in the 1700s: Pleasant and Unpleasant Tales

There are many interesting tales about cats in the 1700s. For instance, the same year that Jane Austen was born, it was reported that a “melancholy accident happened” because of a crazed cat in Doctors-Commons, on St. Bennet’s Hill, in London. It began when the family of a Mr. Gardner shut a cat up in the same room where his children slept.

“[The cat] went mad, flew into the bed and bit them all: Mr. Gardner on hearing their cries went up to the room, on entering the cat flew at him, and bit him in the leg: A man going by and hearing the cries of the children rapped at the door and enquired the cause, and being informed, and admitted into the house, he attempted to kill the cat when she flew at him and fastened on his throat.”[1]

Hissing, snarling cat. Author’s collection.

Whether the man succeeded in killing the rabid cat or not was never revealed. However, it was stated that after the attack all those bit by the cat had “gone to the salt water to be dipped.”[2] That was because bathing in sea water was thought to be a prudent treatment for any kind of rabid animal bite.

Bites from rabid cats in the 1700s could of course be fatal. One case where that happened took place near the end of December 1735 in the city of Dublin, Ireland. An old woman was bitten by her cat when it became aggressive and “flew at her.” It bit her arm and immediately afterwards she began to suffer extreme pain that ran from her arm to her shoulder and down one side of her body. The pain lasted for about a week and about the time the arm pain went away, she was suddenly seized with a fever that lasted six days. The arm pain then suddenly returned. It was more violent than it had been before, and she began to suffer convulsions from which she died a few hours later.

Rabies virus structure. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In another case, many people suffered from rabid cat bites the effects of which were related in a letter dated 23 June 1754 by a person named T.B. The offending cat belonged to an inn keeper at Whittington by the name of Elizabeth Naylor. It first bit Nicholas Banner, a boarder, who had supposedly stepped on its tail. However, the next morning, it was obvious the cat was “quite mad.”

“[M]eeting Joseph Naylor … in the Street, [she] bit him; she afterwards met Thomas Naylor, Son of Elizabeth Naylor, and bit him: These three she bit in the Leg; she then return’d into the House and flew at the Face of Elizabeth Cam, the Servant-Maid, and struck her Claws into her Handkerchief about the Top of her Stays; but it happen’d at the same Instant, that a strong Cur Bitch … came in at the Door, and the Cat turning her fierce Eyes upon the Bitch, she flew directly at her, and clasping about her Neck, bit her … After this she stroll’d into William Malkin’s Garden … wherein one Mary Swift was weeding, the Cat flew at her Arm, and tore it very bad, she crying out she was bit by a mad Cat, alarm’d William Malking, who coming out with his Gun in his Hand, (but unloaded) she with a surpizing Fierceness, flew at his Face, but with the Butt-End of his Gun, and by the help of a Door which he had hold of with the other Hand, he defended himself.”[3]

The rabid cat then trotted off as Malking loaded his gun. He then went in search of her and finding her shortly thereafter ended her life. Nonetheless, fear in the neighborhood was so great that the rabid cat may have mingled or bitten other neighborhood cats, residents began destroying their cats, hoping to prevent “further Mischief.”

Another tale of cats in the 1700s involved a troublesome cat in Dublin that was found in Swan-Alley on the Glib. There a noted drummer named Gerard Whittel had a wife who began feeding a stray cat. However, after some time the stray began to cause her problems and because it became obnoxious, she pushed it away. According to the Newcastle Courant in 1738 what happened next was unbelievable:

“[T]he Cat shewed her Resentment and grumbled, and stood in the Corner of the Room until the Woman got up and Was going about her Business; the Cat finding an Opportunity, got hold of the Woman’s Leg, and by no Means could be forced to quit the Hold; so they Went for a Butcher to the Glib, who came and cut the Cat’s Head off, and they were not able after the Head was severed from the Cat’s Body, to get the Head from the Leg, until the Butcher slit the Jaws open, and then forced a Piece of Iron into them and opened the Mouth, and disengag’d it from the Woman’s Leg.”[4]

Another interesting story of cats in the 1700s involved one extremely smart cat and a maid. She had been employed to scour the parlor after the family went to bed and was busy working when a favorite cat of the family’s suddenly began spitting and hissing at one of the windows.

“Conceiving, it however, to be nothing else but the effect of caterwauling, she passed it by for some time, until the cat grew so exasperated as to butt herself against the sash, when the girl raised her head, and saw two fellows at the window, who immediately fired at her without injury, whereupon she ran into the kitchen, on which she discovered three others in the area, endeavouring to force an entrance.”[5]

cats in the 1700s

Common house cat with kittens. Author’s collection.

Of course, by this time, all the commotion and the firing of the pistol had awakened the family. They came running downstairs and found the “villains” running away. The conclusion of the story was given by Hibernian Journal; or, Chronicle of Liberty who stated that “so uncommon a proof of sagacity in a cat is rarely to be met with.”[6]

Some people were greatly attached to their cats in the 1700s. Some owners might have even paid the cat’s meat seller to supply their cat with a treat of horse meat. These type of cat owners were also the same type of people who willing offered a reward for their cat’s safe return if their cat came up missing. One man who did just that was John Walters Gibb of Charleston, South Carolina. He ran an advertisement in December 1777 that stated:

“Lost about a month ago from my house, supposed to be strayed a courting, a very large dark tabby CAT of the masculine gender, was very fat, and had on when he went away, a pair of very large tusks, is generally very watery about the mouth, is a great chief, very sagacious and good humoured, and answers to the name of TOM. Whoever will deliver him to me, or the Warden of the Work-house shall receive Two Dollars reward.”[7]

cats in the 1700s - cats' meat seller

Cats’ meat seller. Author’s collection.

A year after Anna Maria Grosholtz married François Tussaud and became Madame Tussaud, an uncommonly large black cat with four white feet was found to be missing in Canterbury, England. Like the man in South Carolina, this Englishman ran an advertisement for the cat’s safe return. His advertisement appeared in the Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal and stated:

“Whoever has found the said Cat, or can give any intelligence so that he may be had again; or will carry him to Mr. Charles Smith, grocer, in Burgate, or to Mr. Stephen Ratcliff, at the George and Hoe, Beercart-lane, shall receive five shillings reward.”[8]

Another of the lost cats in the 1700s that was advertised for was a tortoiseshell cat owned by a lady who lived in Queens Square in Westminster. Her advertisement in August of 1772 also offered a reward and stated:

“She [the cat] is remarkable white on the Chest and unusually large in the Body.

Whoever has found a Cat that answers the above Description, and will bring or send her to Mr. Richard Porter’s, the Star and Crown, Broad-way, Westminster, shall receive from him, as a Gratuity for their Trouble, One Guinea.

If any Person has found her, into whose Favour she may have so ingratiated herself they may be loth to part with her, the Lady will be much obliged by their sending the abovenamed Person Word where she is as a Certainty of Knowing what is become of her, would give much Satisfaction, she being a very great Favourite.”[9]

Tortoiseshell cat with a split-face pattern. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Even though some people loved their cats in the 1700s and were willing to pay rewards for them, cats could sometimes end up in trouble through no fault of their own. That was the case reported by the Derby Mercury at the Assizes in the County of Kent in 1736. Two trials were being held there, one for the killing of a dog and another for the killing of a cat. It all began when a gentleman was hunting near Maidstone and one of his dogs saw a farmer’s cat. The dog chased her and killed her. The farmer valued his cat so much he shot the gentleman’s dog dead. The gentleman was so upset at the farmer that he filed a suit for killing his dog. Likewise, the farmer applied to his attorney and brought action against the gentleman for killing his cat. Ultimately, it was reported that “the people are mighty desirous of knowing the Event of this (Dog and Cat) Action.”[10]

cats in the 1700s

Dog chasing and cornering a cat. Courtesy of wpclipart.

Cats were one of the most popular vermin destroyers. People used them to rid themselves of rats and the like in the 1700s. One report of how valuable they were appeared in the Ipswich Journal in 1721. It was reported that on the island of “Tangerre” rats and mice were said to swarm people’s beds when they fell asleep. Supposedly, one night the daughter of Muley Nigra, the prince of island, was reported to have had her nose eaten off by them and it was especially sad because reportedly the next day she was to have married but with a missing nose, the bridegroom declined to follow through.

“However, it happen’d not long after that [he] laid himself on a couch to take a nap, and … the vermin came and ate off his nose also; so that the Marriage was solemnized with great Pomp the next day. [Because of the vermin problem] … Muley Nigra [ordered his servant] to buy up all the Cats [in London] … to destroy these Swarms of Rats and Mice. He resides next to the King’s-head in Hoxton-Square, and will gave for Tabbey Cats, Black and White, all Black, or all White 2s. and for other colours 1s. 6d. each, provided they be good Mousers. And as for lusty strong Boar Cats he gives any Money.”[11]

Although cats in the 1700s might sometimes be great vermin killers sometimes they also made great foster mothers. That was the case with a cat who became the adopted mother of a rabbit in Scotland. According to The Virginia Gazette, in 1771, a young gentleman saw a hare eating his new crop, got his gun, and shot the rabbit dead. Shortly afterwards he discovered the hare was nearly ready to give birth, so he ordered his servant to open her and took out two live baby rabbits, one of which soon died.

“A Cat in the House having kittened the Night before, the surviving Hare was placed among the Kittens, which the Cat adopted; and the Cat, Kittens, and Hare, lived together in the greatest Harmony, and are in a thriving Condition.”[12]

Strange things also sometimes happened with cats. For example, in the 1700s there were some cats born that were not normal looking. That was the case in 1733 when a report appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette about the recent birth of a “monstrous” kitten in Philadelphia. It was described as follows:

“[H]aving two Faces, 4 Eyes, but the two middle Eyes nearly join’d, 3 Noses, and a Mouth under each: It lived 2 or 3 Days, and lapt Milk with two of its Mouths at once. It had but one Neck, and one Body, in which there was nothing uncommon.”[13]

One of the strangest stories about cats in the 1700s happened around the time that Marie Antoinette gave birth to her first child, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France. This story involved an unusual bet placed between the Duke of Bedford and Lord Barrymore because supposedly, Lord Barrymore had eaten a live kitten. Therefore, the Duke bet him a 1000 guineas that he would not eat a live cat. The men’s bet prompted the Pennsylvania Packet to mention another cat-eating incident that they claimed happened some eleven years earlier. It involved a wager of five pounds that a shepherd would not devour a living cat, something that Charles Domery could have easily accomplished. The day chosen for this live cat-eating event was Fair-Day at Beverley and the shepherd’s meal was to be a large black Tom cat.

“[T]he parties met; – the man produced was a raw-boned fellow, about forty; – the cat was then given to him, on which he took hold of his fore legs with one hand, and closing his mouth with the other, he killed him by biting his head to pieces immediately, and in less than a quarter of an hour, devoured every part of the cat, tail, legs, claws, bones, and everything. The man who laid the wager gave the fellow two guineas for doing it – and the Shepherd appeared perfectly satisfied with the reward.”[14]

Afterwards the shepherd supposedly walked about fair and was neither “sick nor sorry.” Those who knew the shepherd said they thought he had no “sense of smelling,” which is what enabled him to eat the cat. If you are wondering if this story could at all be true, the journalist who wrote it ultimately summed up his story with the claim that “the veracity of … [the story] may be depended on.”[15]

cats of the 1700s - tom cat

Tom cat on the prowl. Courtesy of Library of Congress.


  • [1] Leeds Intelligencer, “London, Oct. 24,” October 31, 1775, p. 1.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] The Derby Mercury, “London, June 25,” June 21, 1754, p. 4.
  • [4] Newcastle Courant, “Ireland,” September 23, 1738, p. 1.
  • [5] Hibernian Journal; or, Chronicle of Liberty, “Dublin,” June 21, 1784, p. 3.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] The South-Carolina and American General Gazette, December 25, 1777, p. 4.
  • [8] Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal, “Lost,” January 19, 1796, p. 1.
  • [9] The Public Advertiser, “Lost from a Lady’s House in Queens Square,” August 31, 1772, p. 3.
  • [10] Derby Mercury, “London,” March 17, 1736, p. 1.
  • [11] Ipswich Journal, March 25, 1721, p. 5.
  • [12] The Virginia Gazette, “London, June 21,” September 12, 1771, p. 1.
  • [13] The Pennsylvania Gazette, August 2, 1733, p. 4.
  • [14] The Pennsylvania Packet, “Cat-Eating,” May 21, 1788, p. 2.
  • [15] Ibid.

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