The legend of the ‘demon cat’ that roams the U.S. Capitol
Mysteries about the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. abound, from rumors it was cursed by an engineer who died during construction to reported sightings of a ghostly Capitol librarian. But the most enduring may be the legend of a terrifying demon cat that roams the nation’s legislative halls. Since its first rumored appearance in the 1890s, the so-called Demon Cat (known as “D.C”.) has left a trail of terrified people in its wake. Some say it has appeared before tragic events, like the stock market crash of 1929 or President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. Here’s how this spooky myth got started—and why it persists today. Cat myths in the 19th century Reports of “demon cats”—both real and supernatural—were bizarrely commonplace during the 19th century. In fact, cat-related mythology dates back centuries around the world. Scholars attribute the ubiquity of these tales to cats’ bodies and behavior, from their otherworldly sounds to their nocturnal habits and glowing eyes. In Japan, for example, bakneko legends depicted revenge-hungry cats that behaved like humans. Italian parents wishing to scare their children into good behavior told them terrifying tales of a gigantic feline called Gatto Mammone. In Slavic mythology, an evil ovinnik was thought to haunt barns and even set them on fire. And in Ireland, tales of demon cats abounded in local lore. (The fascinating history behind the popular “waving lucky cat.”) A glass negative of a house cat The Demon Cat was reported to start out the size of a common tabby, similar to the cat seen in this 19th century glass negative by Washington, D.C., portrait photographer Charles Milton Bell. But some believers claimed the feline grew into a massive beast before their very eyes. PHOTOGRAPH BY C.M. BELL, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS It’s no surprise, then, that American culture was filled with “demon cats” the late 19th century, too. In the 1880s, theatergoers enjoyed a poem and play called “The Demon Cat,” and newspapers of the era are full of reports of real and legendary dangerous felines. One real-life cat terrified patrons of a Chicago restaurant in 1885. According to the Chicago News, the “imp of darkness” was relaxing on the restaurant’s bar when the proprietor slapped it out of the way. The cat then attacked a waiter while howling and spitting and getting food all over. John Stearns, the brother-in-law of then-mayor Carter Harrison, reportedly left the restaurant in response, saying “Never mind about getting another breakfast. I ain’t superstitious as a rule, but black cats are no slouches.” (This cat tracker study reveals the secret wanderings of 900 house cats.) Pugs, poodles, mongrels, bull-terriers, and Newfoundlands have in turn met and been defeated by the demon cat. The waiters avoid the animal as they would a can of dynamite. THE ATLANTA CONSTITUTIONHOW AN IMP OF DARKNESS TOOK POSSESSION OF A CHICAGO RESTAURANT, SEPTEMBER 7, 1885 Another newspaper in 1889 told the story of a more supernatural cat that disappeared aboard a ship. Devastated, the cat’s owner cast himself into a stormy sea—only for the crew to later discover the cat in a compartment below deck, surrounded by empty rum bottles and “dancing in fiendish glee…wildly intoxicated.” Only when the crew threw the cat itself into the ocean did the storms cease. How D.C.’s demon cat legend began Then, in 1898, D.C.-based journalist Rene Bache wrote about the ghostly apparitions supposedly associated with the U.S. Capitol building, calling it “probably the most thoroughly haunted in the world.” Bache described the “feline spook” as a cat that grew from an ordinary-sized animal into the size of an elephant before people’s eyes—claiming that the phantom had been frightening congressmen and others in the building since 1862.