A history of New York’s larger-than-life felines
The history of New York is filled with inspirational figures, eccentric characters and unexpected heroes. But some are in danger of being forgotten, ones whose names rarely get mentioned in the history books.
Like, for instance, the cats.
No, seriously. New York has had some famous (if now obscure) cats. Like Jerry Fox, a tiger cat who patrolled Brooklyn between 1879 and 1905 and “was often credited for preventing crimes or alerting humans to danger,” writes Peggy Gavan in her new book, “The Cat Men of Gotham: Tales of Feline Friendships in Old New York” (Rutgers University Press).
Jerry Fox was so beloved that after losing his sight in 1903, a local optometrist made him a special pair of glasses, which The New York Times reported gave him “a certain quaint dignity.” Nearly blind, he still managed to save Borough Hall from burning down after smelling the smoke from a “misplaced lit cigar.”
Another New York cat of note was Homicide, an aptly named, large black cat who walked into Police Headquarters in lower Manhattan in 1934 and immediately became the resident mouser. Homicide was light on his feet and had “great respect for the Police Rules and Regulations book, which he used as his personal bed for cat naps,” Gavan writes.
Homicide was known to carry the mice he captured to “Lieutenant Smith’s” desk, where he’d “drop the exhausted prisoner on the desk blotter, salute the lieutenant with a nod of his head, and run back down to the basement to continue his watch.”
“I’ve seen them come and go in my time, but never before a cat that brings ’em back alive and books ’em,” the lieutenant told reporters at the time. “I’m recommending a citation for an extra ration of liver.”
These are two of the 42 stories, separated into nine “cat-lives” chapters, included in Gavan’s book. The tales run the gamut from inspirational to hilarious, creating a portrait of a lost New York where cats roamed free by the thousands and had larger-than-life personalities that almost make them seem anthropomorphic.
‘I move that the privileges of the floor be extended to the City Hall cat’
Gavan, who lives in the lower Hudson Valley and works as a medical editor for a pharmaceutical company, began researching New York cats as a hobby. She launched a blog in 2013, called The Hatching Cat, inspired by a two-sentence blurb she’d read in a coffee-table book about the now-defunct Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey.
“It was about this Angora cat from Paris who would sit on eggs until they hatched,” Gavan told The Post. “She came over to Jersey for a six-week appearance at Palisades in 1911. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about this before.”
As she continued looking, scouring old New York newspapers for stories about the city’s most notable animals, focusing on the late 1800s to World War II, she uncovered many odd tales that sometimes sounded stranger than fiction.
One story she discovered, which didn’t make it into the book, was about a cat named Ned who crossed the Brooklyn Bridge a month before it opened in 1883. The historic, mile-long journey was orchestrated by Manhattan saloon owner C.W. McAuliffe, who came up with the idea as a publicity stunt and found a stray gray cat that seemed, as he told reporters, “inclined to see the world.”
In a ceremony attended by New York Mayor Franklin Edson and other dignitaries, Ned made the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan, “and then they had a big party at McAuliffe’s saloon in Civic Center,” Gavan says.
Cats are still a huge part of modern New York, but times have definitely changed. Thanks to public health laws, animals are prohibited from being in any public establishment that serves food.
In 2015, a law introduced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo made it possible for dogs to be permitted in outdoor and patio dining areas. But cats remain animalium non grata. Fines can range from $200 to $350, and some New York business owners have been threatened with fines of up to $2,000 for repeated offenses.
Even The Algonquin hotel, where a feline-in-residence has had free reign since the 1930s, had no choice but to surround the lobby with an invisible electric fence to keep Hamlet VIII, the current “chief cat officer,” behind the check-in desk.
The life of a cat in New York during the late 19th and early 20th centuries shouldn’t be overromanticized. As Gavan notes, cats at the time were gassed and tortured, and euthanized even by the organizations tasked with protecting them, such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which killed hundreds of thousands of cats in New York between 1894 and 1899.
Children in 1917 were paid a nickel for every cat they brought to the SPCA for extermination, and one Brooklyn resident even infamously ran a business skinning cats and selling their pelts to rich women as fur coats.
But with so many cats roaming the city, not all of them met untimely ends. Some, like Buzzer, found gainful employment as the studio pet of famed portrait photographer Arnold Genthe. Buzzer was featured in more than 80 portraits of prominent New York actresses and was dubbed “the most photographed cat in America.”
Bambino, a favorite cat of Mark Twain, took up residence at the author’s New York home in 1904, spending most of her days in the bedroom where Twain wrote. In addition to attacking the author and his manuscripts with “snaps and snarls and claws and bites,” according to his publisher, Twain also purportedly taught the cat how to turn off lamps and extinguish his cigar lighter.
There was Tammany, who occupied City Hall during the mayoral administrations of Jimmy and Fiorello La Guardia in the 1930s. According to The New York Times, Tammany was a cat of “honest Democratic parentage” who devoted much of his tenure to rat-catching and checking in on council sessions. During one meeting in 1934, Alderman Edward Curley of the Bronx was attacking La Guardia for being “a self-declared monarch of all he surveys.” Tammany, unamused by the insult, woke from a nap and stared defiantly at Curley’s face.
“As the other men’s laughter drowned out Alderman Curley’s oration,” Gavan writes, “Alderman Walter R. Hart of Brooklyn then leapt to his feet and said, ‘I move that the privileges of the floor be extended to the City Hall cat.’ ”
Many New York cats didn’t just think they had jobs, they provided real services. Minnie, a veteran mouser at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1893, worked in the shipyard’s electrical building and was legendary for dodging among the whirling belts and wheels and tackling rats as big as herself.
“She could jump up to eight feet,” Gavan writes. “Once, she jumped on a flight of stairs to land on a rat’s back. As one workman noted, ‘She deserves a gold medal for preserving the property of the United States government.’ ”
In 1910, there were more than 200 cats employed by post offices around the city, tasked with hunting the rats that fed on envelope glue. Their boss, 81-year-old George Cook — he had the unofficial title “Superintendent of Federal Cats” — was provided with a budget of $5 a month to keep the feline employees well-fed.
When their numbers grew and one post office ended up with more cats than it needed, the department came up with an unorthodox solution. “The postal clerk would ‘mail’ some cats in the newspaper mail sacks, sending them to other stations that needed a mouser,” Gavan writes.
Many New York cats were welcome to cohabitate with humans for superstitious reasons. Almost every ship docked on the piers in Manhattan and Brooklyn in the early 20th century had at least one cat mascot, “because sailors believe cats brought good luck,” according to Gavan.
The miners who built the Joralemon Street tunnel between 1903 and 1907 wouldn’t come to work without Bright Eyes, a tiny, black kitten whom they considered a lucky charm. Daredevil pilot John Bevins Moisant, who attracted huge crowds to watch his flights over Long Island, wouldn’t get into a plane without his feline co-pilot, Paris-London. On a rare occasion in which he flew solo, for a 1910 flight in Louisiana, Moisant died when his plane crashed.
New York Rangers coach and general manager Lester Patrick was so convinced that the team’s feline mascot, a short-tempered black cat named Ranger, was responsible for their hugely successful 1927-1928 season that he “would not permit the players to begin dressing for a game until they rubbed her down the back three times,” Gavan writes.
It worked. “As long as Ranger was patrolling the Garden, the Rangers were always in the playoffs.”
But by far the most meaningful thing that New York cats brought to the humans in their midst was, ironically, a connection to humanity. One of the most moving characters in Gavan’s book is a black prison cat with a jaw-droppingly racist name not suitable for print.
The prison cat worked at The Tombs, New York City’s largest and most notoriously overcrowded prison for more than 18 years, arriving in 1883 to help control the mice and rat population, and gradually becoming a friend to inmates on Murderers’ Row. He was a regular visitor to Carlyle Harris, a 22-year-old medical student sentenced to death for murdering his wife.
Before Harris was executed by electric chair in 1893, he penned a poem about the cat, published by the Syracuse Evening Telegram. He wrote of his “silent friend” who “comes every day” and offered his inmate visitor “no more than a sympathetic heart.”
Was the black cat really showing kindness for a man destined for an early death? Gavan, who lives with two cats of her own, isn’t so sure. “He was a cat,” she says with a laugh.
“He was probably just following the same path he took every night. I don’t think he cared who he saw one way or another. But it makes a sweet story.”
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