“Those who’ll play with cats must expect to be scratched” – Miguel de Cervantes
Has anyone ever considered the possibility that vermin have an afterlife? I sense a business opportunity in phantom pest control. It’s obvious that Washington D.C. is filled with rats. In fact, the urban centers of the northeastern United States tend to have the most severe rodent infestations (for example, between 13-18% of households report routine rat or mouse sightings in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and the District of Columbia, as compared to rates more like 5% in the Southeast and Southwest). The rest of the country generally assumes that this is due to a certain affinity between the human and rat populations, but in truth the reasons for the higher rat populations are much more mundane. The cities of the Northeast have been around longer, are more densely populated, and their older infrastructures make for an ideal rat habitat. As Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist at the National Pest Management Association stated, “These old cities have had entrenched rat populations since colonial times”. And ever since we’ve had rats, we’ve been coming up with ways to eradicate them. Of course, the oldest solution, apart from obeisances to the great Rat God, has been to release the cats, who despite a tendency towards indolence, harbor an abiding, genocidal hatred of the entire genus Rattus. This undoubtedly leads to rat slaughter, and one would think, an overabundance of rat ghosts. How would one tell the difference between corporeal and incorporeal rats? Aside from contracting the services of rat exorcists, the simplest alternative would likely be phantom cats. The problem with this is that since live cats regard us with disdain, undead cats most assuredly consider us prey. Case in point, the Demon Cat of the Capitol.
Whenever you start a government, you have to build a bunch of government buildings, preferably with intimidating architecture, and lots of obscure nooks and crannies to make your bureaucratic apparatus arcane, and largely inaccessible to the peasants. I mean, you want to govern “for” the people, just not “with” the people. As of 2016, Washington D.C. ranked third on the list of the most rat-infested cities in America. Apart from the qualities it shares with other northeastern rat havens, our nation’s capital is built on top of a drained swamp in a humid, subtropical climate zone. This makes rats especially happy. The United States Capitol Complex is underlain by a network of tunnels and sub-basements, presumably originally constructed as refuges from torch wielding mobs (and no doubt for weird rituals), but re-tasked these days for a variety of more benign purposes. And pretty much from day one, they had rat problems, which no self-respecting capital city cares to admit to. In the late 19th and early 20th Century they decided to resolve the issue in human tradition that has been preserved since time immemorial. They got themselves some cats. Said government cats were released into the cellars of the Capitol buildings, and we have to assume that rodential slaughter ensued, resulting in a disturbance in the Force. Although the massacre was undoubtedly rather one-sided, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that the occasional cat casualty fell in the line of duty. And cats tend to hold grudges.
Thus we have the notorious Demon Cat of the Capitol, rumored to live in the empty basement crypt under Capitol Hill, originally designed to house the remains of President George Washington. At least your tax dollars aren’t going to waste. This phantasmagoric feline primarily haunts the Capitol Police of the graveyard shift, terrorizing them with its ghastly antics, shapeshifting abilities, and spectral shenanigans, not to mention its predictive abilities surrounding the assassination of presidents (said to have appeared just before the murders of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy). The October 2nd, 1898 Philadelphia Press, reported the recent reappearance of the Demon Cat, who presumably had been cat-napping since his original sighting in 1862.
The Demon Cat is said to have made its appearance again, after many years of absence. This is a truly horrific apparition, and no viewless specter such as the invisible grimalkin that even now trips people up on the stairs of the old mansion which President Madison and his wife, Dolly, occupied, at the corner of Eighteenth Street and New York Avenue, after the White House was burned by the British. That, indeed, is altogether another story; but the feline spook of the Capitol possesses attributes much more remarkable, inasmuch as it has the appearance of an ordinary pussy when first seen, and presently swells up to the size of an elephant before the eyes of the terrified observer. The Demon Cat, in whose regard testimony of the utmost seeming authenticity was put on record thirty-five years ago, has been missing since 1862. One of the watchmen on duty in the building shot at it then, and it disappeared. Since then, until now, nothing more has been heard of it, though one or two of the older policemen of the Capitol force still speak of the spectral animal in awed whispers (French, 1919, p190).
The cat has been credited with several deaths (mostly from fright), which is clearly how cats prefer to kill people. Back at the turn of the 19th Century, the Capitol Police were said to often be staffed by friends and relatives of Congressmen, hired as favors, and the folks were frequently drunk while at work. Or perhaps they were simply fortifying themselves against the predations of the awful Demon Cat. Nonetheless, detailed reports of the cat’s activities have been noted over the decades amongst Capitol Police insiders, infrequently finding their way into the Congressional Record.
This was a particular problem late at night, after the building had closed and the members and visitors had departed. Perhaps this situation accounts for a variety of ghost stories that have been told down through the years. One of the oldest stories is recounted by newsman John Alexander in his book of Washington ghost tales. It concerns the infamous denizen of the Capitol’s lower reaches, “Demon Cat.” As the story goes, Demon Cat always waits until its victim is alone. The animal’s prey are generally members of the Capitol Police force. One victim told of encountering the infamous cat on a winter’s eve. As it walked toward the policeman, the cat began to swell. The guard felt paralyzed as he stared into the glowing, piercing eyes that came closer and closer and grew larger and larger. The animal swelled to the size of a giant tiger, yet never lost its unmistakable cat-like form. Its purring changed to a ferocious snarl. There was a deafening roar as the monstrous animal leaped—with claws extended—toward its victim. The guard couldn’t move. His feet seemed nailed to the floor. He covered his face with his arms as the giant animal seemed just inches away from landing on him. He screamed. Nothing happened. The Demon Cat vanished into thin air as the man screamed. The trembling guard stood alone, the corridor deserted, the silence pierced only by his breathing. His limp body was covered in a cold, clammy sweat. He felt drained. The narrow marble hallway now reminded him of a tomb. The guard shuddered, tried to pull himself together, and headed back to his desk. For some reason he just didn’t feel like finishing his rounds. This grisly feline was blamed for an elderly guard’s fatal heart attack and the cat is reputed to appear only on the eve of a national tragedy, or upon the changing of presidential administrations! (United States Congress, 1981, p1535).
Cats treat us with a certain amount of indifference, and no doubt resent being put to work. No wonder they’re especially resentful when they are slain in combat. It befits the cat to seek revenge from the grave. As Percy Bysshe Shelley noted, “When my cats aren’t happy, I’m not happy. Not because I care about their mood but because I know they’re just sitting there thinking up ways to get even”. Apparently this extends into the afterlife. Or the nine afterlives?
French, Joseph Lewis, 1858-1936. The Best Ghost Stories. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919.
United States Congress. “Capitol Police”. Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the U.S. Congress v172:2 (February). Washington: Govt. Print. Off., 1981.