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Witch Cats and Cat Ghosts

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( Originally Published 1936 )



Mickey, the English cat who, as related in the chapter on Cats as Traveling Companions, traveled widely with his beloved mas ter and mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Osborne Leonard, is said to have continued to travel after he died. It was the firm belief of Mrs. Leonard that he came back many times in the astral body to visit them, that she saw him and felt his back arch under her stroking hand. In the International Psychic Gazette for April, I9I8, she told Mickey's story and described the comings and goings of the little cat ghost.

Psychic literature is full of such instances, and certainly if there are human ghosts there must be cat ghosts too. Cats are well suited to do a bit of ghosting. Elliott O'Donnell, whose book flnimal Ghosts is rich in examples, says that cats predominate in animal phenomena; he has convinced himself too by experiments in haunted houses that living cats are reliable psychic barometers. "The dog is sometimes unaware of the proximity of the Unknown," he says, "but I have never yet had with me a cat that has not shown the most obvious signs of terror before and during a superphysical manifestation."

A cat's nervous system is easily worked upon; then, too, cats have imagination. After my Mimi the First died her sister, Fifi, would sit at twilight with her great eyes attentively regarding a dusky corner of the room, sometimes fixed, sometimes moving as if they followed something. She never did that before Mimi died. Spiritists would say that Mimi was there, but I think it was Fifi's memory and imagination and the gray shadows in the corner of the room.

So with the reported instances of the reappearance of a cat after death. Does it really appear, or does the mind of the beholder throw out an image of the animal? There must be something, for one cannot doubt the sincerity or the sanity of the people who seriously record these xi~atters. Take the story that was told in the Occult Review some years ago by Norah Chesson, a perfectly normal young English girl who had no leanings whatever toward the supernatural.

Norah was in bed convalescing from an illness and was wondering why Minnie, her cat, had never come to see her while she was sick. It must be, she thought, that Minnie was absorbed in her young kitten. But as she lay thinking this the door, which was slightly ajar, swung open a few inches farther, and Minnie trotted in. Norah could feel the white throat of the little tortoise-shell vibrating with an ecstatic purr as she pressed against her mistress, licked her hand, and clasped the fingers in her paws "in a pretty fondling gesture that was all her own." Then she trotted out. When the maid came in Norah exclaimed that Minnie had come to see her at last. The maid stared at her.

"Minnie ?" she said. "Minnie's been dead a week, and buried under a stone in the garden. Her kitten's fretting itself to skin and bone. Your mamma didn't want to tell you while you was so sick."

The subject of witch cats is less pleasant than that of cat ghosts. Most of these small ghosts are gentle and wistful and give pleasure to the people who see them or think they see them, it is all the same. But the witch cats born of the fear-ridden minds of the Middle Ages worked nothing but harm. The tissue-paper black cats with which we trim up Hallowe'en frolics typify a good deal of horror.

It was not many centuries ago that, at witchcraft trials in both secular and ecclesiastical courts, women were gravely accused of assuming the form of cats, and were condemned to death on charges of working mischief in that guise. In 1596 the witches of Aberdeen were brought to trial for appearing as cats at the Fish Cross, in order that they might celebrate their orgies iznsuspected. I do not know where the Fish Cross was, but if it stood in a fish market, which seems logical, then it is just possible that the whole business started in the irritation of some fishmonger at cats that were drawn there by the odor of their favorite food.

A full century later trials for witchcraft in which cats were involved were going on in New England. One that Cotton Mather recorded in his Wonders of the Invisible World was held in the court of Oyer and Terminer on June 29, 1692 Among the many witnesses who testified against the accused, Susannah Martin, a man named Robert Downer declared that upon his telling her that he believed she was a witch, she had replied, "Some she-devil will shortly fetch you away," and that as he lay in his bed that night the likeness of a cat flew in at his window and almost killed him. Not until he called upon the name of "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost" did the cat release him and fly out at the window.

Isobel Gowdie, known as the queen of Scottish witches, seems to have gloried in her strange distinction. At her trial in 1662 she made a most dramatic confession, describing vividly how she and her companies of witches rambled through the country disguised as cats, wasting the goods of their neighbors and playing havoc wherever they went.

The strange doctrine that wounds received by a person masquerading as an animal remain after the disguise has been thrown off was bound up with witchcraft. One terrible account is of three poor women of Thurso, Scotland, the witches of Thurso." In a petition to the sheriff one William Montgomerie complained that his house was in fested with cats that "spoke among themselves," and then he took matters into his own hands, and killed two of the cats and struck off a leg from another.

Soon afterward a suspected witch in the town died suddenly, another threw herself into the sea, and a third, Margaret Nin-Gilbert, was seen by neighbors to drop one of her legs at her own door. The putrefied leg was found, and Margaret was imprisoned. She had been long ill with gangrene, but that did not count with the populace or the authorities, and she and the two dead women were immediately identified with the cats against which Montgomerie had used his dirk and broadsword. Margaret made a forced confession that she visited Montgomerie's house "in the likeness of a feltered cat," and was wounded by him. She died in prison.

Witchcraft makes a dark chapter in the history of cats. Those who care to read of horrors can find plenty in musty volumes of old trials, legends, and histories. And the chapter is not really closed. Sinister tales are still current in the remoter parts of Germany, Italy, France, and Scotland; in the Monferrato it is believed that "cats which wander on the roofs in February are not really cats but witches, and it is a duty to shoot them."