There are many mysteries surrounding the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, from rumors that it was cursed by an engineer who died during construction to reports of sightings of a ghostly Capitol Librarian. But perhaps most enduring is the legend of a terrifying demon cat that roams the nation’s parliamentary halls.
Since its first rumored appearance in the 1890s, the so-called Demon Cat (known as “DC”) has left a trail of frightened people in its wake. Some say it appeared before tragic events like the 1929 stock market crash or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Here’s how this spooky myth began – and why it continues to this day.
Cat Myths in the 19th Century
Reports of “demon cats” – both real and supernatural – were bizarrely commonplace in the 19th century. In fact, cat-related mythology dates back centuries around the world. Scholars attribute the ubiquity of these stories to cats’ bodies and behaviors, from their otherworldly sounds to their nocturnal habits and glowing eyes.
In Japan for example Bakneko Legends portrayed vengeful cats behaving like humans. Italian parents, trying to intimidate their children into good behavior, told them frightening stories about a gigantic cat named Gatto Mammone. In Slavic mythology, an evil ovinnik It was believed to haunt barns and even set them on fire. And in Ireland, there were many stories of demon cats in local lore.
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It’s no surprise, then, that late 19th-century American culture was also teeming with “demon cats.” In the 1880’s, theatergoers enjoyed a poem and play entitled “The Demon Cat,” and the newspapers of the time are full of accounts of real and legendary dangerous cats.
A real cat startled diners at a Chicago restaurant in 1885 Chicago News, the “goblin of darkness,” was relaxing on the restaurant’s bar when the owner punched him out of the way. The cat then attacked a waiter while howling and spitting, getting food all over the place. John Stearns, then-Mayor Carter Harrison’s brother-in-law, reportedly left the restaurant saying, “Don’t bother getting another breakfast. I’m not generally superstitious, but black cats are not boring people.”
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Another 1889 newspaper told the story of a more supernatural cat who disappeared aboard a ship. Devastated, the cat’s owner plunged into a stormy sea – only for the crew to later discover the cat in a compartment below decks, surrounded by empty rum bottles and “dancing in devilish joy… wildly intoxicated”. Only when the crew threw the cat into the sea themselves did the storms stop.
How DC’s Demon Cat Legend Began
Then, in 1898, DC-based journalist Rene Bache wrote about the haunted apparitions allegedly associated with the US Capitol, calling it “probably the most thoroughly haunted in the world.” Bache described the “cat spook” as a cat that grew from a normal-sized animal to the size of an elephant in front of people – and claimed the phantom had frightened congressmen and others in the building since 1862.
At the time, many people would have spotted a mysterious cat in the Capitol building, says Samuel Holliday, director of grants for the US Capitol Historical Society. In this early year of the Civil War, Union soldiers were billeted in both the House and Senate in the event of a Confederate attack, and later that year the building became a makeshift hospital for battle-wounded troops.
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Cats most likely also lived in the Civil War-era Capitol. At the time, it was common to keep cats to catch rats — which would have been plentiful given the 20 large-capacity furnaces in the building’s basement, which produced 10,000 rations a day to feed the soldiers.
Another source of the legend may have been Capitol Police officers patrolling the building at night. Holliday says one of her jobs at the time was capturing stray animals on the Capitol grounds. “For example,” he says, “the force had to lasso a stray horse in 1904 and captured 31 dogs in 1910.” Capitol tour guide Steve Livengood says that a warden who drank too much told the story may have started and spread to get a day off.
Regardless of the source of the legend, it has only grown over the years. In 1935, a Capitol police officer reported this Washington Post He had fired his gun at a large black cat with “the generous proportions of Mae West plus the disposition of Bela Lugosi.” By then, believers thought the cat was a tabby with headlight-like eyes and said it could also be found in the White House.
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The demon cat today
But a set of feline footprints might be the biggest reason for the demon cat’s fame. They are on the cement floor of the Small Senate Rotunda near the entrance to the Old Supreme Court Chamber.
The architect of the Capitol, the federal agency that maintains and preserves the Capitol, attributes the pawprints to the rat-killing cats that once roamed the building, but those who subscribe to the demon cat myth disagree. They say the footprints only appeared after the rotunda was nearly destroyed by an explosion in 1898 – an explosion they attribute to the vicious cat, although official records say a gas explosion was to blame. These believers also say that the initials DC for Demon Cat are engraved on the same floor stand.
Although the footprints and initials in the Capitol have been preserved for posterity, Livengood said Atlas Obscura in 2018 that no demon cats had been sighted in recent years.
Not so for the infamous Capitol rats — in early 2022, a rodent infestation was reported at the nearby US House of Representatives Child Care Center. And brown rats have made a big comeback in the district post-lockdown Washington Post Reports with 13,300 reported complaints in fiscal year 2022. Maybe it’s about time the demon cat made a comeback…all in the name of pest control.