10 Cats Who Were Famous Before the Internet
The internet has been a fabulous invention, and few have benefited more from it than cats. Famous cats like Maru, Lil Bub, Grumpy Cat, and Colonel Meow have grown popular thanks to their unique appearances and antics. Some, like Mayor Stubbs of Talkeetna, Alaska, and Tama, a stationmaster on a Japanese railroad, have quickly gained fame far beyond their small towns.
But cats were celebrated long before the internet. Some accomplished feats that few humans, and fewer animals, ever could, while others simply caught the public imagination. These felines—explorers, war heroes, psychics, and political figures—usually found their fame through newspapers.
1. MATT CLIMBS THE MATTERHORN.
At 14,692 feet, the Matterhorn offers dedicated climbers one of the highest summits in the Alps. The Swiss/Italian mountain is legendary, sometimes called the Mountain of Mountains. And in August 1950, it was conquered by a mere kitten climbing alone.
The cat, dubbed Matt, was described by fellow (human) climbers as a black-and-white kitten of about 10 months. According to these unnamed mountaineers, who shared the kitten’s feat with various news agencies in the days following his climb, Matt lived at the Hotel Belvedere on the Hornli ridge, frequented by Alpinists just before they set out on their climb. (However, other sources claim Matt belonged to Josephine Aufdenblatten of Geneva.)
Matt may have begun his trek by following a party of climbers, who likely either didn’t notice their small companion or assumed that he’d turn back once they were out of sight—but no one really knows what inspired him. Either way, he made it to Solvay Hut on his first night, and spent the evening with other climbers bedding down in the hut. By the next night, he made it to the peak’s “shoulder,” and a group of climbers spotted him there. When they reached the summit, they found the kitten had gotten there first. The Times of London reported that the climbers shared their meal with the intrepid feline explorer, while UPI wrote that he sauntered down to a hut on the Italian side of the mountain to feast on mice.
Regardless, the climbers took him with them until he was picked up by a party headed back over the mountain to Matt’s home hotel. There, the kitten traded company and made his way back home. The Times of London reprinted their story on the 25th anniversary of Matt’s climb, and received a letter from one of the climbers who ferried Matt back to the Belvedere. He confirmed the story, but corrected one detail—he remembered Matt as a 4-month-old kitten.
2. NAPOLEON PREDICTS THE WEATHER.
Napoleon was a short-haired Persian cat with a unique talent: He could predict coming rain, and he was actually pretty accurate—at least, according to his owner. Mrs. Fanny Shields of Baltimore said she had noticed that her cat Napoleon usually slept on his side. However, when it was about to rain, he slept on his stomach, with his forelegs stretched out and his head between them.
Mrs. Shields had the chance to test Napoleon’s weather-sensing skills during a dry spell in 1930. The Baltimore area had gone without a drop of rain for 43 days, and meteorologists predicted the miniature drought would continue. Mrs. Shields, however, observed Napoleon napping in his “rain is coming” pose one afternoon—his ninth birthday, in fact—and called the newspaper, insisting that rain would fall. Sure enough, Baltimore got a minute and a half of steady rain that afternoon.
Over the next few years, area newspapers published more of Napoleon’s predictions of rain, which were rarely wrong. When he died, he even got an obituary in his hometown newspaper, the Baltimore Sun.
3. ALBERT GOES AWOL
Albert was a cat with a job. He was provided room and board at the Wrenthorpe Yard in England in exchange for keeping down the railway yard’s rat population. However, like many humans, Albert found vacationing much more appealing than the daily grind, and newspapers around the world began following his journeys.
In October 1933, London’s Morning Post reported that the ratter had boarded a goods train and vanished. Though rail workers searched up and down the line, he wasn’t seen again until nearly a year later, in August 1934, when he was discovered terrorizing vermin in a railway yard in Doncaster. He was returned home to Wrenthorpe, but a few months later—again in October—he disappeared once more.
After being spotted on a rhubarb farm, he returned home just before Christmas in 1934, this time on his own. He had faithfully taken up his rat-catcher duties again, the Montreal Gazette reported in March of 1935, though the paper had its doubts. “How long this new-found virtue will last is another matter,” the newspaper wrote.
But as of 1937, Albert was still in Wrenthorpe and the yard was rat-free, according to the Adelaide Advertiser of South Australia. Perhaps he’d seen enough of the world by then.
4. FÉLICETTE BECOMES THE FIRST CAT IN SPACE.
Félicette was a small black-and-white cat—not a typical astronaut. But she beat most humans into space anyway, with only a handful of Soviet cosmonauts and U.S. astronauts making it out of Earth’s atmosphere before her.
On October 19, 1963, the Glasgow Herald reported that the French had successfully launched a cat into space aboard one of their Sahara-based Veronique rockets. The cat, fitted with electrodes to monitor her progress, was in a small container that the rocket released when it reached its highest point, allowing Félicette to parachute back to Earth. She was retrieved alive by French scientists.
Félicette was one of more than a dozen cats chosen by Centre d'Enseignement et de Recherches de Médecine Aéronautique (CERMA) to undergo space training. This included learning to sit still in a small container for hours, as the cats underwent testing in compression chambers and a centrifuge.
Félicette was eventually chosen to travel into space, where she spent several minutes in zero gravity before parachuting back to the ground. Electrodes in her brain transmitted information from the flight back to the ground where French scientists could study the data. The researchers said the data recovered from her trip was valuable for the French space program, and Félicette was even honored with her own postage stamps.
Félicette is the only cat known to have traveled to space and survived the journey, though she was unfortunately euthanized several months later for study. A second cat sent by the French made it to space successfully, but died when its container could not be retrieved immediately. In 2013, Iran announced plans for their own space cat, but so far no launch has taken place.
5. FAITH RESCUES HER KITTEN DURING THE BLITZ.
One British cat gained fame for her heroic actions saving her kitten during World War II. Faith was a tabby cat at St. Paul’s Church on Watling Street, where she gave birth to one kitten, a black and white son named Panda. She moved Panda and herself from a comfortable spot on the upper floor to a “hidey hole” in the basement on September 6, the day before Nazi Germany began the Blitz, a series of air raids that devastated swaths of London.
The bombing of September 9 destroyed the church. Had Faith and Panda remained on the upper floor, they likely would have died. Faith’s move to the basement saved them. “Four floors fell through in front of her; fire, water and ruin were all around her,” a plaque mounted in the church’s lone surviving tower read in 1948. “Yet she stayed calm and steadfast and waited for help.”
Faith went on to live for another eight years, resuming her position as a church cat although her home church had been destroyed. Panda became a resident cat at a care home. For her courage, Faith was awarded a medal from the Greenwich Village Humane League in New York after they learned of her wartime exploits.
6. KIDDO STOWS ABOARD THE AIRSHIP AMERICA.
Kiddo never signed up to be an airship cat, and from what his human companions said, he was pretty vocal about it. The young gray cat was put aboard the airship America as a prank just before the ship left Atlantic City on what Captain Walter Wellman and his crew hoped would be a record-breaking trip across the Atlantic in 1910. As soon as Kiddo realized his predicament, he began howling, and the crew tried to lower him to a following boat below (according to aviation lore, the first wireless message ever sent from an aircraft to a shore station was “Roy, come and get this goddam cat”). However, the weather had turned and the sea was too rough, and Kiddo was hoisted back up to the airship, resigned to his lot.
The navigator of the journey was probably relieved; he had argued to keep Kiddo aboard for luck. However, the journey was a little unlucky after all, as the airship’s engine failed 38 hours into the trip, and the America settled down into the ocean. It was 33 hours before the crew spotted the mail steamer Trent and managed to signal for help. They were all safely rescued, including Kiddo (lucky) but the airship was left to drift off to sea (not so lucky).
Even though the airship didn’t make it across the Atlantic, the crew—especially Kiddo—became famous. Kiddo was first adopted by Mrs. Melvin Vaniman, wife of the America’s engineer, and toured with her and the America's lifeboat for several months, before Melvin Vaniman lost his life in another attempt to cross the Atlantic. Kiddo also spent some time on display at Gimbel’s department store in New York. He later lived with Wellman’s daughter Edith.
7. THE MUNICH MOUSER MOVES TO 10 DOWNING STREET
While the tradition of the Prime Minister having cats can be traced back to Cardinal Wolsey bringing his favorite cat along when he filled his duties as Lord Chancellor in the 1500s, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the position became semi-official, when the job was filled by Rufus, nicknamed Treasury Bill. Most of the Downing Street cats have achieved some level of fame, with a few, like Wilberforce and Humphrey, gaining special acclaim.
One of these was Neville Chamberlain’s cat, known as the Munich Mouser, or the Black Cat of Downing Street. In 1937, when Chamberlain took up residence at 10 Downing Street, LIFE magazine pointed to the Munich Mouser as a symbol of change in England, describing the large black cat sliding through the fence around the prime minister’s residence and taking up a seat on a sunny windowsill. The Black Cat of Downing Street stayed at No. 10 after the Chamberlains left and Winston Churchill’s family moved in. He passed away at the age of 7 in 1943.
The intriguing feline captured the imagination of a number of cat lovers, including Alice Newkirk of Northeast Harbor, Maine. When she learned from the New York Herald Tribune that the Black Cat of Downing Street had died, Newkirk wrote a letter to the editor, published in several newspapers, describing the correspondence her own black cat Phoebe shared with the Munich Mouser. Newkirk and Phoebe even sent a special Christmas can of cat food to their pen pal one year, and received a reply from Mrs. Chamberlain thanking them. Their tin of cat food was just one of many gifts the Black Cat of Downing Street received that year, including a whole fish, Newkirk reported.
8. POOLI SERVES IN IWO JIMA WITH THE USS FREMONT.
Plenty of ships in and out of the U.S. Navy are the homes of ships’ cats. The mousers are useful allies to have aboard, both to keep food supplies safe from rats and mice, and to entertain the sailors and help relieve homesickness on their months-long journeys.
One such cat was Princess Papule, who was reportedly born on the Fourth of July in 1944 in the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard. She was brought aboard the USS Fremont by sailor James Lynch as a young kitten. She crossed the equator with the ship and saw action at several naval battles in the Pacific Theater, including Iwo Jima, according to her post-war owner—although she wasn’t particularly brave, he said.
“Kirk revealed that when battle stations rang, Pooli would head for the mail room and curl up in a mail sack,” the Los Angeles Times reported on July 4, 1959, Pooli’s 15th birthday. Her ungrateful crewmates considered throwing her overboard as the ship returned to San Francisco, for fear of being quarantined, but she was guarded and allowed back to the mainland, Kirk told the paper.
A photo printed on her 15th birthday showed Pooli in her wartime uniform, complete with three service ribbons and four battle stars. And a collection of photos hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute features Pooli and dozens of other sailing cats, along with others rescued from battlefields during World War II.
9. THE AUDITORIUM THEATRE MOURNS MIKE, ITS MASCOT.
Mike became the official cat mascot of the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago by chance. She (yes, despite the name) made her way into the historic theater while escaping a political parade in 1893, the same year the Auditorium hosted the pageant “America” and Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition. Mike was named by a bellboy, and when it became clear she intended to make the theater her home, she was given a small rug in her preferred resting spot.
Mike was a famed dog-hater, attacking even the beloved pooches of famous English stage stars Olga Nethersole and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. The two apparently didn’t hold it against her, as they were listed—among the actors, dancers, composers, and opera singers who had been honored with the chance to pet the theater cat—in Mike’s obituary, published by the San Jose Evening News in 1903. Mike also rubbed elbows with royalty, Roosevelts, and other famous figures of her time.
10. CLEMENTINE MAKES AN INCREDIBLE JOURNEY.
In The Incredible Journey, two dogs and a cat travel miles through perilous danger to get home to the humans who they think have left them behind. The beloved book has inspired two movie adaptations, but the story is just that—a story.
Except when it’s not. In 1971, the Gadsden Times shared the true story of Clementine, a cat who traveled more than 1600 miles to find her family after they moved away and left her behind. The twist? She had never even been to their new home.
Clementine was left behind with a neighbor in Dunkirk, New York when her family moved to Denver because she was expecting kittens. As soon as she’d weaned her litter onto solid food, though, she disappeared. Four months later, her family opened their door in Denver to find Clementine—a unique cat they could identify by the seven toes on each front paw, oddly shaped spots on her stomach and scar on her left shoulder.
Clementine is in good company. A number of cats have made similar treks with no idea where they were headed, just who they wanted to find. One account from France credits a cat with leaving home and finding a family member who was on military assignment 75 miles and a mountain range away. And still more cats have returned home from unknown locations hundreds of miles away.
No one knows how Clementine was able to find her family 1600 miles away when she’d never been to their new home—or so far from home—before. Her journey and similar stories had Duke University scientists scratching their heads and wondering whether extrasensory perception might be the only answer. They dubbed the phenomenon “psi-trailing,” and to this day, no one can really explain it.