For hundreds of years, black cats in many countries have been given a bad rap due to the suspicion that they work with witches. But while we know now these dark-haired felines aren’t bad omens, it sometimes feels that way. Throw superstition to the wind in time for National Black Cat Day on October 27 with these tales of unlucky but endearing black cats.
1. FRIGHTENED FELINES DURING THE MEDIEVAL PERIOD
Unlike the internet’s modern love for cats, felines haven’t always been revered as cuddly pets worth worshipping. During the Middle Ages, cats were regularly victims of cruelty, often in the form of beatings and burnings as a way to rid evil from communities. Black cats were heavily targeted since their dark coats were considered symbols of their allegiance to witches, demons, and the devil. Many towns created annual holidays to cleanse the streets of cats—in Ypres, Belgium, cats were thrown from church bell towers and set on fire each May 2 until 1817. It wasn’t uncommon for French courimauds—cat chasers—to set cats ablaze before chasing them through the street and distributing the ashy remains to townsfolk for good luck.
2. TRIXIE, THE TOWER OF LONDON PRISONER
PORTRAIT OF HENRY WRIOTHESLEY, 3RD EARL OF SOUTHAMPTON (1573-1624) BY JOHN DE CRITZ.
WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // PUBLIC DOMAIN
Trixie wasn’t sentenced to the Tower of London’s horrors, but she did do time with a purpose: keeping a friend-turned-owner alive. Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton, had been imprisoned in 1601 after supporting a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. His time in the tower was spent with little food and taxing surroundings, but somehow Trixie, the cat supposedly painted into his portrait, developed a skill for smuggling Henry food, wiggling down a chimney to deliver scraps. The two became companions, spending two years in confinement together until they were released in 1603. While the tale of Trixie is well known, historians aren’t quite sure it’s true, and instead believe the cat featured in Henry’s portrait is a symbol with an unknown meaning.
3. MISLEADING, THIEVING BLACK CATS
Scientist Gustavus Katterfelto was considered by many to be a quack during the mid-1700s, and his trickery involving black cats might have had something to do with it. Katterfelto often drew viewers to his lectures and performances by advertising his "Famous Moroccan Black Cat," only to reveal to the crowds that his cat was not evil at all. He took to using magic tricks and deception to hide the cat or a slew of black kittens into audience members’ pockets, snatching watches and money as he placed the kittens, or playing other pranks.
4. THE CAT WHO INSPIRED A MURDER TALE
Edgar Allan Poe is known for his macabre tales, but his muse—a black cat—was supposedly the inspiration for one famous tale. "The Black Cat" tells the story of a drunkard who abuses a pet cat and kills his wife. While Poe adored cats throughout his life, his most famous being a tortoiseshell named Catarina, Poe knew that the strange activities of black cats were symbols of something much deeper: "the boundary between instinct and reason is of a very shadowy nature."
5. TRIM, THE NAVIGATING FELINE
Trim the cat at the feet of a statue of Captain Matthew Flinders, located in Donington, Lincolnshire, England.
Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Trim was a black cat best known for circumnavigating Australia with his companion Captain Matthew Flinders between 1801 and 1803. Flinders is credited with charting the southern continent, but in 1804 he was taken prisoner by the French in Mauritius. During that time, Trim went missing, and Flinders believed he suffered a horrible fate not worthy of a seafaring cat: being caught and eaten by hungry slaves. In a poem, Flinders memorialized Trim as "the best and most illustrious of his race, the most affectionate of friends, faithful of servants, and best of creatures," and at least two different statues stand as tribute to the noble cat.
6. UNSINKABLE SAM, WHO SURVIVED MULTIPLE NAVAL DISASTERS
Most cats don’t like water. Unfortunately for Unsinkable Sam, he faced three separate instances where swimming was his only option. Sam was originally a German pet named Oscar who spent time aboard the Axis battleship Bismarck. But in May 1941, the ship sank and poor Oscar, floating on a plank, was rescued by the HMS Cossack. Along with his new allegiance, Oscar got a new name—Sam—and boosted ship morale until October of that same year, when the Cossack was torpedoed. Sam’s next assignment on the HMS Ark Royal ended within a month when the aircraft carrier was also torpedoed. After surviving all three attacks, Sam retired his sea legs for life on dry land before dying of natural causes in 1955.
7. BLACKIE, THE TALKING CAT WHO WENT TO COURT
In 1982, Blackie the Talking Cat was a bit of a sideshow act in Augusta, Georgia. His owners, Carl and Elaine Miles, reportedly trained the cat to meow phrases such as "l love you" and "I want my mama." The couple charged "donations" for the curious act, but after weeks of moneymaking, their gig came to a halt when they were told a business license was required to continue profiting from Blackie's talents. Despite purchasing a license, the Mileses sued the city of Augusta claiming free speech rights—and they lost, with a judge determining that Blackie wasn't a person and therefore didn’t have his rights violated. Though, the judge did concede that Blackie was a pretty convincing oddity.
8. OSCAR, THE BIONIC CAT
One British kitty learned how dangerous farm equipment can be when he lost his two rear legs to a combine harvester in 2009. Poor Oscar had a turn of luck when a veterinarian considered him a candidate for prosthetic legs. At first, Oscar’s owners felt odd about trying out the experiment (which cost at least £20,000), but were advised that it was the cat's best chance for survival. Now deemed the "bionic cat" since adapting to his new legs, Oscar has become the star of a book and documentary exploring his near-death experience.
9. LEWIS, WHO WAS SENTENCED TO HOUSE ARREST
A Connecticut cat was the first feline to be placed on house arrest in 2006 after neighbors accused him of continued stalking and attacks. After multiple complaints, animal control personnel issued a restraining order against Lewis, requiring him to remain indoors or within a cage if outdoors. But after an escape and another attack, Lewis’s owner was arrested and charged with failure to comply with a restraining order and reckless endangerment. A court determined that Lewis could avoid euthanasia and keep his claws if he remained indoors, though his owner was required to perform 50 hours of community service.
10. BART, THE ZOMBIE CAT
In 2015, a black and white cat by the name of Bart was deemed the "Zombie Cat" (and also the "Miracle Cat") after emerging from his shallow grave. After being hit by a car, Bart was believed dead and buried by a friend of his owner. But five days later, severely injured and dehydrated, Bart clawed his way out of the grave and was discovered by a neighbor who sought help. But poor Bart’s bad luck didn’t end there—he became the center of a well-publicized legal battle between the animal shelter where he received care and the family he belonged to. In September 2016, the Humane Society of Tampa Bay won the right to ownership, and Bart was quickly transfered to a new forever home.
11. HUMPHREY, THE SCANDALOUS POLITICAT
It’s hard work being the UK’s Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office, but some cat has got to do it. Humphrey was one of four cats given the honorary title (and duties) at the office of the Prime Minister. The large black and white feline—who was noted in one 1992 memo as being "a workaholic who spends nearly all his time at the office, has no criminal record, does not socialise a great deal or go to many parties and has not been involved in any sex or drugs scandals that we know of"—served between 1989 and 1997 during the Thatcher and Blair administrations. However, in 1994, a journalist visiting 10 Downing Street hinted that Humphrey killed a nest of robins. Humphrey’s representatives denied requests for interviews, stating "Unfortunately as Humphrey is a civil servant, he is bound by civil service rules and cannot talk to the press about his position." It wasn't until 2006 that a reporter fully explained the dead robin situation and called for a posthumous pardon for Humphrey.
12. BLACK CATS IN ANIMAL SHELTERS
Despite the perception that black cats are less likely to be adopted (studies by the ASPCA have shown that more black cats are adopted than any other color), it is true that more black cats are euthanized than other colors of cats. It's mostly a numbers game: black fur is a common genetic trait for cats, meaning there are simply more black cats coming into shelters—possibly more than twice as many black cats are in the system than other lighter colors. Additionally animal organizations in the UK believe that in the age of internet sharing, black pets tend not to photograph well, and may therefore have a more difficult time being placed in homes. Blame it on selfies.