With all of the drama that has been surrounding the U.S. Capitol lately, I thought it might be time to look into some of the more supernatural tales surrounding the place. Washington D.C. has long been a place full of haunted locations and stories of ghosts and specters, and some of these just so happen to gravitate towards the Capitol building itself. One of the weirder of these is the persistent legend of what appears to be a phantom, demonic cat, which has been a legend that has persisted in the area right up to the present.
The tale of what has come to be called the “Demon Cat” goes way back into the history of Washington D.C., dating back to the early19th century, described as a glowing eyed black cat prowling the Capitol building, with the power to change its size from that of a normal cat all the way up to a hulking beast more like a tiger or even larger. There have been various iterations of the origin of the spooky legend over the years, but the most popular is that it is the ghost of a cat who was brought in to patrol the spiderweb of tunnels beneath the Capitol building for the terrible rodent problem at the time and simply never left, supposedly taking up residence within a gloomy crypt down in the dank darkness originally meant to house the body of George Washington himself.
Even as early as 1814 the stories of the Demon Cat were making the rounds. It is said that a group of masons rebuilding the Capitol after its sacking by the British noticed a pair of pawprints appear on their newly finished, polished floor, and after that the sightings really took off. The spectral cat was most commonly seen at first by night watchmen and other night workers, who would describe the cat coming out of the gloom with eyes glowing fiercely, and approaching to menacingly grow in size to the point that witnesses would panic and flee. On occasion, the cat was reported as pouncing on the witness, only to vanish into thin air just as the unfortunate soul thought they were going to be mauled. By the late 1800s it was a popular story in Washington D.C., and there was even permanent “evidence” of the cat left in 1898 when the Capitol Building was damaged by a gas explosion and paw prints were left in the drying concrete laid down, despite strict measure to keep anything out, and which can still be seen on the Small Senate Rotunda to this day. The Demon Cat gained quite a bit of notoriety, and an 1899 article on the phenomenon in the Washington Post would say of it:
The Demon Cat is a truly horrific apparition. 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. One worker said they saw a cat so full of pep that it hissed ‘like a washboiler’ as it jumped, mascara-like, mouth wide open and radio-ad-like teeth agleam. According to legislative legend, this furry fury invariably shows up just before a national disaster and, occasionally, before a political change in administrations.
Indeed, this latter point would become a major part of the legend of the Demon Cat of Washington, that it acted as sort of a portent of doom or harbinger of disaster. The Demon cat of Washington is said to have prominently appeared before such varied incidents as the night before Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, when James A. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881, when William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, before the 1929 stock market crash, numerous times throughout the devastation of World War II, including giving a guard a heart attack on the night before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, before John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the night before U.S. troops were sent to fight in the Vietnam War, and others.
The Demon Cat has not appeared much since then, and it has left us wondering just what it might be. One prominent theory is that this is an urban legend that began with night watchmen getting drunk on the job. Back in the 1800s, there were many stray cats wandering about the Capitol for the purpose of controlling the rodent problem and the idea is that they might have freaked out the guards and allowed the story to flourish. However, this ignores a point that I have occasionally made that alcohol is not a hallucinogenic substance. How many of you have been drunk? Have you ever hallucinated a giant demon cat, aliens, or monsters in that state? Would you not see a cat as a cat and maybe throw a can at it? It seems a bit farfetched. Another idea is that the shadows, acoustics and general spooky feel of the Capitol building at night might have contributed. One excerpt from History, Art & Archives: United States House of Representatives says:
At one point, guards reported bands of cats roaming the Capitol in 1892. “At about 10 o’clock every night they begin a mad racing through the empty corridors,” a Detroit newspaper reported that year. Given the Capitol’s marble floors, stone walls, and long hallways the sounds made by the cats left a haunting impression. “The acoustic effects produced are astonishing,” the newspaper continued. “Let a single grimalkin lift up his voice in statuary hall, famous for its echoes, and the silence of the night is broken by a yell like that of a damned soul, as loud as a locomotive whistle.” The sound of echoing, shrieking cats throughout the building would likely have been enough to have unnerved anyone within earshot.
Whatever the causes might be, the Demon Cat of Washington D.C. has remained, and although it has not been active for sometime, the stories swirl. is this a ghost, a demon, or just a figment of the imagination elevated to legendary status? We are left to wonder at it all, and it has been talked about and discussed right up to the present day. Whatever it is, it paints the Capitol in a new light, and gives us something to think about other than the unrest that has been going on.