Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub may be the Internet's cats du jour, but our obsession with famous felines goes back long before the era of YouTube and Instagram. Here are a handful of historical cats who became famous—or infamous—among us humans.
There are a number of cats who have become historically significant: cats who have been on scientific expeditions, cats who ran for public office, weaponized cats, and killer cats. But these cats have enjoyed an unusual bit of celebrity:
Muezza: Few cats hold the distinction of being beloved by the founder of an entire religion. The Prophet Muhammad was particularly fond of cats, and there is an often-told story about his favorite cat, Muezza. According to the story, one day when the Prophet heard the call to prayer, he found Muezza asleep on his robes. Instead of moving the cat, he cut a hole in the robes so that Muezza could remain where he slept undisturbed. According to the Hadith, Muhammad forbade the trading and selling of cats and condemned a woman for allowing her cat to starve.
Today, Muezza is remembered as a sign of the Prophet's affection for cats, and he pops up in children's books and has a Halal cat food named after him.
The Unsinkable Sam: In May 1941, the German battleship Bismarck sank, and among the survivors was Oscar, the ship's cat. When Oscar was picked up by the crew of the HMS Cossack, they redubbed him "Unsinkable Sam" and made him the ship's mascot, figuring he must be lucky. Sam may have been lucky, but the ships he sailed on were not; he survived the sinking of the Cossack after a submarine attack and then the sinking of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. By this time, Sam was quite notorious, and after he was rescued by the HMS Legion, he was officially retired to dry land, and lived out his life in a sailor's home.
Myobu no Omoto: Cats are famously pampered, but perhaps none so much as the cats of Japanese Emperor Ichijo (980-1011). Domestic cats had recently been imported from China to Japan, and they became a luxury and a curiosity among the wealthy. After a cat belonging to the emperor had kittens, the Left and Right ministers were tasked with clothing the kittens and feeding them delicacies—but a real stir was caused when the emperor assigned a court lady, Uma no Myobu, to serve as the kittens' wet nurse. As if that wasn't enough to secure the noble position of these fluffy critters, he named one cat Myobu no Omoto, signifying that she was a lady-in-waiting of the fifth rank. The emperor also famously imprisoned a dog who dared to chase his beloved Myobu no Omoto.
The Famous Moroccan Black Cat: The 18th century Prussian conjurer, science lecturer, and quack Gustavus Katterfelto frequently traveled with black cats, including one he called his "Famous Moroccan Black Cat." The cats were helpful in his act, allowing him to harness the static electricity that he used to con people into believing in his particular supernatural powers. He included the cat in his advertisements, saying that the cat was worth 30,000 pounds, and "let out of the bag by the Philosopher himself," and encouraged rumors that the animal was, in fact, the devil.
Katterfelto's cat was perhaps as famous as the conjurer himself, finding its way into the gossip pages when, in 1783, London papers announced that Marie Antoinette had received one of the kittens from Katterfelto's demonic cat as a gift.
Dick Whittington's Cat: Dick Whittington's cat is a particularly odd feline celebrity as there is no evidence that it actually existed. Still, it's evidence that people love a good story all the more if there's a cat involved. The real Dick Whittington was a 14th and 15th century merchant who served as the mayor of London and, after his death, willed his fortune to charity. In the wake of this act of philanthropy, a folklore cropped up around Dick Whittington, one that has little to do with the real historical figure.
Instead of being the son of a wealthy lord, Whittington was now from a poor country family. He wishes to marry Alice, the daughter of a merchant, and so gives his only possession, his cat, to a sea captain to sell. Improbably, the captain ends up sailing to a foreign land where the king's palace is overrun with rats. The king buys the cat for a huge sum and the now-wealthy Dick Whittington marries Alice, becomes the mayor, and so on. Thus, the real Dick Whittington is best remembered not for his actual accomplishments, but for his ties to a fictional cat.
Pepper: Anyone who has watched endless cat videos on YouTube shouldn't be surprised that a kitty movie star was born in the early days of film. Pepper was a gray alley cat who allegedly wandered onto a set at Keystone Studios and caught the eye of director Mack Sennett. However she came to Sennett's attention, she became the first feline movie star, appearing in films with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. But her most frequent co-star was a Great Dane named Teddy. Pepper has a rather impressive IMDB page and paved the way for hours upon hours of cat videos.
Ahmedabad: A Siamese kitten sparked an international incident during the 1960s, not because of anything that he did, but because of his name. In 1962, John Kenneth Galbraith was serving as the US ambassador to India, where his children were given a pair of Siamese kittens. One of the kittens was named Ahmedabad, after the town where it was born, but was called "Ahmed" by the family. Somehow, this detail was reported in the press, and suddenly little Ahmedabad was famous for the wrong reasons. "Ahmed" is one of the names used for the Prophet Muhammad, and this perceived slight led to an uproar in Pakistan.
In his memoirs, Galbraith recalls that he smoothed over the issue with the following speech:
I will answer once more, but it is the last time. Here are the facts: First: It was not a cat but a kitten. Second: It was not my kitten but my children's kitten. Third: My children did not name the kitten 'Ahmed', for the Prophet, but Ahmedabad, for its birthplace. Fourth: Ahmedabad was not named for the prophet, but for Sultan Ahmed Shah, its founder. Fifth: So that no one's feelings could possibly be hurt, my children have renamed the kitten 'Gujarat'.
Galbraith also acknowledged that, during a time of high political tensions, he could see folks in the US taking similar offense to a Pakistani ambassador naming their pet "Jesus."
Selima: Many cats have been inspired works of literature: Edgar Allan Poe's Catterina, Cleveland Amory's Polar Bear, T.S. Eliot's Jellylorum. But Horace Walpole's Selima inspired a pair of particularly lovely pieces of artwork on account of how she died. The cat was attempting to reach some goldfish swimming in a porcelain vase and drowned. Walpole asked his friend, the poet Thomas Gray, to compose an epitaph for his beloved Selima, and Gray ended up writing "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat." In 1776, the painter Stephen Elmer paid tribute to both the cat and the poem with his painting Horace Walpole's Favourite Cat.
Blackie the Talking Cat: Do cats have the right to free speech? Blackie enjoyed a small amount of fame thanks to a lawsuit brought by Carl and Elaine Miles. In 1981, the couple began exhibiting Blackie, whose mews sounded like the phrases "I love you" and "I want my mama." The Miles were told that they needed a $50 business license to exhibit Blackie and ended up suing the city council of Augusta, Georgia, claiming the fee impinged upon their rights to free speech and association. The district court ruled that exhibiting a "talking" cat was an occupation, and the Miles ended up appealing to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling, saying:
This Court will not hear a claim that Blackie's right to free speech has been infringed. First, although Blackie arguably possesses a very unusual ability, he cannot be considered a "person" and is therefore not protected by the Bill of Rights. Second, even if Blackie had such a right, we see no need for appellants to assert his right jus tertii. Blackie can clearly speak for himself.
F.D.C. Willard: F.D.C. Willard is known primarily not for his work as a cat, but for his work as an author of physics papers. Physicist Jack H. Hetherington decided to invent a co-author for a paper in which he had used the royal "we" to refer to himself and decided to name the author Felis Domesticus Chester Willard, after his cat, Chester. Hetherington exposed his co-author's identity when he had Chester "sign" some papers with his paw prints and sent them off to his colleagues. Chester has since appeared in the footnotes of academic papers, where he is thanked for his contributions.
Top image by Korionov/Shutterstock.