Two Felines, Fame, And a Big Faux Pas

A few kindly words about cats will probably land me in the doghouse. Bill Nye, a journalist of note a hundred years ago, demonstrated well that newspapers should let cats alone, as dire consequences occur the minute any cat gets his name in the paper. Millions rally to defend the thing, even when it hasn't been abused.

Bill had merely recounted what had taken place when Mephistopheles, his office cat, had become engaged with a sheet of sticky fly paper. According to Mr. Nye, the cat had lost the engagement. Readers, of course, flocked to the cat's defense, accusing editor Nye of inhuman disrespect for the civil rights of dumb animals, and subscriptions were stopped by the dozens.

Nobody in the vast readership of Nye's excellent paper stopped to think that if a cat were worthy of so much support, he'd be smart enough to keep clear of sticky fly paper. Also, the public failed to notice that while thousands of well-loved cats of that era failed to achieve fame and fortune, Nye's fly-paper cat became well known and even today remains one of the better known cats in the history of newspapers.

Another cat of journalistic note was Hindy, the Boston Post cat. The offices and printing plant of the old Post were on Newspaper Row on lower Washington Street. The building had 12 stories, but six were underground. If you stood in the press room you could look up five stories and see the subway trains passing overhead. That was in old Boston, a brickbat's toss from the city hall, the granary yard, and several historical curiosities.

It was not the best cat nursery, but somehow Hindy started there and achieved maturity. His haunt was Pi Alley, so named because "comps" (composing rooms workers) would dump their pi out a window into the alley rather than take the time to distribute their sorts. Sorts are individual pieces of moveable type, and when they got jumbled and mixed up they were the very dickens to unjumble. Pi Alley had only one attraction for the vagrant, straggly, wild-eyed alley cat. Thompson's Spa was directly over the Post city room, and it had a thoughtful cook who set out goodies for Hindy. At that time, Hindy had not been named.

Thus the alley cat became the mascot of the Boston Post, which at that time had the country's largest morning circulation.

After a festive breakfast at Thompson's Spa, this illiterate alley cat would sneak into the editorial sanctum of the Post and sleep all day in a copy basket. One of the Post photographers made a picture of the cat in repose. Meantime, now and then the cat would get a small mention in the Post, as the office cat, and he attained notoriety until he needed a name. He became Hindy, the Post cat. And one day a reader asked for a picture of Hindy.

The old Post was sensitive to many small topics today's mighty media ignore. The editors knew that cats make news, whereas princes and potentates sometimes don't, and the Post ran an item saying that a picture of Hindy was available to any reader who wanted one. To be ready for requests, the editor (actually, it was the Post's able promotion man) had a photographer make up a few dozen 8-X-10 enlargements of Hindy in his wire basket, with a copy of the Boston Post for a pillow.

The thing then ran away with itself. The Post had so many requests for pictures that an independent photo service had to be found to produce thousands of copies a day. Hindy slept on.

Another cat that has been mentioned frequently in the newspapers was that of Chuck Williams, who ran away from home.

Chuck was the son of Ben Ames Williams, the author, and as a tyke Chuck decided to set out to seek his fortune. He had his belongings tied in a handkerchief on a stick, and he didn't bother to say goodbye. His mother was working at the kitchen sink, his father was in a rocking chair by the kitchen stove looking at a newspaper, with the cat on his knee. Chuck, whose name was really Roger, closed the door quietly and was off down the country road.

HE hadn't gone more than a few rods when he wondered if he had done the right thing. Would his parents miss him? Would he miss them? What was he to do when he became hungry? How about his bed at nighttime? Chuck decided, all things considered, that running away was a silly thing to do. So he turned around and went home.

He had been gone all of four minutes, so he found his mother still at the sink, and his father in the rocking chair still looking at the paper. And the family cat was still on his father's knee.

Nobody paid poor Chuck any attention. Nobody knew he had run away! Nobody missed him! The prodigal son was back, so what? Chuck realized in his childhood way that he would have to let his father and mother know that he was back. He said, "Well! I see that you've still got the same old cat!"

A pleasant small anecdote, of course, and Chuck used to tell it now and then whether you'd heard it before or not. What we should notice now is the story's perpetuity. Every so often it appears again in print, and every time Reader's Digest uses it again it starts another cycle of reprints.

It is not, nowadays, linked to Chuck Williams. Instead, it is told as happening to Ben Franklin, Bismarck, Columbus, Salmon P. Chase, William Jennings Bryan, Napoleon, Marco Polo, General Custer, Mark Twain, and Dr. Mary Walker. I asked Chuck, years ago, what he called his family cat. He said, "We never named cats. Every cat we had was just Cat."

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