In 1921 LB Mothers Went to War Against Cats

Gerrie Schipske

 I must have been around nine years old when I asked my mom if we could have a cat. She responded, “absolutely not.” When I asked “why” she gave me that look that said she didn’t want to talk about it and neither should I. But I persisted and finally learned the deep, dark secret of why my mother said she hated cats: “they suck the breath out of babies and kill them.”

Whoa. Wasn’t expecting that. It took years to get an expanded answer. But apparently when she was growing up in Pennsylvania a baby died due to what the newspaper reported: “Feline Enters Room and Slays Child by Sucking Breath.”

Cats must have coordinated these attacks across the US because the same headline appeared in Long Beach in 1921. Poor Mrs. Dan Brenning (women didn’t have first names in those days) put little Dora down to sleep so she could hang up laundry outside, when a black and white cat snuck into the room and according to Dr. Sweet, the family doctor, “smothered the child by sucking its breath.”

County Coroner Wagner later declared that the story of cats “sucking the breath out of babies” was a “superstition,” and that his autopsy found the cause of death to be the weight of the large cat on the chest of a very frail 4 month-old, who was malnourished.

Didn’t matter what the Doctor said, Long Beach mothers called for the banning of cats from homes and asked the Long Beach health department to kill others. Police were kept busy with calls to remove cats and kill them.

The myth that cats suck the breath goes back quite a bit. I found newspaper articles in the 1890s with columns written by physicians explaining that cats do not seek out a baby after it has nursed in order suck a baby’s breath. The cats however, can crush the infant with their bodies.

Apparently, the earliest myth that charged cats with murder, mostly accused black cats sent by the local witch to kill babies in their cradles.

Seems that this myth about cats was used by others besides mothers. In 1908, a man in Chicago tired of cats killing his beloved birds, offered 10 cents a dead cat because “cats have more diseases than children. Carry contagious diseases from house to house, suck baby’s breath, scratch children’s eyes out, put fleas into homes and hair into coffee and victuals.”

Poor cats. Long Beach schools superintendent declared in 1908 that cats were causing “ringworm” in children and had to be dealt with.

Funny, when stories appeared in the 1900s of mothers throwing their babies into the water, no one called for an end of the beach.


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