In a guest blog, Alan Heesom explores the history of dead cats in electoral politics, straddling, fact, fiction, and symbolism:
Election speaker in 1847 has dead cat and other missiles flung at his cab
Recent assaults with milk shakes, eggs and vegetables are (at least from a candidate’s point of view) presumably preferable to the early custom of using dead animals as election projectiles. Dead cats seem to have symbolised hatred towards an individual. When the unpopular John Fitzgibbon, Earl of Clare, died in Dublin in 1802, dead cats were flung on his coffin. Even earlier, public executions at Tyburn were characterised by the crowd flinging “the dead carcasses of dogs or cats.” Young boys were reported as throwing dead cats during the Gordon Riots in 1780. When such carcasses became an election weapon is unclear, though jokes about “poll-cats” were apparently abroad by 1812. In 1818 in Bristol candidates were reported as being pelted with “stinking fish, dead dogs, cats [and] rats.” Two years later Edward Jeremiah Curteis was commended for not faltering “at the thought of the rotten eggs and dead cats of Chichester” which he would have to face on the Sussex hustings. Thirty years further on, in 1852, the Ulster newspaper, the Northern Whig, reported that “there is seldom a contested election without broken heads… Honourable Members seldom escape the salutes of rotten eggs and dead cats.” There may have been a connection with his vote in favour of the Night Poaching Bill when M.T.Bass was pelted with dead dogs, cats and rabbits, at Derby in 1865. As this was an indoor meeting, the dead animals had clearly been brought in by the audience with deliberate intent.
Illustration of contemporary election speech in 1880, with cat in bottom-right (other missiles also evident, including a carrot)
Dead cats and fiction
Nineteenth-century novelists were familiar with the dead cat as an election symbol. Trollope’s Roger Scatcherd parried a dead cat flung at him with his stick, while speaking at the Barchester hustings, in Doctor Thorne. And in Rachel Ray, Luke Rowan persisted with his speech at Baslehurst “in spite of an early greeting with a dead cat.” On the other hand Thackeray’s Barnes Newcome was merely struck with a potato when speaking to the crowd from his hotel balcony, while Mr. Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch was pelted with eggs. Punch, too, had a fondness for the dead cat. In the magazine’s very first ‘big cut’ in 1841, the candidate when hit by a dead cat sycophantically responds “Don’t mention it, I beg!” While in ‘A prospect of an Election’ in 1849, the candidate is depicted as being assailed, among other missiles, by two dead cats.
Illustration of Chartist riots from later Victorian book, with dead cat in top-left
The Dead Cat as symbolic distraction
More recently the dead cat has been used as a symbol for a political distraction. Boris Johnson wrote “There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point is that that everyone will shout ‘There’s a dead cat on the table!’” They will all, he implies, concentrate on the dead cat, rather than talking about an issue that might be more disadvantageous to a candidate. The concept is apparently attributed to the political wheeler-dealer Lynton Crosby, though why he chose the dead cat as his metaphorical distraction in unclear.
Sources: S.H.Palmer, Police and Protest in England and Ireland 1780-1850 (Cambridge, 1988), p. 94
Hibbert, King Mob: The Story of Lord George Gordon and the Riots of 1780 (Stroud, 2004), p. 60.
Bernard de Mandeville, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Frequent Executions at Tyburn… (London, 1725)
The Statesman, 5 October 1812.
Bristol Mirror, 20 June 1818
J.R.McQuiston, ‘Sussex aristocrats and the County election of 1820,’ English Historiocal Review, lxxxviii (July 1973), p. 547
Northern Whig, 20 July 1852, p. 2
The Times, 10 July 1865, p. 6
A.Trollope, Dr. Thorne, chap. xvii; Rachel Ray, chap. xxiv
W.M.Thackeray, The Newcomes, chap. lxix
G.Eliot, Middlemarch, chap. li
Punch, i (1841), p. 7; xvii (1849), p. 152
The Guardian, 20 January 2016
The Times, 15 September 2016