Mysteries about the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. abound, from rumors it was cursed by an engineer who died during construction to reported sightings of a ghostly Capitol librarian. But the most enduring may be the legend of a terrifying demon cat that roams the nation’s legislative halls.
Since its first rumored appearance in the 1890s, the so-called Demon Cat (known as “D.C”.) has left a trail of terrified people in its wake. Some say it has appeared before tragic events, like the stock market crash of 1929 or President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. Here’s how this spooky myth got started—and why it persists today.
Cat myths in the 19th century
Reports of “demon cats”—both real and supernatural—were bizarrely commonplace during the 19th century. In fact, cat-related mythology dates back centuries around the world. Scholars attribute the ubiquity of these tales to cats’ bodies and behavior, from their otherworldly sounds to their nocturnal habits and glowing eyes.
In Japan, for example, bakneko legends depicted revenge-hungry cats that behaved like humans. Italian parents wishing to scare their children into good behavior told them terrifying tales of a gigantic feline called Gatto Mammone. In Slavic mythology, an evil ovinnik was thought to haunt barns and even set them on fire. And in Ireland, tales of demon cats abounded in local lore.
It’s no surprise, then, that American culture was filled with “demon cats” the late 19th century, too. In the 1880s, theatergoers enjoyed a poem and play called “The Demon Cat,” and newspapers of the era are full of reports of real and legendary dangerous felines.
One real-life cat terrified patrons of a Chicago restaurant in 1885. According to the Chicago News, the “imp of darkness” was relaxing on the restaurant’s bar when the proprietor slapped it out of the way. The cat then attacked a waiter while howling and spitting and getting food all over. John Stearns, the brother-in-law of then-mayor Carter Harrison, reportedly left the restaurant in response, saying “Never mind about getting another breakfast. I ain’t superstitious as a rule, but black cats are no slouches.”
Another newspaper in 1889 told the story of a more supernatural cat that disappeared aboard a ship. Devastated, the cat’s owner cast himself into a stormy sea—only for the crew to later discover the cat in a compartment below deck, surrounded by empty rum bottles and “dancing in fiendish glee…wildly intoxicated.” Only when the crew threw the cat itself into the ocean did the storms cease.
How D.C.’s demon cat legend began
Then, in 1898, D.C.-based journalist Rene Bache wrote about the ghostly apparitions supposedly associated with the U.S. Capitol building, calling it “probably the most thoroughly haunted in the world.” Bache described the “feline spook” as a cat that grew from an ordinary-sized animal into the size of an elephant before people’s eyes—claiming that the phantom had been frightening congressmen and others in the building since 1862.
There would have been plenty of people around to spot a mysterious cat around the Capitol building at the time, says Samuel Holliday, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society’s director of scholarship. During that early year of the Civil War, Union soldiers were quartered in both the House and Senate chambers in case of a Confederate attack, and later that year the building became a temporary hospital for battle-wounded troops.
Cats very likely did live in the Civil War-era Capitol, too. At the time, it was common to keep cats to catch rats—which would have been abundant due to the 20 large-capacity ovens in the building’s basement that produced 10,000 rations per day to feed the soldiers.
Another source of the legend may have been Capitol Police officers who patrolled the building at night. Holliday says that their duties at the time included capturing stray animals on Capitol premises. “For instance,” he says, “in 1904 the force had to lasso a stray horse and in 1910 captured 31 dogs.” Capitol tour guide Steve Livengood says a guard who drank too much may have started—and spread—the tale in an attempt to get a day off.
Regardless of the legend’s source, it only grew over the years. In 1935, a Capitol policeman told the Washington Post he’d shot his gun at a large black cat with “the generous proportions of Mae West plus the disposition of Bela Lugosi.” By then, believers thought the cat was a tabby with headlight-like eyes, saying it could be found at the White House, too.
The demon cat today
The Architect of the Capitol, the federal office that maintains and preserves the Capitol Building, attributes the paw prints to the rat-killing cats that once roamed the building, but those who subscribe to the Demon Cat myth disagree. They say the footprints only appeared after the rotunda was nearly destroyed by an explosion in 1898—an explosion they attribute to the malicious cat even though the official record says a gas explosion was to blame. These believers also say the initials D.C. carved into the same floor stand for Demon Cat.
Though the footprints and initials have been preserved inside the Capitol building for posterity, Livengood told Atlas Obscura in 2018 that there haven’t been any Demon Cat sightings in recent years.
Not so for the Capitol’s infamous rats—a rodent infestation was reported at the nearby U.S. House of Representatives Child Care Center in early 2022. And brown rats have made a big post-lockdown comeback in the District, the Washington Post reports, with a reported 13,300 complaints during the 2022 fiscal year. Perhaps it’s time for the Demon Cat to make a reappearance...all in the name of pest control.