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White House “Ghost Cat” has Haunted Washington for Decades

Demon Cat of Washington
A black cat is seen peering over a wall in Washington, D.C. The legend of the “Demon Cat of Washington” has persisted throughout the centuries, with sightings all over the city. Credit: X737257 /CC BY-SA 4.0

Of all the scary things that have gone on in Washington D.C. over the years — and there have been many — the “Demon Cat” apparitions have pride of place, at least when it comes to all things Halloween-related.

Showing up over the centuries, the supposed Demon Cat has become one of the most famous ghost stories in the US’ capital city. Spotted by spooked people as far back as the Civil War years, it has appeared to them often as a huge, menacing cat that prowls prominent federal government buildings.

Sometimes the legendary feline simply pops up to frighten people for the sheer fun of it — but others see a nefarious pattern to its apparitions, coming as an omen to portend of disastrous events in the city.

Known simply as “D.C.,” the fickle feline has been showing up in Washington since at least the year 1862.

It made it into the Washington Post in 1898, when the Demon Cat was said to have appeared to people as a regular-sized housecat at first; however, it somehow expanded to the “size of an elephant before the eyes of a terrified observer,” according to Dr. Colleen Shogan, the Senior Vice President and Director of the David M. Rubenstein Center for White House History.

In her article, called “Demon Cat: The Tale of a Wanderlust Feline Ghost,” published by the White House Historical Association, Shogan tells the tale of its initial appearance in the US Capitol Building during the Civil War, when the nation was being torn apart.

At that time, the stately building’s basement was being used as a bakery to feed Union soldiers; naturally, that would have meant that there were large stores of flour and other grains, attracting rodents to Foggy Bottom.

Supposedly, the Demon Cat appeared there several times during that year, even sparking a guard to reportedly fire his gun at the apparition, causing it to disappear.

Ever since that first appearance, the Demon Cat has most frequently made its appearance in the basement of the cavernous Capitol building.

Taking various forms and colors, some say that the ghost cat is a tabby, but others who have claimed to have seen it say that it is black.

Ghost cat "Tige"
“Tige,” the tiger cat owned by President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s, roamed Washington DC for months before he returned to the White House; his legendary exploits have merged with stories of a series of sightings that became known as the “Ghost cat” of Washington. Here he is pictured in March of 1924 with the man who found him, Navy guard Benjamin Fink. Photographer Herbert E. French, National Photo Company glass plate negative. Credit: Library of Congress/public domain.

Over time, the real cats who may have lived off the populations of mice and other rodents in the city — that once of course was a swamp — may have merged with the supposed sightings of the fearsome outsize kitty.

Added to this feline mix are the legendary exploits of “Tige,” the tiger cat owned by President Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace. Wandering far afield from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, sightings of the peripatetic cat may have merged with the Demon Cat to add credence to the story over time.

Although his digs were in the White House, Tige would head off to other parts of the city,  and was frequently gone for days at a time. The Capitol Building was known to be one of his haunts, as well as the other federal buildings which line the Mall.

Every time Tige took off on a powder, it was reported in the news, attracting “a considerable amount of attention for his vanishing act,” according to Shogan.

His frequent travels may have created part of the legend about the Demon Cat in that it was seen in several locations over time.

When Tige was found after a particularly long time away from the family, it made the news, as his rescuer, Navy guard Benjamin Fink found Tige promenading around the Navy Building, according to the caption on the photo commemorating the event.

After having his disappearance broadcasted by Washington radio stations, he was brought back to the White House by Fink.

In 1935, the Washington Post reported that there had been yet another sighting of the Demon Cat, with one observer saying that its eyes “glow with the all the hue and ferocity of the headlights of a fire engine.”

However, the article also points to a much more prosaic explanation for the feline in that it was known that there were cats who “roamed the basement passageways of the U.S. Capitol for decades, serving as cost-free and efficient exterminators of mice and vermin,” Shogan says.

The late representative John Dingell, Jr., who served in Congress from 1955 to 2015, recalled once hunting rats that were “as big as housecats” in the basement of the Capitol Building when he served as a House of Representatives page during the Second World War.

And like all ghost stories — which appear to be part of all cultures all across the world — there are many variations, making it hard to pin down just what the protagonist looks like.

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