Rats, demon cats and politicians from LA to Washington

By Kitty Felde

Don't be too embarrassed, Los Angeles. City Hall isn't the only political palace overrun by rodents. The U.S. Capitol is home to more mice than members of Congress.

L.A. city officials are busy pointing fingers, blaming the rat infestation on the demolition of Parker Center, or a restrictive injunction against cleaning up homeless encampments, or even trash generated by city workers eating lunch at their desks. But the U.S. Capitol can blame its rodent problem on Pierre L'Enfant, the architect of the new federal city of Washington, D.C. L'Enfant decided that the highest point on the land designated for his plan was, "a pedestal waiting for a monument." Unfortunately, a vast colony of mice had long ago established its own claim to that real estate - and has been hanging on ever since.

Welcome+to+Washington,+Fina+Mendoza+eimage.jpgA former staffer for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says it wasn't uncommon to have a meeting interrupted by a mouse scurrying across the room. Another staffer for Republican Congressman Jim Banks of Indiana proudly tweeted a picture of the boss posing with the captured critter in his office mousetrap. These days, janitors who work for the Architect of the Capitol usually deploy sticky yellow tape and collect the stuck-on mice in the morning. (Yes, they're still alive. At least until they are caught.)

But in the old days, workers relied on a more environmentally friendly solution: cats.

You can find proof of their existence outside the old Supreme Court chamber inside the Capitol. If you get down on your hands and knees, you can spot half a dozen cat paw prints in the concrete floor - a sort of feline version of Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

Those cats are gone now, but they left behind a ghostly legacy. The U.S. Capitol has long been rumored to be haunted by the Demon Cat of Capitol Hill. He's been described as a large black critter with glowing yellow eyes who grows to the size of a minibus. According to the legend, if you happen to see this particular cat, you will be cursed with bad luck. Someone supposedly saw it right before the 1929 stock market crash. Another sighting was reported just before President Kennedy was shot. Those elected to Congress face a particular threat from the Demon Cat: if you see it, you'll lose your bid for re-election.

In my middle grade mystery novel, "Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza," the 10-year-old daughter of a congressman from California sees what she thinks is the Demon Cat and experiences her own string of bad luck. She is determined to solve the mystery of the Demon Cat.

But what's the truth behind the legend?

It seems that in the early days, there was even more nepotism at work in the Capitol than in the present-day Washington. Capitol policemen were not the well-trained force at work today. Back then, they were often a ne'er-do-well brother-in-law of a senator. Many drank on duty. Sometime after the Civil War, one of them fell asleep on the floor. He woke up when he felt something licking his face. When he opened his eyes, he saw what he thought was the face of a gigantic cat hovering over him. A demon cat. The story was frightening enough to get him a day off. Other workers started "seeing" that cat as well. The legend of the Demon Cat of Capitol Hill was born.

Less diabolical felines were found on the second floor of the Capitol as well. An article from the August 1, 1909 edition of the Shawnee Daily Herald from Oklahoma told "a most amusing tale" about "the antics of a very lively cat." According to the article, some prankster tied the half shells of walnuts onto the feet of one of the Capitol cats and turned her loose in Statuary Hall, the room just south of the Rotunda.

On the night of the State of the Union, Statuary Hall is packed with press and politicos who offer their take on the president's speech. But most nights, it's empty and dark. On this particular night, "the noise of these shells on the marble floors at midnight, in the semi-darkness as the distracted cat scampered about, trying to get rid of her new shoes, gave the watchers the worst fright of their lives."

Those darn cats.

These days on Capitol Hill, it's the dogs who have the run of the place, not the cats. Walk down the halls of any congressional office building and you'll likely run into a poodle or a beagle walking around as if they rather than their humans were the ones who won in November. Perhaps they were just following the adage of President Harry S. Truman: "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

Rats from 1924 campaign against bubonic plague in Los Angeles.

Dogs also claim a long Congressional history. Back in the early 19th century, Virginia Congressman John Randolph would bring an entire pack of hunting dogs with him on the floor of the House of Representatives. He was quite the big dog himself. As chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, Randolph served as the de facto floor leader for Thomas Jefferson's administration. His colleagues were not fans. House Historian Matt Wasniewski says that when one member complained, Randolph hit him in the head with a riding crop.

The Congressional dog policy changed in 1811, when Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay became Speaker in 1811. One of his first actions was to order the removal of "the beasts from the floor!" Randolph was furious. The dispute lingered for many years thereafter: Clay and Randolph clashed over both the War of 1812 and the Missouri compromise, and finally, in 1826, fought a duel. Whether by intention or ineptitude, neither managed to hit the other.

Today, Congressional dogs wander the halls, but are not allowed on the House floor.

Meanwhile, the rodents still rule on both Capitol Hill and apparently in L.A. City Hall. Perhaps the politicians on both coasts would be much better served if they put their faith in cats. Demon or otherwise.

Public radio veteran Kitty Felde covered Capitol Hill for half a dozen years. She hosts the award-winning Book Club for Kids podcast. Her debut novel Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza will be published February 28, 2019.

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