Originally published in Magonia 51, February 1995.
At one of the seminars at a recent conference on ‘Moral Panics’ I raised the topic of the cat-skinning rumours that we have touched on from time to time in Magonia. They seem to be an example of the way an urban legend can be turned into a moral panic. It has many of the features of both genres. Implicit in it is xenophobia: the phantom villains are usually foreigners or other outsider groups like gypsies. The fact that the British rumours so often seem to identify the culprits as being from other European nations, perhaps links in with current ‘Europhobe’ attitudes and fears — worry over loss of British identity in the European Union, and continuing concern over perceived cruel attitudes to animals in other European nations. Current campaigns over the transport of live farm animals, bullfighting and hunting of songbirds are helping to reinforce this stereotype in the minds of many British people.
One way in which this fear and suspicion has fed into discussion over public policy has been the current debate over British quarantine laws ostensibly intended to keep rabies out of the country. The Channel Tunnel incorporates the most elaborate system of fences, traps and electrified sections to prevent French wildlife making it under the Channel. However, a recent Parliamentary committee has recommended that the laws should be revised or scrapped altogether. This suggestion has produced a hostile reaction from animal protection groups in Britain, despite the fact that rabies cases in Western Europe are now very rare indeed. Many critics feel that the quarantine laws are now less a practical defence against animal disease than a symbolic attempt to prevent “infection from less happy lands” to misquote John of Gaunt, and maintain Britain’s island status against such intrusions as the Channel Tunnel itself, and the threatened European super-state.
“We have had a few complaints since we started stocking it. It’s all down to your sense of humour”.
Indeed, the catnapping scare does now seem to be on the verge of transformation into a fully-fledged moral panic. A participant at the conference told of recent events in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Here a local shop was selling small toys made of fake-fur which looked like a cat’s tail popping out of a paper bag. Some sort of balancing mechanism made the tail wag about when the bag was moved. Soon, after press attention was called to this novelty by the sight of children standing outside the shop laughing at the ‘cat in the bag’, a campaign was started by the local paper to ‘ban this cruel toy’. Amazingly, the shop complied and the item was withdrawn from the shop window and from sale.
Amazing coincidence department: Literally minutes after typing the above paragraph, a copy of my local free-sheet, the Richmond and Twickenham Informer dropped through my letterbox, and there on page 18 was a story headed ‘Fur flies over sick moggy toy’.  The ‘cat in a bag’ had arrived at Mayfair Cards, Kingston-upon-Thames, where it was spotted by ‘Teddington window cleaner Doug Petts, 62, browsing for some early Christmas gifts’. “It’s disgusting” the appositely named Mr Petts said, “If this is someone’s idea of a joke they must have a sick sense of humour. I found it offensive”. An RSPCA spokeswoman contacted by the Informer claimed that the animal charity had received a ‘flood of complaints from all parts of the country’. “We are particularly upset because there has even been a suggestion that this toy was actually approved by the RSPCA. That is completely ridiculous”. The manageress of Mayfair Cards has responded to the complaints by putting up a sign saying ‘This is not a real cat – please don’t do it at home with your pet’. Concludes Wendy Bragg, 25: “We have had a few complaints since we started stocking it. It’s all down to your sense of humour”.
When we started writing about the cat scare – after it featured in our local paper in Richmond-upon-Thames, we had no idea of its long history. Now Gareth Medway, has sent us photocopies from a book published in the 1930s, which recounts the legend-panic in its most extreme form.
Elliott O’Donnell is better known for his books of classic ghost stories, but in 1934 he published Strange Cults and Secret Societies of Modern London. 
In assessing the credibility of the book, Gareth Medway comments: “The interesting thing about this book generally is that whilst almost everything in it is over the top, those societies and events that O’Donnell claims to have been personally involved with are far more implausible than those where he invokes some witness. The only reason I can think of for this is that when he had been told a story by a witness, they would know if he altered it too much; whereas when he himself was the witness he could let his imagination run wild. Thus a Pagan Lesbian sect, the Gorgons, are described in such a way that they might have been real, his informant having been a woman, of course. ‘The Gots’, whom he had investigated personally (he says) break the boggle-barrier for me. Anyway. I think the skinned cats stories are probably narrated much as they were told to him.”
“Police protection is of little use against these organisations, because they are so subtle and secretive, and they number amongst them some persons who are outwardly thoroughly respectable and law-abiding”
Here then, in O’Donnell’s own words, is his account, compare it to the stories from Richmond and Bracknell reported in Magonia 43:
Some years ago a shocking case of cruelty to cats was reported in the Press. Somewhere in the East End, of the exact locality I cannot be quite sure, a man saw a sack lying on the ground, and noticing it move he opened it. To his horror it was full of skinned cats, some of whom were still alive. The man told the police, but the culprits were never caught. It was surmised at first that they were a gang of foreign East Enders, who made a living out of flaying cats alive, for the sake of their skins; the skins being of more value when taken off a living, healthy animal. Afterwards, however, it was mooted that these cat-skinners belonged to a cult out to get thrills from any and every kind of cruelty; and that they were responsible for the skinned dogs that had, from time to time, been found floating in the Thames. It was said, by the way, that they had meant to throw the sack of cats they had skinned into the Thames, but were prevented.
Soon after reading about all this in the Press, I met, quite by chance, a school teacher in the East End who was able to confirm it. She told me she had learned, from some of her pupils, that secret societies existed by the riverside in the City, and as far east as Dagenham, who made a practice of stealing cats and skinning them alive. If the cats were fine and healthy, they sold the skins to foreign Jewish fur merchants for a few pence a skin; and if they were poorly nourished they skinned them alive all the same, just for the fun of it.
“Bodies of cats and dogs are constantly to be seen floating in the Thames,” she informed me, “and no one ever queries how they got there or thinks of examining them. If they were examined a large percentage of the cats would be found to be minus their skins… Dogs are often stolen from the humble homes and sold to doctors, medical schools and vets. I have been told these things as facts,” she went on, “but there it ends. It is impossible to discover any details about the secret societies, because of intimidation. The children, who tell me about them, make me promise I will never give them away. They say if it leaked out they had told me about the cats, they would go about in fear of their lives. Police protection is of little use against these organisations, because they are so subtle and secretive, and they number amongst them some persons who are outwardly thoroughly respectable and law-abiding. The police probably know of their existence, but they find it as difficult to prove anything against them as they do to lay hands on the people who smuggle dope into the Port of London.”
“And the various societies for the protection of animals, can’t they do anything?” I asked.
“The same applies to them,” the schoolmistress responded. “I have told some of them about the skinning of cats, and they want to know names which I cannot give them. It is useless for them to send officials to make enquiries, because the societies are always on the alert. they spot strangers at once and take very good care that they discover nothing. After all, the majority of people do not trouble about their cats because they are of no monetary value. they would rather say nothing about the loss of their cat and enjoy immunity from malice than take any action that might antagonise the secret organisations.”
Later, describing a case of cruelty to children, O’Donnell reports that a woman living in the King’s Cross district of London (nowadays notorious for drugs and prostitution) told him of secret societies of young people:
“Their chief delight was in being cruel to children and animals”. The woman, who was the caretaker in a house O’Donnell was considering renting, told him of a recent court case, in which a nurse maid employed by a West End doctor was charged with cruelty towards the doctor’s children. This had caused a great deal of interest in the King’s Cross area because “the girl belonged to a secret society of young people whose homes were mostly in this neighbourhood, and who were known to do all sorts of wild and savage things”. Apparently many members of these societies were in service with wealthy families in the West End, “I know that they always very much resent taking their employers’ Pekinese dogs out for constitutionals, and hate having to clean up after them”.
What is most remarkable about O’Donnell’s account is the way it mirrors exactly the preoccupations of modern legends and panics. The ‘secret societies’ which contain `outwardly respectable and law-abiding’ people corresponds exactly to Joan Coleman’s description of Satanic cults sheltering wealthy aristocrats who are the main organisers and instigators of the groups’ atrocities. Here too we see the alleged indifference of the police and the impotence of animal protection societies in the face of a lack of evidence and a wall of silence.
The cat-skinning culprits are, of course, foreigners, or even ‘foreign Jewish fur merchants’. I have no idea how practical cat-fur would be for clothing – not very, is my guess – but the modern catnapping tales also point the finger of suspicion to fur traders. It is perhaps relevant that concern has been expressed that the present day anti-fur trade campaign has attracted some unwelcome anti-Semitic elements.
Elliott O’Donnell was reporting from the East End of London. An area which to most of his readers would have a remote, violent and sinister reputation, and which in many people’s minds would still be over-shadowed by the memory of Jack the Ripper
Elliott O’Donnell was reporting from the East End of London. An area which to most of his readers would have a remote, violent and sinister reputation, and which in many people’s minds would still be over-shadowed by the memory of Jack the Ripper. Even as late as the 1930′s it bore scars of terrible poverty, and was dominated by immigrant communities: Chinese, Jews, ‘Lascars’, a frightening `underclass’ which, to quote Roger Sandell earlier in this magazine, would seem like “a modern ‘Dark Continent’ awash with idolatry and witchcraft”. No wonder respectable West End matrons worried about their little Pekinese when they were entrusted to servants who had emerged from this urban hell! (All this youthful torture and mayhem was taking place, it is worth pointing out, without the influence of television or video nasties.)
It was doubtless the case that some domestic servants did feel resentment against their wealthy employers, and perhaps occasionally took out their anger against a pampered pet – understandable if, as may have been the case, the pet was costing almost as much to keep as the servant was earning to maintain a family. What is interesting is that such acts, if they were taking place, were ascribed to a secret society organising random acts of cruelty, rather than to a possible combination of personal resentment and class hostility. After all, a violent East End secret society the wealthy West End lady could not do much about apart from whisper about in shocked and muted tones; acknowledging the personal hostilities and resentments of her staff might involve paying them more money and treating them better. Far easier to blame it on the mysterious men in the shadows of Limehouse or Whitechapel!
The June 1994 issue of that excellent magazine Foaftale News has a round-up of stories of birds of prey attacking and/or carrying away domestic animals and even children. It describes reports from the Northcliff suburb of Johannesburg, where residents were convinced that cats were being caught and eaten by spotted eagle-owls living in the area. Although an ornithologist claimed that the owls would be incapable of picking-off anything bigger than a rat, one Northcliffe resident was adamant that she saw “an owl in our driveway stalking our cat”. The bird was chased away but next day the cat had vanished. Another resident tied two great panics together with the comment “at least it’s nature taking its course and not something sinister like Satanists who steal and torture cats”. It is perhaps no coincidence that this report should also be coming from a society still divided rigidly along lines of class and race, but undergoing massive social and political change.
As we read more about the Cat Flap, it seems what we first though of as a few mildly amusing examples of silly-season stories in local papers are turning out to be symptoms of something very significant. There are clear links to other topics which we have looked at in the past, from Satanism to animal mutilations and secret cults. It seems like our society – perhaps any society – needs monsters within. In many cases this is as a form of social control: “look at the terrors that are going on outside your front door, aren’t you lucky to have us (police, secret police, KGB, Gestapo or any other oppressive control system you care to name) looking after you”. But in other cases we create the monsters to explain worrying random events. Is it easier to believe that acts of cruelty and violence are random separate incidents caused by a complex of unknowable social and personal stimuli, or that they are organised in a rational way by secret organisations that control their members with ruthless efficiency? In the latter case we may feel that there is the hope – remote but always there – that these master criminals, or whatever, will actually be caught, and the evil they are orchestrating will end. Paradoxically we may be creating monsters of uncontrollable violence to control the frighteningly random and chaotic universe we see around us.
1. Birch, Colin. ‘Fur flies over sick moggy toy’, Richmond and Twickenham Informer week ending 2 december 1994, p.18.
2. O’Donnell, Elliott. Strange Cults and Secret Societies of Modern London, Philip Allan, 1934