Alamy and iStock
Alamy and iStock

10 of History's Most Power-Hungry Cats

Alamy and iStock
Alamy and iStock

By Caitlin Kelly

1. The Cat in the British Cabinet

Cats have stalked the corridors of British government since the reign of Henry VIII, but few have gotten as much publicity as Humphrey, the first feline to be named chief government mouser. The black-and-white cat wandered into No. 10 Downing Street in 1989 and was quickly employed by the cabinet office. His winning personality and track record ensured his position under three successive prime ministers.

But like most political animals his appointment was not scandal-free; in 1994, Humphrey was blamed for the death of several baby robins. The cabinet office leaped to his defense, maintaining that Humphrey had been ill and “could not have caught anything even if it had been roast duck with orange sauce presented to him on a plate.” It took an official inquiry to clear his name. After eight years of service, Humphrey officially retired on November 13, 1997, but even this was not without intrigue. Despite his strong support within the Labour Party, the press speculated that he had been forced from his position by none other than Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie.

2. The Cat That Started an International Incident

While serving as U.S. ambassador to India in 1962, John Kenneth Galbraith brought his family along on an official visit to Gujarat, where the governor of the Indian state presented Galbraith’s two sons with a pair of Siamese kittens. The boys named one Ahmedabad, after the city where the cats were born. Later that year, Galbraith’s wife, Catherine, told a story about the cat, using the kitten’s nickname, “Ahmed.”

What the family didn’t realize is that Ahmed is one of the many names of the prophet Muhammad. When the story appeared in the international edition of Time, it sparked outrage in Pakistan, where extremists were already fuming over American aid to Indian armed forces. The consulate was attacked, a jeep carrying Americans overturned, and mullahs decried U.S. insensitivity. Galbraith moved to avert the diplomatic crisis, starting with changing the cat’s name to Gujarat, but as he later wrote, “Amateurs will never understand how much can turn on the name of a kitten.”

3. The Cat That Committed Wrenocide

You’ll never earn the nickname “Tibbles the Merciless” by wasting your days batting away at scratching posts and pieces of string. A highly efficient hunter, Tibbles is remembered as the most likely cause of extinction for an entire species, the Stephens Island wren—a small, flightless bird that thrived on New Zealand’s Stephens Island until humans and cats moved there in 1892. By 1894, 17 people and Tibbles were making their presence felt on the tiny, brush-covered rock, and before long, Tibbles was leaving her bird catches on doorsteps. Her victims found an eager admirer in David Lyall, an assistant lighthouse keeper with an interest in natural history. Lyall sent a specimen to New Zealand’s leading ornithologists, where the scientists were delighted to discover a new species so close to home.

The joy was short-lived, however. By the end of 1895, naturalists declared the Stephens Island wren extinct, thanks to Tibbles and a few of her furry brethren. The cleanup crew was not rewarded for its thoroughness. At the turn of the century, a bounty was offered for any cat on the island, and by 1925, the Stephens Island cat had gone the way of its flightless bird.

4. The Cat That Can See Russia From Its House

For more than 15 years, the mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, a tiny village at the base of Mt. McKinley, has spent his days lounging in the town’s general store, often enjoying an afternoon wineglass of catnip. Although Stubbs the cat never formally ran for office, he was elected after townspeople, unimpressed by the selection of mayoral candidates, began a write-in campaign in 1997.

At least, that’s the story they like to tell. In reality, it was a publicity stunt by the town—and it worked. A career politician, Stubbs has served as honorary mayor of Talkeetna since he was a kitten, checking in on local businesses, taking frequent catnaps, and, most importantly, helping to lure tourists into town.

5. The Cat That Put France in Space

The French have been turning animals into aeronauts since the 18th century, when the Montgolfier brothers launched a sheep, a duck, and a rooster toward space in a hot-air balloon. After successfully sending up rats in 1961 and 1962, France decided that cats were the natural chaser. CERMA (France’s Center for the Study and Research of Aerospace Medicine) collected 14 alley cats and subjected them to compression chambers, centrifuges, and noise boxes simulating a rocket launch. Two of the cats excelled: a tabby named Félix and a black-and-white cat named Félicette.

Félix was chosen for the first mission, but the crafty cat went AWOL just before the scheduled launch on October 18, 1963. So instead it was Félicette who took a 97-mile-high, 13-minute ride aboard the Veronique AGI-V47 rocket, earning the title of first cat in space. Hailed by newspapers, and dubbed “Astrocat” by the press, Félicette cruised her way into the public’s heart. And while Félix shirked his national duty to tomcat about, he did reemerge to steal his pal’s thunder. When Niger, Chad, and Comoros issued commemorative stamps in honor of Félicette’s flight, the achievement was wrongly credited to Félix.

6. The Cat That Swayed the Courtroom

Shirley Duguay was a 32-year-old mother of five when she disappeared from Prince Edward Island in October 1994. When her body was found, police suspected her estranged boyfriend, Douglas Beamish, of the murder. But the evidence linking him to the case was thin—until police found a bloodstained jacket stashed in the woods. The blood matched Duguay’s. Twenty-seven white cat hairs in the coat’s lining provided a second clue—could they have come from Beamish’s cat, Snowball?

While DNA evidence had been used in trials for years, no one had ever used DNA from an animal in the courtroom. In fact, it wasn’t clear to scientists if an animal’s hair was distinctive enough or whether the fur from closely related cats might produce false positives. Investigator Roger Savoie needed to know, so he convinced an expert in cat genetics to take on the challenge.

The extra work paid off. The fuzz on the jacket proved a genetic match to Snowball, and Beamish was convicted of second-degree murder, setting a precedent for animal DNA in the courtroom. As for Roger Savoie? He was named 1997 Mountie of the Year thanks to his casework. Snowball, too, came out on top. He was placed in the feline equivalent of witness protection—given sanctuary at his loving grandparents’ place.

7. The Cat That Discovered a Continent

Born in 1799 aboard the HMS Reliance, Trim the cat was a natural sailor. Unafraid of choppy water, he swam with ease. When rope was thrown down for him, his owner, Capt. Matthew Flinders, claimed that he “took hold of it like a man and ran up it like a cat.” But Trim’s best trick was keeping his owner in good spirits. The two spent four memorable years sailing the South Pacific together, even completing the first-ever circumnavigation of Australia.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. The captain and his cat were separated in Mauritius, when Flinders was thrown into prison as a spy. Assuming his faithful cat had been eaten, Flinders vowed to create a memorial in Trim’s honor. And while he didn’t live long enough to see his promise through, his cat’s legacy endures. To this day, Flinders is remembered for proving through his journey that Australia was an island (rather than a group of islands). Statues of Flinders often include Trim, and if the captain had had his way, history would have given the cat equal billing.

8. The Cat That Saved the Prophet

There’s a saying in Turkey: “If you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque for God’s forgiveness.” This all stems back to a cat named Muezza, the favorite pet of the prophet Muhammad. According to one folktale, Muezza saved Muhammad from a deadly snake. When the prophet stroked her back as thanks, cats gained their ability to always land on their feet.

Muhammad would go on to teach his followers, “Cats are not impure; they keep watch around us.” The prophet’s legendary appreciation for cats made the creatures far more welcome by Muslims than by their Christian counterparts, who for centuries reviled felines as agents of the devil and carriers of plague. To this day, cats are welcomed into mosques with open arms.

9. The Cat That Fetched a Fortune

Dick Whittington was a poor orphan in 14th-century England who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become lord mayor of London—all thanks to his cat. As the story goes, Whittington was working as a servant when his boss spied an opportunity—he asked each of his servants to send one of their most valued items with a trusted sea captain to see what the goods might fetch abroad. Owning nothing but a cat, Whittington was reluctant to part with his pet. But the trade worked in his favor. The King of Barbary, struggling with a significant mouse problem in his palace, bought the cat from the captain for an untold sum, which the captain returned to the rightful owner. The suddenly wealthy Whittington then went on to become the mayor! Or so the story goes. The real Richard Whittington was the four-time mayor of London, but he was neither poor nor orphaned, and there’s no evidence he even had a cat. Still, the story is so popular that the feline is immortalized in a statue on Highgate Hill.

10. The Cat That Lobbied Washington

Stubbs isn’t the only fat cat built for politics. In Virginia, a Maine Coon named Hank turned his early life challenges into a key part of his voter narrative. He grew up on the streets with a single mother and ended up in a shelter. But that’s where he turned his life around. Before long, he’d met his owner and future campaign manager, Anthony Roberts, who decided the 9-year-old cat should run for Virginia Senate. A moderate independent, Hank’s campaign posters promised “a better Virginia … a brighter future.” About 7,000 voters agreed, turning out for a write-in campaign across the state. Hank nabbed third in the race, and while it didn’t put him on the Hill, his campaign raised roughly $60,000 for animal rescue. Perhaps Hank’s true calling is to become Washington’s cuddliest lobbyist.

For more historical felines, check out Sam Stall's 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization. For 17 million modern cats, check out the Internet.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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