A sliver of moon rises behind the Capitol dome. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

In early October of 1898, The Washington Post reported on a truly frightening development in Congress.

The Demon Cat was back.

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“After many years of absence,” The Post wrote, “this is truly a horrific apparition.”

Given how the paper described this “feline spook of the Capitol,” the word horrific might have been an understatement.

The Post said it at first looks like an “ordinary” cat but “swells up to the size of an elephant before the eyes of the terrified observer.”

These days, only lobbyists are capable of turning into similarly scary and fat cats.

But from the mid-1800s to well into the 20th century, the Demon Cat was the top dog of Washington ghost stories, which is rather remarkable, considering other ghostly legends of the nation’s capital — such as a spectral President Abraham Lincoln greeting Winston Churchill as he stepped out of a White House bathtub.

"Good evening, Mr. President,” Churchill reportedly said, half naked. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”

But back to the cat.

The best ghostly explanation of its origins comes from a Washington Post story in 1935:


Post archives

The 1935 Post story included new characteristics of the Demon Cat that, for unknown reasons, were left out of earlier accounts:


Post archives

Let us pause for a moment to consider some truly glorious wordsmithing: elephantined alley trouper.

So, what’s the real — or at least best — explanation for this legend?

Drunk security guards.

Steve Livengood, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society’s chief tour guide, told Atlas Obscura this year that “the night watchmen were not professionals. They would often be some senator’s ne’er-do-well brother-in-law that had a drinking problem.”

The watchmen would get drunk, then pass out, and then some friendly cats would come lick their faces. Of course, if you are drunk enough, a nice little tabby might possibly appear to be an “elephantined alley trouper” with glowing eyes.

Atlas Obscura further explained:

...when the guard in question reported their ravings to a superior, the boss couldn’t really discipline him for drinking because of his high-powered connections, so the guard would simply have been sent home to recover. “Then the other guards realize that if they see the cat and get attacked, then they get a day off. And that’s how history gets written,” says Livengood.

Anyway, you never hear these stories about dogs.

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