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Dinner Party Cat-Astrophe

Claim:   A cat that had helped itself to salmon mousse prepared for an upcoming dinner party later turns up dead. The hostess, fearful her dish is poisoned, convinces her guests to rush to the hospital and get their stomachs pumped. Later that evening a neighbor comes over to apologize for running over the cat.

LEGEND

Example:   [Linkletter, 1967]

Since it was a very important dinner party for her husband's new boss, another woman told me she had made some very grand hors d'oeuvres and set them out on a coffee table. A few minutes later she caught her dog gobbling them down as fast as he could. She put him outside and then began welcoming her guests. Her husband hadn't arrived yet because his plane was delayed. Everybody was enjoying cocktails and the remaining hors d'oeuvres for about an hour when a neighbor called over and said, "Your dog is lying dead in the alley." Horrified that her hors d'oeuvres might have been poisonous, she told the guests what had happened. The whole party raced in a convoy of cars to the hospital emergency room, had their stomachs pumped out, and then gamely returned to the party. When the lady's husband finally got home, his first words to his shaken guests were, "Our poor dog is lying crushed and dead out there in the alley. A hit-and-run driver got him."
 

Variations:
  • The pet is either a cat or a dog.
  • The foodstuff eaten by the animal also varies: baked salmon, wild mushrooms, hors d'oeuvres, cold cuts, sandwiches, and salmon mousse have all been mentioned.
Origins:   Never trust a dead cat story (and certainly not this one)! Despite having shown up in John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, this anecdote is an urban legend so old as to have whiskers on it. Here's a 1948 example of this hoary tale being told as a true story. Notice how it begins — the tale was clearly in circulation well before even this reporting of it:
[Cerf, 1948]

Here's a story that pops up as regularly as clock work. The last time it came from Hollywood, and was pinned to the lovely Joan Caulfield.

There
were to be ten at her house for luncheon, and the individual portions of cold cuts and salad had been neatly set out, but the cocker spaniel got into the kitchen and gobbled up one of them. Miss Caulfield banished the pup to the garden and hastily redivided the remaining nine portions into ten.

The unwitting guests arrived, ate, and made merry — until Miss Caulfield looked out of the window and saw her cocker spaniel lying dead on the terrace. "He's been poisoned," she cried in horror, and then told her guests what had happened before they came.

There followed a mad rush to the hospital, with ten beautiful but panic-stricken ladies screaming for stomach pumps at the same time. When the ordeal was over, and it became apparent they were going to survive, they headed weakly for their homes and sleeping pills. Miss Caulfield found her neighbor waiting for her.

"Wasn't it awful about your poor doggy?" she gushed. "I saw the truck run over him, but you were having such fun with your guests, I didn't want to disturb you."
As for how long this story has been around, even in 1946 it was deemed so tired and overused a plot as to merit inclusion in a round-up of abused storylines. As described in that tome:
[Young, 1946]

The hostess at a dinner-party fears that the mushrooms she plans to use in the soup may be poisonous toadstools. Shortly before the guests arrive, she instructs the butler to try them out on her dog. The man makes no report; the guest arrive; dinner is served. In the middle of the meal, the butler enters, goes to his mistress and whispers; "Madame, the dog is dead!" He leaves the room, and the hostess tells the guests of their predicament. Frantic phone calls bring doctors and internes — with stomach pumps — and everyone is well pumped out. When the guests leave (after a pleasant party) the hostess goes to the butler and tells him she would like to see the body of her dog. "Oh, madam!" the man exclaims. "You don't want to see that dog. He looks perfectly shocking! . . . The animal had been killed by a truck.
Yet the oldest print sighting (so far) dates it back as far as 1933, when it was included in a round-up of "Manhatten folk-tales." Even then it was well traveled, the article saying "People are always popping up to declare that a friend of their next-door neighbor knows a woman who actually attended that unhappy dinner party."

What Cartoon of the legend makes this legend so appealing is the hostess' chagrin over having to admit the food she'd been serving her guests had previously been browsed by the dog. Faced with the decision of either enlightening her guests and thus revealing her shameful secret, or saying nothing and risking their dropping dead at any moment, she invariably makes the right choice. Even so, it's not a social faux pas she's ever likely to recover from.

Even the most experienced hostess fears starring in a dinner party disaster. The successful navigation of social situations is stressful enough without being the one at center stage. We wonder if, when called upon, we'll display half the aplomb of the famed hostess who, upon observing her serving girl drop a roast in front of the guests, smoothly instructed her: "Take it back to the kitchen, Marie, then bring out the other cut."

Barbara "arsenic and old plaice" Mikkelson

Sightings:   Look for a replay of this legend in the 1989 film Her Alibi and in the 1994 John Berendt novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

An unusual "bird" version showed up in an episode of the television sitcom Frasier (original air date 25 March 1999), in which Niles' treasured bird is discovered deceased among the hor d'oeuvres in the kitchen, and a mad scramble ensues to pry what's left of the treats back from the ravenous guests who are devouring them in the living room. Luckily for Niles, he finds out the bird met its demise in another fashion before he is forced to alert his guests.

Last updated:   2 August 2011

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Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good To Be True.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 44-45, 138).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Vanishing Hitchhiker.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.   ISBN 0-393-95169-3   (pp. 111-112).

    Cerf, Bennett.   Shake Well Before Using.
    New York: Simon and Schuster, 1948   (p. 179).

    de Vos, Gail.   Tales, Rumors and Gossip.
    Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1996.   ISBN 1-56308-190-3   (p. 146).

    Linkletter, Art.   Oops! Or, Life's Awful Moments.
    New York: Doubleday & Company, 1967   (pp. 72-73).

    Harrison, Paul.   "In New York."
    The Fitchburg [Massachusetts] Sentinel.   23 October 1933   (p. 6).

    Scott, Bill.   Pelicans & Chihuahuas and Other Urban Legends.
    St. Lucia, Queensland: Univ. of Queensland, 1996.   (pp. 63, 73).

    Smith, Paul.   The Book of Nasty Legends.
    London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.   ISBN 0-00-636856-5   (pp. 56-57).

    Young, James.   101 Plots Used and Abused.
    Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1946   (pp. 21-22)

Also told in:

    Berendt, John.   Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
    New York: Random House, 1994.   ISBN 0-679-42922-0   (pp. 336-337).

    Holt, David and Bill Mooney.   Spiders in the Hairdo.
    Little Rock: August House, 1999.   ISBN 0-87483-525-9   (p. 26).

    Healey, Phil and Rick Glanvill.   Now! That's What I Call Urban Myths.
    London: Virgin Press, 1996.   ISBN 0-86369-969-3   (pp. 30-32).

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.
    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 40).