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The Dead Cat in the Package

Claim:   A package containing a dead cat is stolen by a thief who thinks she's making off with something of value.

LEGEND

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 1997]

Two elderly women went shopping. As they came out of the mall they spied a dead cat in the parking lot. Being cat lovers, they couldn't bear the thought of leaving the poor dead kitty there. They decided to take it home and give it a decent burial. They went back into the store and got some Dillard's shopping bags. They wrapped the dead kitty in one sack and then put it in another Dillard's sack, hoping to contain the odor. It was lunch time so their next stop was a local restaurant. As it was a warm day, they were reluctant to leave the dead kitty closed up in the car. So they placed the Dillard's sack beside the car and went in to eat. As it happened, their car was visible through the window where they were sitting in the restaurant. They watched a lady walk by their car, stop, go back and pick up their Dillard's sack, and walk into the restaurant. This lady is then seated next to our two elderly cat lovers. The lady orders her lunch and curiosity getting the better of her, she opens the Dillard's sack. She peeks inside, screams, and in trying to get out of her chair, falls and hits her head. An ambulance is called to take the poor woman away. As they are taking her away one of our elderly cat lovers places the Dillard's sack on the gurney saying, "I think this belongs to her..."
 

Origins:   Recent Cartoon of the legend versions of this story often place it at the West Edmonton Mall in Canada or the Mall of America in the United States. In those incarnations the action supposedly takes place in the parking lot, where a Good Samaritan places the deceased beastie in a shopping bag, then retreats to her own car to watch so she'll be on hand to give an explanation when the cat's owner returns. Another woman comes along, filches the bag, and gets it back to her own car, where she opens it and is seen fainting dead away once she catches sight of her ill-gotten gains. (In some tellings, an ambulance is called and the still-unconscious woman is placed on a stretcher with what the emergency workers believe to be the poor dear's bag thoughtfully placed on her chest.)

Now I'm going to ruin your day by telling you it never happened. Not only that, dead-cats-in-package stories are as old as the hills (one even turned up in a 1904 New York Times article.) Another standard version has an old woman taking her dear, departed Fluffy across town on a bus so she can bury her in a lovely park. Either thieves brazenly steal her package or her parcel somehow gets innocently switched with someone else's, and she arrives at her destination not with Fluffy but instead with a nice ham all wrapped up. (It's told both ways.)

In a closely-related version, the woman takes the subway with her soon-to-be-buried cat, but this time the beastie is in a suitcase. While the woman is struggling up the steep stairs, a nice young boy offers to carry the suitcase up for her. She gratefully hands over the bag, and he hares off with dead Fluffy. (In this version you're left to imagine the lad's reaction when he pries it open.)

The following tale of one man's efforts to track down this story comes out of David Jacobson's 1948 book, The Affairs of Dame Rumor:
Through the association of ideas, a given concept turns into a dramatic event, such as the perennial wonder of the Dead-Cat-Come-to-Justice. A New York City newspaperman once decided to track down this tale. He had first heard it from a friend. Claiming to believe the story himself, the friend told the newspaperman about a woman who had placed her pet cat in a veterinary hospital where it later died. As she wished to give the animal a decent burial, the woman called for her pet's remains; and neatly wrapped in a box she received the dead cat.

Along the way home, the woman stopped to do some shopping at Stern's department store on 42nd Street. While selecting her purchases, the
woman placed the box on a near-by counter. But suddenly she looked around for it, and the box was gone.

Stern's detectives began searching the store for the packaged body of the cat. Within a short time they found it. The opened box, the deceased animal leering out of it, was on the floor of a telephone booth. Alongside there lay the body of a woman, immediately identified as a well-known shoplifter who had been under the scrutiny of this and other stores for several months. The shoplifter had apparently taken her loot to the telephone booth, opened it, caught a glimpse of the dead cat, and dropped to the floor dead of a heart attack resulting from fright.

His friend, the newspaperman learned, got the rumor about this macabre justice from two actors who lived in the neighboring apartment. The two knew the full truth of the story, according to the friend. Yet, interviewing the actors, the journalist found they had received the tale from a Christian Science practitioner, a man whose word they did not doubt as he had told them the rumor as gospel.

The Christian Science practitioner willingly repeated this gospel before the newspaperman, adding that he had heard it from a woman. She was the friend of the dead cat's owner. She would give him the names of all the people involved.

And, to be sure, this woman was full of the dead-cat wonder, according to the journalist . . .

Not that she actually knew the name of the animal's owner. But she had heard the rumor from her son-in-law, who knew all about it. "He turned out to know everything about it," the newspaperman reported. "He had heard the story firsthand from a passenger on a commuters' train whose aunt knew the lady who owned the dead cat."

Still curious about the rumor, the newspaperman went to Stern's department store. There a somewhat firm, if not angered, chief detective swiftly assured him that nothing of the sort had happened. Neither had the local police station any record of either a dead shoplifter or a dead cat having been reported.

While the newspaperman was playing ring-around-a-rosy with the Dead-Cat-Come-to-Justice rumor, it was having a gay time of its own. It was flying from table to table, from office to office on its cross-country journey. Readjusted to fit the local situation in Chicago, the rumor was an eye-opener, months later, when it became current talk. In California, the following year, people gasped in amazement as they heard about the fate of the shoplifter in the local department store. And at least one national magazine published the rumor as one of its truth-is-stranger-than-fiction features for the edification of the wonder-lovers among its loyal subscribers.
Barbara "this cattail has nine lies" Mikkelson

Sightings:   The 1981 Yevgeny Yevtushenko novel Wild Berries relates a "switched packages on a commuter train" version.

Last updated:   19 July 2011

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Sources:

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    New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.   ISBN 0-393-31208-9   (pp. 20-22, 245-246).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Choking Doberman.
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    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Mexican Pet.
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    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Vanishing Hitchhiker.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.   ISBN 0-393-95169-3   (pp. 103-112).

    de Vos, Gail.   Tales, Rumors and Gossip.
    Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1996.   ISBN 1-56308-190-3   (pp. 158, 164-169).

    Dorson, Richard.   American Folklore.
    Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1959   (pp. 253-254).

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

    Jacobson, David J.   The Affairs of Dame Rumor.
    New York: Rinehart & Company, 1948   (pp. 44-46).

    Scott, Bill.   Pelicans & Chihuahuas and Other Urban Legends.
    St. Lucia, Queensland: Univ. of Queensland, 1996.   ISBN 0-7022-2774-9   (p. 64).

    Smith, Paul.   The Book of Nastier Legends.
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Also told in:

    Healey, Phil and Rick Glanvill.   Now! That's What I Call Urban Myths.
    London: Virgin Books, 1996.   ISBN 0-86369-969-3   (pp. 113-114).

    Holt, David and Bill Mooney.   Spiders in the Hairdo.
    Little Rock: August House, 1999.   ISBN 0-87483-525-9   (pp. 92-93).

    Schwartz, Alvin.   More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
    New York: HarperCollins, 1984.   ISBN 0-397-32081-7   (pp. 52-53).

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.
    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (pp. 42-43).