The Great Hawaiian Cat Massacre and Joseph F. Smith

11 Apr

Talking of kindness to animals – this post from Amanda at the Juvenile Inspector seemed appropriate:

This year, I am planning on flying to Honolulu to do research on Mormon communities such as Laie and Lahaina.  Hawai’i’s official tourism website assures me that I will enjoy the “clear, blue waters of Kailua beach,” “the metropolitan cityscapes of Honolulu,” and “the historic architecture of Iolani Palace.” (  Had I traveled there in the nineteenth century, however, I would have found myself surrounded not by luxurious hotels and volleyball courts but a multitude of half-fed, half-wild dogs and cats.

When William Root Bliss visited the city in 1873, he discovered that what should have been a quiet port city had been transformed into a noisy, yowling place by the pets of its residents.  “Every family,” he reported, “keeps at least one dog; every native family a brace of cats.”  In addition to these beloved pets, there were five thousand homeless animals and a gaggle of cocks and chickens for cockfighting.  As soon as dusk hit, a single crow would caw, asking how Bliss liked “Hoo-ner-loo-loo.”  It wasn’t long before a dozen of his compatriots had joined in.  The dogs would then begin to howl, joined by the cats who protest with “every vowel sound in the Hawaiian language.”  It was impossible, he wrote, for him to sleep.  Although Mark Twain did not comment on his ability to sleep in Honolulu, he wrote in Roughing It that when he arrived in Honolulu, he saw a profusion of cats – “Tom cats, Mary Ann cats, long-tailed cats, bob-tailed cats, one-eyed cats, wall-eyed cats, cross-eyed cats, gray cats, black cats, white cats, yellow cats, spotted cats, tame cats, wild cats, individual cats, groups of cats, platoons of cats, companies of cats, regiments of cats, armies of cats, multitudes of cats, millions of cats, and all of them sleek, fat, lazy and sound asleep.” Nor was it simply travelers who noted the massive number of animals in Honolulu.  Even local newspapers sometimes opined the infestation.  On March 19, 1875, for example, The Islander reported that a young girl passing through the island had simply said “O I saw plenteo dogs!” when asked to describe Honolulu.  The newspaper then told its audience that the description was “a brief and truthful description” of the city in its “salient points.”  The number of dogs had been increasing in the city in spite of the attempts of the government to control the population.

Although the earliest Mormon missionaries arrived nearly twenty years before these reports were printed, they too noted the prevalence of animals in the city – the numerous, dogs, cats, hogs, and chickens that seemed to swell the streets.  Joseph F. Smith, in particular, noted their presence in his diaries.  He found their ubiquity within the homes of native Hawaiians disturbing.  With few exceptions, he wrote in his July 4th, 1856 journal entry, “hoges, doges, cates and they live together.”  The animals he saw were not the clean pets that he had envisioned in Utah.  He saw “doges particularly besides other animals, compleately covered with the itch so that there have had all left their bodies in a scale.”  What disturbed him most was the close contact such animals had with his food.  In one Hawaiian home, he complained, he had seen a dog “its eyes and mouth… drolling,” its body more skin than bones, and its flesh covered with “running sores and scabs” standing over the “calabash of poi” that he was to eat.

Joseph found the sanitary habits of Hawaiians no more appetizing.  He wrote that he had “seen whol families who ware one sollid mass of scabies” and “eaten food mixed up like unto batter with such hands.”  Furthermore, he had “slept in places wher should my bag sleep [,] my stomach would forbid me of it[;] I was working for Joseph.”

In his journal, he continually complained about the living conditions on Hawai’i, as the journal entries below suggest.

May 10th, 1857: “Spent the day preaching Mormonism to Mr. Meyer.  He is concerned about the work – and is canvassing its principels.  I hope with an earnest heart.  I am horably afflicted with some kidney biles, which are verry sore + disagreeable – coupled with that I have a verry severe pain in my kidney which is verry afflicting and sore sod I am quite a cripple at present.  This is the first sabath one that I have ever spent sinse I could talk  the language without preaching to the natives”

August 8th, 1857: “This morning dined upon boiled squash – and a few ears of roast corn == spent the day syphering writing in my journal + c.  In the evening we partook of squash boiled again, in rehearseing the boiled squash and squash boiled – I sometimes think of Home!  “I do!”  yes, I think if my Folks just knew the affluantand flattering circomstances with which we are surrounded, while preaching the gospel. They would envy ouroplency….  I presume I wll now as much as my shaddow, dare pretend to weigh”

As a young, hotheaded boy, Joseph often blamed his circumstances upon the native Hawaiians, who he saw as frequently being lazy and immoral.  In his May 4th, 1857 journal entry, he wrote:

“On any consideration, now my opinion is, I have ate enough dirt and filth, put up with enough inconviances slept sufficiently in their filth, muck + mire, lice and every thing else, I have been ill treated, abused and trod on by these nefarious ethnicks just long enough, I believe it is no longor a virtue, if they will not treat me as I merit, if they will not obey my testimony = and my counsels, but persist in their wickedness, hard heartedness and indifference, their lyings, deceitfulness, and hard hearted cruelty as regards the servents of the Lord, I will not stay with them, but leave them to their fait.”

By the end of his mission in Hawai’i, Joseph was tired of living with native Hawaiians and had given up on the possibility of their accepting the gospel.  His back was sore, he had lost a significant amount of weight, and he wanted to go home.  He had become sick and tired of seeing so many animals living in Hawaii homes and swarming on the streets.  On July 28th, 1857, he encountered a cat that simply would not be quiet while he was staying temporarily with some other missionaries.  The following is his journal entry describing the encounter:

“Last evening we were aroused from our sleep by the suden pitiful yawlings of a cat that had evidenly become ensnared by her own Trappings.  This morning we took old “Tabby” and after pronouncing her guilty of attemptedmanslaughter and chicken murder; she was sentenced to be hung!**  We called in her friends; they took the last lingering look at her, + returned, then we proceeded to the gibit to exicute the manicled culprit.

“The ensuing scene would be horible!  Tabby had no notion of dying and Irea (?) we had some notion, she should, but our resolutions were not  indefea_ble. We, however, indevered to shortin her carear, by virtue of Stones, which were aimed at her head with uncalculable persision!  At length the rope parted by the poor thing’s cranium coming in contiguous relation with an infuriated adamant of not uncommon size!  Poor Cittys head was then decapitated and her obsequies attended to.”

*The title here is playing off Robert Darnton’s famous book The Great Cat Massacre.

**The practice of trying animals and then sentencing them to death was a common one in Puritan England and America.  In trying the cat, Joseph F. and his compatriots were drawing on a long history in which animals could be held guilty of sin and could commit crimes.

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Posted by on April 11, 2012 in History


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