By Bennett F. Waxse
What is the true tale of mummified Anubis, the sacred Press Club cat, emblem of the Milwaukee Press Club and mascot of Milwaukee newspaperdom? Believe it or not, back in 1897 it “followed” a couple of errant reporters home from Madison.
Did these editors foretell the future? It’s a two-sided story and both deserve to be told. Leafing through a 1967 history of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, we came across this enlightening paragraph:
“The Society some time before the turn of the century received from Darlington a desiccated black cat which once upon a time had been literally immured. When the imprisoning building was torn down, the fossilized cat was discovered and promptly sent to the Society. Tom Brahany, a student reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel, who later became personal secretary to President Woodrow Wilson, and two colleagues, then students at the University, absconded with the cat, which later turned up in the Milwaukee Press Club, where it is still enshrined at this writing as the sacred mascot of the organization. So far as is known, the Society, despite its obligations as trustee of the state, has made no serious efforts to recover its property.”
Brahany, who went on to an illustrious career as Washington correspondent for the Milwaukee Sentinel and later for The New York Tribune, is now dead of course, but in the dusty archives of the Press Club he left his own version of The Great Madison Cat Snatch and offered a rebuttal. We quote, in part, from his story in the 1950 edition of Once a Year, the Press Club’s annual magazine.
“Fifty years ago a Cat was stolen. I helped to steal it. In this tardy confession, I am not trying to ease my conscience. I confess only because the story is a good one.
“I have unofficial assurance from a high judicial authority here in Washington, my good friend the Chief Justice of the United States, that I am safe from legal reprisal. While he would not permit quotation about a possible case in which a constitutional question might be raised, he recalled – if memory served him right – that under the common law a dead cat was not property, and therefore its taking was not larceny. Also he led me to believe that after a half century, the statute of limitations might be invoked as a defense.
“With this obiter dicta support, and confident, if trouble comes, that I will have friendly press in my native state, I submit this record:
“As a schoolboy in Madison, I spent many hours in the State Historical Rooms, then located in the Capitol building. Of all the exhibits, the petrified cat attracted me most. Nearby was a placard giving its history. It was found between the walls of two buildings which were being torn down. Some modern historians give Milwaukee as the site of these buildings. My recollection is they were in a small town in southern or eastern Wisconsin.
“As a cub aide to the Madison correspondent of the Milwaukee Sentinel, I helped cover sessions of the Wisconsin Legislature in 1897 and 1899. My boss was Sumner Curtis, who later became a Washington political writer. The legislative press room was in the office of Dud Fernandez, Wisconsin’s chief fish and game warden.
“One day I saw the petrified cat peering at me from the mantel in the warden’s office. I learned at the time why it was moved from the rooms of the Historical Society on the floor above, but I have forgotten. It may have been because of preliminary plans to transfer the exhibits to the new Historical building on the lower campus of the state university.
“Several months later Charlie Lush of the Chicago Record (a former Milwaukee newsman with a very appropriate name for these days), on one of his Madison visits, saw the cat and was intrigued. It was just what he wanted for a cat show, of which he was a sponsor, in Milwaukee. He sought the aid of Curtis and promised that when the show was over, the cat would be returned.
“Curtis laid his request before Fernandez, who explained that he didn’t own the cat; that it was the property of the state. Curtis argued and pled.
“Old Dud was embarrassed. He wanted the goodwill of the press, but he couldn’t say yes and he wouldn’t say no. He hemmed, hawed, and fidgeted. Then, looking at the ceiling in a kind of soliloquy, observed: ‘Well, all I can say is that I’m seldom here in the evening. If the cat disappears after hours and I don’t miss him, and he comes back, nobody could blame me. After all, I’m a fish and game warden, not a cat warden.’
“This was enough for Curtis, who construed it as permission to borrow the cat. A few evenings later he asked me to remain after the others had gone. About 8 o’clock he carefully enshrined the cat in a large paper bag and handed it to me.
“After the fashion of Hollywood bad men, we sneaked through the deserted corridors of the Capitol. We delivered the package at the Western Union offices across the square, to Lush’s representative who was taking the night train to Milwaukee.
“A week later, the cat was exhibited at the cat show and stories about it appeared in the daily press. As far as I know, Old Dud never worried about it or asked for its return, nor did I ever hear of any claim for it being made for the state.
“My recollection is that for some time after the show, the cat was in hiding. Whether it was Lush (a life member of the Milwaukee Press Club) or some other reporter who took it to its final resting place in the Press Club, deponent knoweth not.
“At the Press Club, it was named Anubis (after an Egyptian god with the head of a jackal), scrubbed, remounted, given a shiny eye and other electric equipment. For a half century it has been a unique emblem. Over the years Anubis has been glorified by poets, orators and statesmen. The great of the land have come to wonder and worship.
“On the musty shelves of the Historical Society it would have been just another forgotten exhibit, but as the Press Club’s Cat it will live forever enshrined in the hearts of scholars and savants.”
Over the years, Anubis has graced the club’s menu cover, placemats, matchbooks, cocktail glasses, lapel pins, and was honored at a club function called “The Cat-Fest.” His paw prints are even preserved on one of the club’s signature plaques of the famous and infamous.
You’ll notice that Anubis has a kink in his tail – well, here’s the tale of the broken tail. In the early days some of the more exuberant members wired the cat on a portable platform on the end of a pole and took it to the summer picnic and outing at Fond du Lac. During the festivities, as the beer continued to flow, one of the unsteady pole-bearers tripped and hereby hangs the tale of the fractured tail.
The Press Club, despite the cat’s ignoble background, is proud of Anubis and stands by the ancient dictum that “possessions nine points of the law.” And besides, over the years the nation’s oldest continuous Press Club has donated to the State Historical Society many of its precious records for the state’s archives. It’s a valid case of quid pro quo – we got something and gave something. The defense rests.
This story by the late Bennett Waxse, who served as one of MPC’s president and was assistant editor of The Green Sheet of The Milwaukee Journal, was written for Once a Year, the annual press club magazine, in 1980.