In this piece I’m setting out to prove that the 1747 death by drowning of Horace Walpole’s cat Selima was not an accident. No, it was murder.
I had some trouble choosing a title. Since this blog follows on from three previous postings featuring the Lounge Lizard Captain Jefferson Davis Cohn, I might have chosen Lounge Lizard: Chapter 4. Equally, since I’m writing not only about a cat but also about a poem and a porcelain bowl, I might have called it Pottery and Poetry: Chapter 2 (readers might recall my previous ramblings about the connection between ceramics and verse, available here).
Or I might have gone for a broadsheet newspaper headline such as NEW CLUES IN 1747 CAT DEATH, or a tabloid banner such as CELEB MOGGY KILLING SHOCK. But in the end I settled upon the more sober Cat Murder Mystery in the earnest hope that this title will be attractive to more readers than one featuring lizards, pots, poems or even cheap sensationalism. My objective is thus to attract record numbers to my blog – recognising, of course, that many of the readers so attracted will already by now have clicked on to other material more suited to their tastes.
And so to my subject: to show beyond reasonable doubt that the death of Selima was a deliberate act of malice. In my last piece (available here) I set the scene by introducing the main characters:
- Selima the tabby cat
- Horace Walpole the owner of the cat
- the poet Thomas Gray, Walpole’s friend
- the writer and designer Richard Bentley, another friend of Walpole’s
- a large Yongzheng porcelain bowl, one of Walpole’s many possessions.
There are also four other shadowy figures involved: Walpole’s domestic servants with the generic names of Tom (footman?) and Susan (maidservant?), plus two goldfishes, whose names (supposing that they had names) are lost to history.
In February 1747, Walpole writes a letter (which is unfortunately lost) from his house in Arlington Street in London, to Gray in his college in Cambridge, describing or possibly just mentioning a recent incident in which the unfortunate cat was drowned in the goldfish bowl, and perhaps suggesting that Gray might like to commemorate the sad event in verse. Gray’s reply, written around 22nd February, survives. He expresses his condolences in a rather ironical way, undertaking to
“testify my sorrow, and the sincere part I take in your misfortune”
and he asks for more information about the cat. He can’t remember if the correct name is Selima or Fatima? and was it indeed this cat or Walpole’s other cat Zara who drowned? and was it
“the tabby one that had met with this sad accident. Till this affair is a little better determined, you will excuse me if I do not begin to cry.”
A week later, on 1st March, Gray sends Walpole a draft of his mock elegy, the Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes, describing in detail the accidental immersion in the bowl and subsequent death by drowning of Selima, “whom I am about to immortalize for one week or fortnight”. The poem is first printed and published in 1748. How wrong Gray was to think that his poem would be mere ephemera!
In 1753, a new edition is published, embellished with engravings of four drawings by Richard Bentley, two of which illustrate precise details of the event. They are described in Walpole’s accompanying Explanation of the Prints as: “the cat standing on the brim of the tub, and endeavouring to catch a gold fish”, and “the cat almost drowned in the tub”.
Gray and Bentley were close friends of Walpole, and they wrote and drew on the basis of first-hand accounts of Selima’s death provided by her owner. In addition, Gray had met Selima on his visits to Walpole’s house. Thus, Gray’s poem and Bentley’s drawings are the closest we can get to witness statements. I submit them as the first two pieces of prosecution evidence (Exhibits A and B) in my murder investigation.
Exhibit C will be the goldfish bowl itself, which I had the privilege of seeing and (illicitly) photographing on a recent visit to Strawberry Hill House, Walpole’s gothic residence in Twickenham, near London. There can be no doubt that the bowl, currently the property of the Earl of Derby, is indeed the actual Murder Weapon. Many years after the event, Walpole put it on display at Strawberry Hill standing upon a gothic pedestal on which was displayed the first verse of Gray’s poem.
Following my presentation of the exhibits, according to the best tradition of conventional courtroom drama, I’ll be calling a Surprise Expert Witness. More of him later.
Exhibit A: The Poem describes the fatal event. Selima, reclining on the side of the bowl, notices movement in the water below her, where a pair of goldfishes are swimming. She stretches her paw into the water to try to haul them out, but slips on the edge of the bowl and falls into the water. Trapped, she rises to the surface eight times mewing for help, thus using up eight of her nine lives. On the ninth immersion, she drowns. Since Gray was a famous classicist and poet, there’s also plenty of colourful allusion and versification not relevant to my case, which I’m content to leave to literary critics and textual analysts. But these are the bare facts. It’s an accident. She fell in. She drowned.
Exhibit B: The illustrations by Bentley show firstly, Selima, alert and not reclining, on the edge of the bowl, stretching out a paw in an effort to catch a fish, and secondly, Selima in distress on one of the eight occasions when she surfaced. Note the proportions of the vase and the cat as depicted in the engravings.
Exhibit C: The bowl is 47 cms in diameter and 55 cms deep. I know this because the dimensions are provided on a Yale University website, and I wouldn’t presume to argue with Yale. Allowing for approximately one centimetre thickness of porcelain, and a water level three centimetres below the upper rim, I calculate that the bowl, when in use as home for a pair of fancy goldfish, would hold around 54 litres of water. This calculation (aided by Google – wouldn’t have known where to start if I’d had to work it out for myself) makes allowance for the curved sides of the bowl, which I’ve approximated as being a shape half-way between a cylinder and a truncated cone.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, now that you have inspected the three exhibits, it’s time for me to present my arguments. Looking first at the poem, we can see from the outset that it is a highly fanciful and wholly unreliable account of the event. Examine this photo (right) of the edge of the bowl. It is narrow and covered with a shiny lead glaze. In verse 5, Gray describes it as a “slippery verge”. Could any cat have reclined upon it in a pensive mood? I think not.
It’s possible that she might have been able to stand gingerly on the edge as depicted in the first of the Bentley illustrations, but reclining would not be a possibility. The second illustration shows an adjacent table and a chair or stool (each with well-carved cabriole legs in the most fashionable George II taste), so it might have been upon one of these that Selima reclined. But returning to the first picture we see behind the bowl a cabinet on a stand, so we can conclude that the background items of furniture are placed there by the artist’s imagination and do not provide a reliable portrayal of Walpole’s actual arrangement of the furnishings in his Arlington Street house.
We can therefore place no reliance on either the poetic or the graphical account of how Selima entered the water. The only eye-witnesses were the pair of goldfishes. Even if they survived the alleged feline assault, their witness statements were not taken at the time, and they are no longer in a position to speak for themselves. In any case, it is questionable whether the testimony of a goldfish would be admissible.
Now let us turn to the important matter of proportions. In Bentley’s first picture, the cat is standing on the edge of the bowl. Her forepaw is stretched out and her back is slightly arched. Vertically, her hindquarters are almost in line with the outer right-hand edge of the bowl, while the tip of her nose appears to reach less than half-way across the bowl’s diameter. Her nose-to-bottom measurement when hunched would therefore be 23.5 cms or less. In the second engraving, Selima is swimming across the surface of the bowl. Her nose is some two-thirds of the way towards the left-hand edge. Her tail is just clear of the right-hand edge. This would indicate a nose-to-tail-tip length not longer than about 32 cms.
We know that Selima was a real live cat, and we know from Gray’s correspondence with Walpole and from the poem that she was a favourite. We don’t have a photograph or precise measurements, but perhaps we can assume that she was a pretty normal size of pussy-cat. She was happy, healthy and sleek, and because of her exalted status within the household, it’s possible that she might even have been a little overweight.
So – for comparison, how big is a real cat? Answer: very much bigger than suggested in Bentley’s illustrations. According to Wikipedia, “Adult domestic cats typically weigh between 4 and 5 kg (9 and 10 lb) … Cats average about … 46 cm (18 in) in head/body length (males being larger than females), with tails averaging 30 cm (12 in) in length”. Yes, a real cat is about twice the size of the teeny-tiny pussy drawn by Bentley.
It follows that if an average size cat is careless or stupid enough to fall into Walpole’s water-filled goldfish bowl, then it will find that in fact it fills most of the bowl’s surface area. If it tries to swim, it won’t succeed because its nose will be touching one side and its rear end will be touching the other side. Moreover, if it braces its back legs against one side, a fit, healthy cat will surely be able to hook its front legs over the other side, and shouldn’t have too much difficulty in levering itself out of the tub altogether and onto dry land.
Escape was therefore feasible. But what if she panicked, became submerged, and, after rising to the surface and gasping for air eight times, finally succumbed? This is the process suggested by Gray in verse 6 of the poem, but I submit, ladies and gentleman, that it simply wouldn’t be possible for a healthy cat to die in this manner.
My contention is that if Selima had simply stood on her hind legs on the bottom of the bowl, she would have been able to breathe without difficulty and drowning would be impossible.
This assertion needs to be proved empirically. Regular readers of the Random Treasure blog will be aware that this blogger almost invariably relies on Google and Wikipedia as a substitute for rigorous investigative enquiry. But on this occasion, disappointingly, my usual resources have failed me. If you ask Google the question: how tall is a cat standing on its hind legs?, you don’t get an answer. Try it for yourself here. I have therefore had to resort to using a primary source to establish a cat’s height. I call my expert witness Bailey MacDougall.
Bailey’s principal expertise, as you can see from the above photo, lies in being a cat. To the extent that any cat is the property of any human, he belongs to my daughter and son-in-law, and he has volunteered to help with my investigation. First, I needed to check that he is within normal size parameters to enable him to stand in for Selima. This isn’t a given, because male cats are on average larger than female cats, and because Bailey, as a thoroughbred pedigreed Ragdoll cat, belongs to a breed which tends to grow bigger than your average domestic moggy.
Bailey looks big, but he’s mostly fur. On measuring him, I find that he’s 80 cms long from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail, and he weighs 5.1 kg. This puts him at the upper end of the weight and height statistics provided above from Wikipedia. If I wish to use his dimensions convincingly as a comparator for Selima’s, they should therefore probably be scaled down slightly.
Standing on his hind legs and with his forelegs outstretched, Bailey is 83 cms tall. We have agreed that Selima was probably smaller, so let’s say that she was just 70 cms tall. Bearing in mind, as shown earlier, that the depth of water in the bowl was around 51 cms, it follows that if she stood on her hind legs on the bottom, her head and shoulders would be above the water level, and she could easily get her front paws on or over the bowl’s top rim, facilitating either escape or, at worst, survival for a considerable time.
The defence might well object at this point that I have made no allowance for the water level in the bowl to rise in line with the displacement caused by the immersion of a 4-5 kg cat. But I have indeed made allowance. Assuming that Selima was fully immersed on first falling into the bowl, her body weight would have displaced sufficient water for a few litres to wash over the upper edge and on to Walpole’s floor according to well-proven Archimedean principles. It’s also likely that the momentary panic following the fall would have caused splashing and turbulence resulting in the overflow of yet more water. On regaining her equilibrium and standing on her hind legs, almost one-third of Selima’s body would emerge above the water line and the level would subside, at a conservative estimate, at least to its original depth of 51 cms.
Some additional factors need to be considered in support of my argument:
- the whole incident is taking place indoors, so even although it is February, hypothermia is unlikely;
- there’s plenty of water available to drink if Selima gets thirsty;
- and if she gets peckish while waiting for rescue, fresh snacks are on hand in the shape of a couple of unfriendly but tasty goldfish.
Conclusion: there is virtually no likelihood that Selima could drown accidentally in the goldfish bowl. She could easily either jump out or stand fairly comfortably until rescued.
Having helped to establish this, Bailey is dismissed (with thanks) from the witness box and I now move on to the next and most crucial part of my case: to demonstrate that if the cat’s death wasn’t an accident, it must have been MURDER.
If you have spent as much time as I have in reading and viewing crime fiction and drama (and who hasn’t?), you are very well aware that when investigating a murder, you must look for (first) Motive, (second) Means, and (third) Opportunity. Thereafter your powers of deduction plus your finely-honed intuition will invariably lead you to the culprit. Or the perp.
We shall start with Motive. Gray gives us a clue to this in verse 6 of his poem: “a favourite has no friend”. Oh yes, Selima was unpopular. As the pampered pussy of a very rich and highly eccentric bachelor, she led an easy life, was well fed, and received a lavish portion of her master’s attention. Here’s a clear motive for murder: outright resentment, jealousy and hatred from other members of Walpole’s Arlington Street household who didn’t consider themselves to be as well treated. And so, immediately, we have a group of murder suspects: the other cat (called either Zara or Zama), the dog (I’m not sure of the 1747 dog’s name, but Walpole always kept one or more favoured pooches), the rather sinister pair of goldfishes, and the domestic servants.
Moving on to Means, there was an instrument to hand which could very easily be employed to make the murder appear to be an accident: a large bowl containing water almost to its brim, with two cat-attracting goldfish swimming about inside it. As Gray says in verse 4 of the poem, “What cat’s averse to fish?”. Now, I’m not suggesting that the death was necessarily planned and pre-meditated. There is no evidence for this; it might equally have been that a person or persons opportunistically exploited an unfortunate accident. But regardless of whether Selima fell or was pushed or thrown into the water, my contention is that she must have been forcefully submerged until she drowned. It’s safe to assume that the other cat and the dog would be physically incapable of restraining Selima in this way even if acting in league with each other, so we can dismiss them from our list of suspects. Likewise the goldfishes, even though they might have had the advantage of being in a position to pull rather than push. But evidently it’s a human murderer whom we’re looking for.
As for Opportunity, we know that Horace Walpole was a busy man-about-town and a traveller. In 1747 he took possession of the property in Twickenham which he developed over the following years into the extraordinary gothic Strawberry Hill House, so he was much occupied with other matters, and frequently absent from home. There was therefore ample opportunity for one or more of Selima’s enemies to use Walpole’s absence in order to commit the crime.
The final stage in my enquiry into Selima’s death is the identification of the Murderer. There are no contemporary reports of any break-ins or intruders or mysterious malevolent visitors to the house. It can only have been an inside job, and the only suspects left on our list are the domestic servants.
So: I accuse Tom and/or Susan.
In verse 6 of the poem, Gray tells how Selima “mewed to every watery god / Some speedy aid to send”, but no-one came: “Nor cruel Tom, or Susan heard”. This amounts to an allegation that the footman and maidservant deliberately ignored the cat’s cries of distress and did nothing to prevent her drowning. While murder has never before been considered as the cause of death, it has been acknowledged all along that there was indeed something fishy about the whole incident.
Now that we have demonstrated that Selima couldn’t have drowned by accident, the only reasonable explanation remaining is that far from ignoring Selima’s pitiful situation, Tom or Susan (or both) responded by holding her under the water and keeping her submerged until she died. Murderers!
Alas, we can’t secure a conviction. Tom and Susan have both been dead for at least two centuries. We only have their generic names (and note by the way that Susan was named as Harry in an early draft of the poem). There are no human witnesses. And there’s no physical evidence showing who committed the crime or even that a crime occurred.
Nevertheless, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit that I have shown beyond reasonable doubt that a crime was committed, and that the servants were responsible. I await your verdict.
It is curious that although every other aspect of Walpole’s cat and Gray’s Ode has been subjected to exhaustive research, analysis and commentary, it seems that no-one before me has ever rigorously examined the simple facts of the drowning. Many biographies of Horace Walpole have been published, and his edited correspondence runs to a monstrous 48 volumes. There have also been biographies of Thomas Gray and Richard Bentley. The text of the Ode has been analysed and picked over and criticised and praised and written about repeatedly by critics and scholars. There is even an enthralling and splendidly illustrated book entitled Horace Walpole’s Cat by the eminent Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, the former Rector of the Royal College of Art and Chairman of the Arts Council of England. Frayling goes into considerable detail about Selima and her owner, and the poet who immortalised her in verse and the artist who immortalised her in pencil.
But we, followers of the Random Treasure blog, are the first in 272 years to enquire into the veracity of Gray’s and Bentley’s accounts of Selima’s death. We have broken new ground. Welcome, readers, to the cutting edge of English literary studies!