Winter set in very early that year, and it was extraordinarily cold. By late fall, they were cutting ice two feet thick on the canal, and storing it in the great ice houses which then lined the banks. A certain man had died, when the weather was at its coldest, and I was one of the three men chosen to keep the night watch.
The body was laid out in the parlor of the home on an old-fashioned bier, which was too short, as he was a very tall man, and was covered with a black pall, which hung down over the feet. There was no fire in the room, and the window was opened about two inches, with the result that the corpse was frozen as hard as marble. Notwithstanding this, the undertaker left a jar of some embalming fluid, with which the body was to be covered every two or three hours. We three sat in another room, and punctually at the proper hours performed this gruesome function, whiling away the rest of the time as best we might.
Just as the clock struck midnight we heard one of the women come downstairs to prepare some coffee and food for us, and I suggested that before we partook of it we should attend to the body again. We crossed the wide hall, the wind moaning in gusts around the house, and the freezing atmosphere already chilling our blood, and entered the parlor. I went in first, the candle in my hand. I had taken two or three steps when I stopped, simply appalled. One leg of the frozen corpse was rising and falling beneath the pall, silently, but unmistakably, as though kicking in convulsive agony. Peterman, a powerful young German, who was next to me, caught sight of it the next moment, and, throwing his hands, with a cry of “My God!” fell fainting to the floor.
How long I stood gazing at the ghastly movement I do not know. The hot tallow fell unheeded from my hand, until it formed a little mound. At length I was aroused by Peterman coming to his senses, and commencing to vomit terribly. This changed the current of my thoughts, and I ran out for a basin. Before I could return he saw the leg move again, and fell in another swoon. Finding him thus, my fear suddenly left me, and I was determined to solve the mystery. I walked to the bier and pulled back the pall.
I found there a lean and savage black cat, gnawing at one of the frozen legs, and the arching of whose back, in the effort to tear the flesh, had caused the horrible appearance. Though I knocked it away and kicked it, the brute, with eyes glowing like coals, sprang back each time to its awful meal and I dared not touch it with my hands for fear a bite or scratch from those tainted fangs and claws should cause blood poisoning. It was literally mad with hunger. At length I fetched a long, heavy bootjack, and beat it over the head with that until it lay still, when I threw it out of doors. The only way it could have gotten in was through the window, but how it squeezed through such a narrow aperture is a mystery. Peterman was sick in bed for months after the shock, while as for our third companion, he ran at Peterman’s first scream and did not appear at all.
Sidney Journal, December, 1897
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil thanks Mr Rich Wallace of the Shelby County Historical Society for unearthing this dire eyewitness account of an event which occurred in Cynthian Township, Ohio in the fall of 1880. In a case of art imitating life, the Ohio author, Ambrose Bierce [1842–1914] wrote the equally dire “John Mortonson’s Funeral,” published in Can Such Things Be?  The ignorant and superstitious held that if a cat jumped over a corpse, the dead person would become a vampire.
For more tales of malign cats, please see this post at the Haunted Ohio blog. The story above is also found in The Face in the Window. Other stories of cats as a menace at wakes may be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead, available as a paperback here and at other online retailers (or ask your library or local bookstore to order it) and for Kindle.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.