Sunday, January 01, 2006

USS Monitor's cat mystery


August 27, 2005

NEWPORT NEWS, Virginia -- Was there a black cat aboard the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor, placed inside a cannon by a superstitious but desperate sailor as the vessel was sinking?

Conservators had hoped to verify the legend as they worked this month to extract concrete-like sediment from two cast iron, smooth-bore cannons salvaged from the ship's turret.

A crewman who had survived the sinking off the North Carolina coast more than 140 years ago maintained that he stuffed the feline into one of the 11-inch-wide, 17,000-pound barrels.

And did he stuff his new wool coat and boots into the carriage of the other cannon, as he said? The answer is leaning toward "No" on both counts.

No trace of a cat -- nor a coat nor boots -- have been found in the barrels, said David Krop, assistant conservator at the Mariners' Museum where the 13-foot Dahlgren guns are being restored.

"Schoolchildren are always asking 'What happened to the cat?"' said Justin Lyons, a spokesman for the museum.

Crewman Francis Butts wrote in an 1885 magazine article that -- as he passed buckets through the turret to bail water from the Monitor -- the cat sat on the breech of one of the guns "howling one of those hoarse and solemn tunes which no one can appreciate who is not filled with the superstitions which I had been taught by the sailors, who are always afraid to kill a cat."

"I would almost as soon have touched a ghost, but I caught her, and placing her in (a) gun, replaced the wad and tampion," he said.

Krop has emptied most of the sediment out of the barrels and screened it, and a scan of what remains at the bottom of the guns didn't point to much.

Coal found in the bores likely poured in when the turret, where the guns were mounted, turned upside down as the Monitor sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras on December 31, 1862.

Otherwise, the finds were seashells and other evidence of marine life.



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