The cat burglar of Wellesley College

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on June 9, 2016.

The headline in the Baltimore Sun read “Cats for Girls to Carve.” The New York Times didn’t miss out either, blasting on its front page: “Cats Stolen for Wellesley — Natick Police Chief threatens to prosecute girls’ college faculty.”

Oh boy. Where to begin?

Fair warning, this is not a story for ailurophiles (i.e., lovers of cats). It involves feline theft, killing, and dissection. Fluffy and Tiger certainly won’t like this.

The story begins not in Wellesley, but in the February 25th, 1911 issue of the Boston Post. It was here where renowned Broadway stage actress (and social justice advocate) Minnie Maddern Fiske was quoted in response to concerns raised by animal rights activists about Wellesley College’s acquisition and use of cats in its zoology classes. Said Fiske: “Wellesley College shows little concern for morality, little knowledge of its duties toward the young, is non-progressive and out of key with the harmony of modern civilization. I understand that the college needed cats in its courses in anatomy, and that the children of the town were paid for all the specimens they brought to the college…What warrant has Wellesley to blunt and pervert the minds of children by teaching them to think that dumb animals have no rights [and] that human beings have no responsibilities with respect to the lower animals?”

This was just the beginning. In the hours that followed the publication of Ms. Fiske’s accusations, a handful of Natick residents contacted the police, reporting the thefts of their pet cats. One of these was the wife of Elmer Bent, owner of a shoe counter and sole factory and prominent citizen of Natick. What’s more is she suspected the culprit was not a child as Ms. Fiske asserted, but rather it was an employee of Wellesley College who stole her prized Angora cat, Sniffles, from the veranda of her home on Pond Street near Natick Center.

A little detective work and the Natick police had their suspect for both this theft and the others around town: Wellesley College groundskeeper John Squires. Of course, this brought up an additional question. Were faculty and administrative staff complicit in these illegal and inhumane activities?

Without hesitation, the college forcefully denied any involvement. According to President Ellen Fitz Pendleton, although college officials knew Squires obtained cats for anatomy classes — about 75 felines each year — they had no idea where they came from. It was just assumed that the cats were acquired from the Animal Rescue League, a shelter that euthanized animals who were found on the streets and went unclaimed.

The following day a trial was held where Squires pled guilty. However, he claimed not to have stolen the cats in Natick, but rather “collected” what he saw as ill-cared for or friendless cats roaming the streets. He was fined $15 for his crimes. But what didn’t help ease suspicions that Wellesley College was in on the scheme was that its Superintendent of Grounds — not Squires — paid the fine.

Unsatisfied and feeling as if the college was hiding something, Mrs. Bent demanded that they further investigate the incident. After all, they still hadn’t found Sniffles. Squires agreed, and off they went to the campus: Squires, Bent, her sister, and a reporter from the Boston Post.

First stop, a barn on the golf course where Squires kept his stolen felines. Alas, however, Sniffles could not be found among the clowder of cats housed there. A search among the golf links and nearby outhouses didn’t locate him either.

From there they marched to the anatomy laboratory above the gymnasium in Hemenway Hall on the west side of campus. You can imagine what they found. There, on the dissection table, lay a pile of seven recently deceased cats. But was one of them Sniffles? No one was sure; the light in the laboratory was too faint.

So outside they went, each carrying a dead cat or two, and found a spot where light from inside a window illuminated an area upon which they could closely identify whether Sniffles was one of the cats. Now surrounded by hundreds of students attracted to the surreal scene, the party closely inspected the corpses until Mrs. Bent uttered softly, “That’s Sniffles.”

Wrapped up in a newspaper, the deceased feline was brought back to the Natick home of Mrs. Bent. One week later, a funeral was held in the backyard, where a wooden coffin containing his body was placed in the earth and covered with dirt. A small sprig of catnip was placed on the ground to mark the grave.

As for John Squires, it doesn’t appear he faced any additional punishment. Then again, no record of his employment at Wellesley College beyond this date can be found. Perhaps college officials got the message that any perceived inhumane treatment of animals — whether condoned by the institution or not — was unacceptable. The last thing they needed was another front-page affair.