Sunday, January 4, 2015

Idea Garage Sale: The Cat Lady of Florence

A rather complicated one from the good old reliable Fortean Times. In the October 2015 issue, in a recurring feature called "Blasts from the Past," Theo Paijman went old newspaper diving in the annals of Florence, South Carolina, and turned up a "cat lady" flap.

The most tantalizing and disturbing thing about this article is that the flap was apparently chiefly affecting the black part of town, and the newspapers at his disposal were all from the white press. Newspapers reporting flaps generally start out with a serious story or two and then start poking fun at people for believing in, fearing, or going out looking for aliens, or monkey men, or tigers, or whatever the flap is about. In the case of a Depression-era southern town white newspaper, it's very hard indeed to tell whether the opening stories are serious or jeering - I think even a native of the town, not alive during that era, would have difficulty reading the newspaper reports in the way that the original audience would have.

Given the trust gap between the black experiencers and the white reporters, moreover, it is impossible to tell what really happened. There's always a rumormill in these cases that makes extracting the real, core experience out of the gossip and the grafting-on of folk motifs difficult. In a case in which the witnesses don't trust the reporters, and the reporters are untrustworthy because they don't respect the witnesses - who knows if anyone ever told the truth to anyone who wrote it down?

Did anyone ever, in fact, claim to have seen a "cat-faced woman...having a small head only a little larger than a grapefruit but comes exactly like that of a cat, with fur, ears and eyes of a feline appearance...dressed in a long black coat" and with "paws and claws just as a cat has?"

Did anyone in Florence, in fact, believe that anyone had?

Did the black population of the town really leave work early to go home and bar themselves in at night?

And if they did, was it really for fear of a cat lady? None of the accounts of her attacking or pursuing people, after all, are half so chilling as the following quoted snippet from the Florence Morning News, February 3, 1939: "The police in reality were inclined to favour continuance of the catwoman's presence in Florence..."I don't believe we'll have any trouble with these darkies at night - and that's when they do most of their devilment. I went down Cox Street last night a little after dark and didn't see but one negro It ought to be a good thing while it lasts."

Uh-huh. The police are cited several times, and while some of the quotations are contradictory concerning whether or not the incidents are ever reported at all, they are consistent in saying that the truth behind the flap was never investigated, and the overwhelming impression is that the(presumably all-white) police force were openly contemptuous of the black population's sense of insecurity. So the urgent question becomes, not "was there a real cat lady?" but "was the cat lady flap, as reported, a cover for a coordinated terrorist action on the black population by certain elements of the white one?"

Up front, I cannot write this story, because I am not black. I do my best to get around my own privilege, but understanding what happened in Florence, for either a novelistic or an investigative purpose, requires someone who starts much closer to the original experience than I do. All I can do is stand at the edge of it feeling slightly sick to my stomach and knowing that I belong to a demographic that can at least call the police without fear of being murdered.

I would, however, be really interested to see a black paper's contemporary take on the story. Perhaps the black population had its own reasons for circulating the story, and the whole thing was some kind of con on the white population.

Is it tragedy? Is it farce? Is it Just One of Those Human Things?

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