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Letters From Grandma Pat: Cat Warfare and The Battle of the Black Death


Dear Kids,

I am glad that you had a safe and Happy Halloween.   Please know that your parents’  idea of a “Daddy” or “Mommy” tax on candy collected on Halloween or Easter did not  originate with myself or your grandpa.  We would never have expected or accepted anything from our children more than what they were graciously willing to share.  At any rate, don’t eat all of the candy in one day….you, your stomach and teeth will regret it.

So, when you got home did you dump out all of your candy out for an inspection?  I bet your cats thoroughly checked out each and every piece.  They always remind me of the poor souls who had to taste all of a king’s food, to make sure it wasn’t poisoned.  I bet those folks wished they had nine lives like a cat and I bet you don’t know about the time cats saved all of humankind by winning the “Battle of the Black Death.”

Seriously,  we all know that cats do not have more than one life on this earth, so how did this myth about the nine lives get started? An Old English proverb says that, “A cat has nine lives.  For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays.”  However, the nine lives myth is much older than this proverb and even merry old England itself.

The myth that cats have nine lives has been around for centuries. Even the famous English playwright William Shakespeare referred to it in his play, “Romeo And Juliet.” He wrote, “Tybalt: What wouldst thou have with me? Mercutio: Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives.”

Actually, no one knows for sure when this myth got started, but historians believe it may have begun in ancient Egypt where cats were sacred. In fact, their goddess Bastet was pictured as being half cat and half woman.  Ha! The first cat woman!

Cats in Egypt were revered in life and greatly mourned after they died. They were mummified, just like people, and had their own tombs.  Interestingly, a cat tomb with over 80,000 mummified cats was discovered at Beni Hassan in Egypt in 1888.  That’s a lot of cat mummies.

The ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Greeks thought that number nine was special…even magical. Ancient Egyptians believed that their god Atum or Atum-Ra took on the form of a cat whenever he visited the underworld or as we call it today….hell.  During one of his visits to the land of the dead, Atum gave birth to eight other gods.  Therefore one life, became nine.

The Egyptians were not alone in thinking there was something special about the number nine. Tradition and religion made the Greeks think that the number nine had power for it was the trinity of all trinities. Not every culture credits a cat with nine lives. Spain has a tradition that cats only have seven lives, and in Arabia and Turkey the feline only gets six

It was the Romans who brought cats to Europe.  During their occupation of Egypt, the Romans learned to appreciate the pet felines for their mouse catching skills.  It didn’t take long before cats became popular European pets…that is….until the middle ages.  Poor cats!  Within a few centuries they went from being worshiped in ancient Egypt to medieval Europeans thinking they were a death delivering soldier of the devil.

Being born a cat, especially a black cat, in medieval Europe was just plain bad luck.  It is the only unlucky thing about a black cat.  Cats at that time were so terribly misunderstood.  Their nose-in-the-air attitudes and ability to survive falls that would have killed any other animal got them labeled as being other worldly and evil.

One guy, named Baldwin III, Count of Ypres, was so fascinated by a cats amazing ability to land on its feet that he decided to test the extent of this cat talent.  So, in the year 962 A. D.  he threw several cats off of a very high tower.  Well, the cats survived and ran away.  The experiment, with the poor unfortunate cats, was so entertaining, that the Belgian town made it an annual event and festival. Each year after a procession celebrating cat history, felines were thrown from an almost 230 foot tower.  Live cats were used until 1817, when the folks in Belgian decided that maybe, just maybe, this tradition was unkind and began using toy cats instead.

At that time, being thrown off a tower was the least of a cat’s problem.  During the middles ages, from about 1300 until the 1700, every few generations, a terrible disease called the Bubonic Plague would savage the cities and countrysides of Europe.  This disease killed up to 50 percent of the total population in some parts of England.  France lost up to 90 percent of its people in some areas.

The  Bubonic Plague otherwise known as the “Black Death” came to Europe in October of 1347 when twelve Asian trading ships docked in Messina, Sicily.  Crowds had gathered on the piers to welcome the ships when to their horror most of the sailors on the ships were  found dead and the remainder were terribly ill.

Before the ships of death had even reached Sicily’s shores, many Europeans were already frightened by the rumors that a “Great Pestilence” had ravaged the Near and Far East.  As early as the 1340’s China, India, Syria, Egypt and Persia had experienced the plague’s effects.  To protect the public from being infected by this horrible contagion, the death ships were immediately ordered to return to sea.

However, it was already too late. This disease, spread by flea-infested rats, had already jumped ship.  The plague had begun. Before it was over more than 25 million people in Europe, almost a third of its population would be dead.  Not only did this disease kill people, it also killed animals, including farm animals such as cows, goats, sheep, pigs and chickens.  So many animals perished that food and wool shortages occurred.

The plague is an ugly disease.  It causes its victims to run a high fever, vomit uncontrollably and experience an incredible amount of pain. Worst yet were the horrible black bleeding and oozing sores that covered the victim’s entire body.  These black sores are what gave the disease the name, “The Black Death.”   Its victims looked like rotting puss covered zombies.

Death from this disease came so quickly that a person could be healthy when they went to bed at night and dead before morning.  The nursery rhyme “Ring around the Rosy”  is believed to have been written about the symptoms of the Black Death.

Unlike today, in those days there were no doctors or medicines that could help the victims.  Panic ensued. People turned on each other, families abandoned their own sick family members, doctors refused help the sick, and priests refused administering last rites to the dying.

As in most cases of historical public panic, a scapegoat was needed. In this case it was….Jewish people and cats.

At the time the plague struck very little was known about how disease spread. So, people who under normal circumstances seemed to have perfectly well-functioning brains,  threw open all the doors and windows of their mental facilities to let reason and common sense escape and welcome in ridiculously stupid ideas to explain the illness.  Such as, that the plague of the Black Death was a punishment from a loving God.

While I would never speak for God or suggest he never has used a catastrophe or two to get our attention.  I don’t believe that disease is ever a punishment from God for sin, because Jesus paid the full price for all of our sins on the cross. Nor, do I believe that God tests the sick.  I think it is highly more likely that if a loving God is testing anyone, it is the people close to the stricken to see if they practice what they preach and meet the needs of the suffering with compassion, kindness and love.

No, I do not believe that the plague was a divine punishment. However, people during the middle ages were told differently.

In those days the most powerful authority in the land was the Catholic church.  Church leaders believed that the Black Death was God’s punishment. To end the plague, the church taught that communities needed to be cleansed of non-believers and perpetual troublemakers.  During the years of 1348 and 1349, violent panic-stricken mobs massacred thousands of Jewish people.  Many Jews were forced to flee to Eastern Europe to be safe.

In addition to the genocide of the Jews, cats were also targeted by the church.  A century before the plague, the church had taught that cats were evil. It was believed that devil worshipers and witches used cats to cast their spells…especially black cats.   This is where and when the superstition about black cats began.

Well, it didn’t take long before cats were feared and killed off by the thousands.  In some areas cat ownership was actually outlawed.  At one point during the middle ages cats had been almost entirely eradicated in England.

Humans often make poor choices and the attempt to rid Europe of cats was just that…a bad idea.  Cats kill rats. Rats had the fleas that caused the Black Death.  Therefore, when there weren’t a lot of cats, there were a lot of rats and a disease outbreak occurred.

Some humans ignored the law and kept their pet cats.  Other folks soon noticed that cat owners seemed to not get the plague as often.  It does amaze me that these cat owners weren’t immediately labeled as witches and burned at the stake.  Boy, did folks back then like burning witches at the stake, but that is another story.

For once, however, calmer heads prevailed.  It was decided that cats somehow protected their owners from the plague.  Primitive scientific research and thinking took place and it was determined that rats not cats spread the plague.

Of course with this discovery everyone wanted cats. Unfortunately,  there were not very many left.  It took awhile to re-populate the cat population. However, Tom Cats were up to the challenge and made every effort to impregnate every female cat they could find. (If you don’t know what impregnate means, ask your dad.) 

Due to the commitment to duty and impregnating excellence of the Tom Cats, it wasn’t long before cats were back at the job killing rats and controlling the spread of this horrible disease. Some say that without the rat killing skills of those medieval cats, humankind could have been wiped-out by the plague.  After all of the abuse from humans, isn’t it odd that cats helped save them.  Funny how life works out sometimes.

While cats helped humans land back on their feet after the plague, people still did not know why cats almost always landed on their feet.  It took until 1894 before science could explain a cat’s amazing talent for surviving a fall by landing on its feet.

French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey conducted experiments with cats.  Unlike the Belgians, he dropped them from short-safe distances.  With the help of a camera that took multiple images very quickly, Mr. Marey demonstrated the secret to a cat’s amazing gymnastic agility.

As a cat falls, it instinctively begins a twisting action beginning with its head and ending with the tail called an aerial righting reflex. It takes only one second for a cat to complete this reflex action. Kittens as young as three weeks show signs of this ability, which the kitten masters when they are about seven weeks old.  However, a cat cannot land on its feet if the distance is too low for the cat to make its twist or if the fall is so high that it becomes a cat pancake.

Here is how a cat can almost always land on its feet:

1. First the cat’s head begins to rotate.

2  Next, the cat will arch and twist its spine so that its front and back legs are rotating in opposite directions.

3.  As the cat begins the roll, it pulls in its front legs and extends its back ones, making the front half of its body to spin more quickly than the back half.  Then, the process is reversed.  As the cat’s back legs swing around, they are tucked up into the body and the front legs extended to prevent over-spinning.

4.  The result of all this motion allows the cat to land on all four paws cushioning the impact of the landing.

I better never hear of anybody throwing a cat around and claim its a science experiment.  Cats can and do get hurt easily.  And, like all of God’s creatures, cats were put on this earth to be treated kindly and cared for with gentleness and love.

I guess cats have earned the right to ignore the concept of humility and strut their stuff like a Lion King.  After all, if it wasn’t for their ancestors killing a lot of rats none of us humans might be here.

Have a great week and I love you all very, very much.


Grandma Pat


Letter’s From Grandma Pat: Three-fingered Kenny and 4th of July Trivia

july 4th

Howdy!  Hope that your week is going great and that you are having a lot of fun during your summer vacation from school.   However, fun, no matter how inviting or exciting, is never an excuse for not being careful and safe.  Brains were not made by God to set on a shelf, they are meant to be used. You have a good one, use it.

Which brings me to the point of this week’s letter…not blowing off your fingers or toes, or blinding yourself with fireworks. Fireworks are great fun to see, hear and have during our nation’s birthday celebration on the 4th of July.  However, they are dangerous and demand respect. I know its fun to shoot off a firecracker or two, but safe first!

I once knew a kid in high school that did not have respect for the power of gun powder. He became known as “Three-finger, Kenny.”  And, those three fingers were just gnarled and twisted red stubs.  The only good thing was that he could never again be a right-handed nose-picker.

Fireworks have been enjoyed by humans for a very long time. The first recorded fireworks rockets were made in China around 600 A.D and were used to scare away evil spirits and bring good luck and happiness.  I guess if all evil was chased away,  there would be only good luck and happiness.

Before fireworks were invented, there were explosives and projectiles used as weapons for war. The Chinese were the first to develop “black powder.”  Black powder is the earliest known chemical explosive, and is made with sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter.

I know you know what sulfur and charcoal are, but what is saltpeter? Saltpeter is potassium nitrate. In addition, to helping make explosives, saltpeter has been used as a food preservative since the middle ages…for over 1500 years.  It is interesting that saltpeter was used to preserve food, since, at that time, it was made from bat poop, or people or animal urine.  In fact, during the Civil War, women collected urine to help make black powder, but that’s a different story.

The first fireworks that the Chinese made were not colored.  They boomed loudly, but only produced faint golden light and orange flashes.  It wasn’t until the 1830’s that Italians added trace amounts of metals and other chemicals to produce the bright colors we see in today’s fireworks. The Chinese are still the biggest producers of fireworks in the world.

Once seen, it wasn’t long before fireworks became very popular in Europe especially among kings, queens and nobility.  The earliest recorded fireworks display in England was in 1486 for King Henry VII’s wedding day.  French kings shot off fireworks, among other things, at their palaces. The Russian Czar, Peter the Great, celebrated the birth of his son with five hours of fireworks.

The first display of fireworks in the New World was in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608.  The American colonists took to the idea of explosives for entertainment with their usual gusto and by 1731 the colony of Rhode Island banned fireworks due to, “mischievous use.”

It was John Adams, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the second president of our country, who felt that our nation should use fireworks to celebrate independence from Great Britain.  On July 3, 1776, he wrote a letter to his wife Abigail that said, ” The day will be most memorable in the history of America.  I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.  It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, bonfire and illuminations (fireworks) from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward and forever more.”

Fireworks have been a part of 4th of July celebrations since the birth of our nation. Actually, even before the Declaration was signed, colonists used to celebrate the king’s birthday with the ringing of bells, bonfires, parades, fireworks and long public speeches. This tradition changed when the colonists declared their freedom from the English crown.  In 1776 many colonists held mock funerals for the English King to symbolize and celebrate the end of the monarch’s rule in America.

The city of Philadelphia, known as the city of brotherly love, got the colonists back on the high road when they held the first official independence day celebration in 1777. There were concerts, bonfires, parades, and the firing of cannon, muskets and fireworks. Also, in Philadelphia on July 8, the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence took place. The Pennsylvania Evening Post was the first newspaper to print the Declaration of Independence.

The July 4th holiday continued to be celebrated throughout Revolutionary War years. Soldiers fighting in the war, received a double ration of rum to recognize the day. The first state to make the day an official state holiday was Massachusetts in 1781.  The oldest, continuous, observance takes place Bristol, Rhode Island.  This city has had a 4th of July parade every year since 1785.  Thomas Jefferson hosted the first 4th of July celebration at the White House in 1801.

Folks did and do still take this patriotic holiday very seriously.  In Swan, Colorado, in 1884, angry miners blew up the post office, because it hadn’t supplied fireworks for their 4th of July festivities. I guess exploding dynamite isn’t as exciting as firecrackers and rockets.

Currently,  285.3 pounds of fireworks will be needed to supply the over 14,000 public fireworks displays and numerous private celebrations. American’s will spend $6.77 billion on food and will consume 155 million hot dogs.  To go with those hot dogs, $92 million will be spent on chips, $167.5 million on watermelon, and $341.4 million on beer.

But, is July 4th the real birthday of our country?

Not according to our second president John Adams.  The members of the Second Continental Congress from the 13 original colonies actually voted on July 2, 1776 to declare independence.  John Adams felt that July 2, should be the day for Independence Day celebrations.  The final draft of the declaration was approved by congressional committee on July 4.   It wasn’t until August 2 that all of the delegates finally signed the document.  However, when the document was sent to the printer, the date of July 4 was printed in big letters at the top of the sheets of paper.  So, July 4th it was!

The Declaration of Independence was actually designed by committee.  A committee of five to be exact.  The members were John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert R. Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia.  Thomas Jefferson wrote the actual document.  He was only 33 years old at the time.

The signers of the Declaration all knew that the penalty for revolting against the King was death.  Even knowing that they could be hung or shot for putting their names on the document, they signed it.  John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, signed it first, big and bold.  Fifty-six men, from the 13 original colonies of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia, signed.

It is not true that the declaration was the beginning of the Revolutionary War.  The first battles of Lexington and  Concord, Massachusetts, took place in April 1775.   Crispus Attucks, a fugitive African-American slave, was the first American to die when British soldiers fired upon the colonists in 1770, at the “Boston Massacre.”

The Americans were certainly out manned, gunned and financed during the Revolutionary War. At the time that the Declaration of Independence was issued the total population in the 13 original colonies was about 2.5 million people. (Our population today is over 300 million.)  In 1776 the city of London, alone, had a population of almost a million.

The cost of over eight years of war was immense.  Our nation spent over 151 million dollars to win independence from the king.  The war was also hard on the small population of the colonies. During the height of the war there were 80,000 men serving as militia or continental Army soldiers.  Over 8,000 soldiers were killed in battle, 17,000 died of disease, and 25,000 were wounded.  One in 20 able-bodied white males died. England had 24,000 soldiers killed in battle.

White men were not alone in serving in the Continental Army, so did African-American Slaves. Every state north of the Potomac river offered slaves their freedom in exchange for their service in the military.   While the northern colonies actively recruited black soldiers, the southern colonies were very opposed to the idea.  Between 5,000 to 8,000 African-Americans became veterans of this war. Black soldiers served as wagoners, cooks, waiters, craftsmen and carried weapons and fought.  Several all-black military units, commanded by white officers, saw action, fought bravely and gained a reputation as being, “the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its maneuvers.”

It would be almost a century later and take an even more bloody Civil War to legally end the slavery of African-Americans.  Only then was the promise of freedom expressed in the Declaration of Independence no longer reserved for a select few, but became, as God always intended…a sacred human right for all people.

Here are some other interesting 4th of July facts:

The only president to have been born on the 4th of July was Calvin Coolidge, our 30th president born in 1872.

Three of the first five presidents died on the 4th.  They were John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.  Oddly enough, Adams, the second president and Jefferson, the third, died on the same day in 1826, on our country’s 50th birthday.  Adams final thoughts were that all would be well because Jefferson still lived, he did not know that Jefferson had died several hours before him.

Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the only signer to recant his signature, swear allegiance, again, to King George III.  Traitor!

Every Independence Day the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is tapped 13 times in honor of the original 13 colonies.  It cannot be rung, because of the crack in it.

Contrary to popular legend, Betsy Ross did not design the U.S. flag.   No one knows who sewed the first flag, but chances are it wasn’t Ms. Ross.  Her ancestors created the story a century after the revolution. This cute legend was kept going by being included in grade school books.

The modern 50-star flag was designed in 1958 by Robert G. Heft, a high school student. This teenager, from the state of Ohio, was given a history assignment to create a new national flag that included the recent statehood of Alaska and Hawaii. His flag design only earned him a B-minus from his teacher. However, after his design was chosen by President Eisenhower to be our nation’s new flag, the lad’s teacher changed his grade to an A.

Each color in our National flag has a different meaning. Red symbolized hardiness and valor. White is for purity and innocence. Blue stands for vigilance, perseverance and justice. The 50 stars represent the 50 states and the 13 stripes are for the 13 original colonies.

The patriotic song, “Yankee Doodle” was originally sung by British military officers before the Revolutionary War to mock the disorganized American colonists.

Our national anthem the, “Star Spangled Banner” was written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812 and is set to the tune of an old British bar, or pub, song called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” It did not become the official national anthem until 1931.

Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are responsible for the bald eagle becoming our national bird.  Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, supported the wild turkey.

July 4th:

1944—United States troops fired a 1,100 gun salute at German lines in Normandy

1942—The United States air offensive against nazi-German began.

1939—The New York Yankees retire the first player’s uniform…Lou Gehrig #4

1914—The first motorcycle race in the United State took place.  It was 300 miles long.

1911—Ty Cobb goes 0 for 4 and ends a 40 game hit streak.

1911—Ed Walsh, White Sox, ends Ty Cobb’s 40-game hitting streak.

1895—The song “America the Beautiful” is published.

1894—Elwood Haynes successfully tests one of the first American made cars.  Top speed               was six mph.

1888—Prescott, Arizona holds the first organized rodeo competition.

1884—The Statute of Liberty is presented to the United States in Paris.

1828—Construction begins on the first United States passenger Railroad the  B and O                     (Baltimore-Ohio).

1817—Work began to build the Erie Canal.

I hope you have a wonderful time, safely, celebrating the 4th of July.  There really is a lot about our nation to celebrate.  And, despite all of the differences that our country seems to have at this time, I still believe the words of President John F. Kennedy hold true, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

Sending lots of love and hugs,

Grandma Pat