clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

In 1921, a dog went on trial for allegedly murdering 14 cats

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Dormie the dog on trial

Dormie gets pawprinted before his trial. (Library of Congress)

The war between dogs and cats has raged on for centuries. But in 1921, the courts decided to take a stand in the age-old conflict.

That year, a defendant named Dormie went on trial with the highest possible stakes: his life. He was an Airedale dog, and he was on trial for killing 14 cats.

The catslaughter was a serious charge, with alleged victims that included Sunbeam, a beloved Persian cat, and many other neighborhood felines. According to the prosecution, Dormie slipped under the hedge fence, seized Sunbeam by the "fat scruff" of her neck, and shook the cat to death. Witnesses identified Dormie clearly — Marjorie Ingals, owner of Sunbeam the cat, was forced to pick out the dog in a canine roundup.

There was some suspicion that Dormie was targeted for trial because his owner, Eaton McMillan, was a wealthy automobile dealer. The dog's aristocratic background may have made him a target: the Chicago Tribune joked that Dormie's trial would "expose the inner secrets of the upper strata of dogdom."

Ultimately, it didn't matter. The trial ended with a hung jury, with 11 jurors voting to acquit, while only 1 wanted the dog to go to the pound gas chamber. Dormie walked free.

Papers had fun with the trial, taking the opportunity to make lots of jokes about the contemporaneous legal troubles of film star Fatty Arbuckle. The law was the result of a San Francisco ordinance that held both dog and master to be liable for any crimes the dog committed. The master could escape with a fine, but the dog would be tried for life. Though laws obviously vary significantly by location, they aren't that different today — if an animal destroys property, including other animals, it's usually easy to charge them and have them killed. It just probably won't go to a jury trial.

Why did an animal go on trial? Has it happened before?

The execution of a sow

The execution of a sow.

Today, the cost of animal trials tends to be prohibitive, so they rarely occur unless something truly consequential occurs.

In 1924, Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot led proceedings against a dog that killed his cat, and he found the dog guilty. As Jen Gergen describes, Pinchot sentenced it to life imprisonment at the Philadelphia State Penitentiary. In 1927, another dog was tried and found guilty for "worrying the cat of a neighbor lady."

And it's not just dogs. Gergen notes that in the 1920s, an Indiana chimpanzee was arrested for smoking a cigarette in public. Also in the 1920s, bulls were tried — in the "court of bovine justice" — to determine if they were fit to breed. During those trials, bulls actually went on the stand.

Most animal trials, however, are a relic of a different legal system. E.P. Evans' The Criminal Prosecution and Punishment of Animals features centuries-old examples of rats on trial for eating food, insects tried for being pests, and pigs hung for murdering children. Most of these trials, however, reflected a legal system that was still negotiating boundaries between religious and secular law, and such trials faded as legal procedure became more set.

As far as Dormie goes, we may never know if he was guilty or if some other animal killed Sunbeam. It's telling that the prosecution only accused the dog and never deigned to call a suspicious squirrel to the stand.

(Thanks to Joshua Preston for tweeting about Dormie's dramatic trial.)

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.