Joseph F. Smith and the Great Hawaiian Cat Massacre*

By April 3, 2012

This year, I am planning on flying to Honolulu to do research on Mormon communities such as Laie and Lahaina.  Hawai’i?s official tourism website assures me that I will enjoy the ?clear, blue waters of Kailua beach,? ?the metropolitan cityscapes of Honolulu,? and ?the historic architecture of Iolani Palace.? (  Had I traveled there in the nineteenth century, however, I would have found myself surrounded not by luxurious hotels and volleyball courts but a multitude of half-fed, half-wild dogs and cats.

When William Root Bliss visited the city in 1873, he discovered that what should have been a quiet port city had been transformed into a noisy, yowling place by the pets of its residents.  ?Every family,? he reported, ?keeps at least one dog; every native family a brace of cats.?  In addition to these beloved pets, there were five thousand homeless animals and a gaggle of cocks and chickens for cockfighting.  As soon as dusk hit, a single crow would caw, asking how Bliss liked ?Hoo-ner-loo-loo.?  It wasn?t long before a dozen of his compatriots had joined in.  The dogs would then begin to howl, joined by the cats who protest with ?every vowel sound in the Hawaiian language.?  It was impossible, he wrote, for him to sleep.  Although Mark Twain did not comment on his ability to sleep in Honolulu, he wrote in Roughing It that when he arrived in Honolulu, he saw a profusion of cats ? ?Tom cats, Mary Ann cats, long-tailed cats, bob-tailed cats, one-eyed cats, wall-eyed cats, cross-eyed cats, gray cats, black cats, white cats, yellow cats, spotted cats, tame cats, wild cats, individual cats, groups of cats, platoons of cats, companies of cats, regiments of cats, armies of cats, multitudes of cats, millions of cats, and all of them sleek, fat, lazy and sound asleep.? Nor was it simply travelers who noted the massive number of animals in Honolulu.  Even local newspapers sometimes opined the infestation.  On March 19, 1875, for example, The Islander reported that a young girl passing through the island had simply said ?O I saw plenteo dogs!? when asked to describe Honolulu.  The newspaper then told its audience that the description was ?a brief and truthful description? of the city in its ?salient points.?  The number of dogs had been increasing in the city in spite of the attempts of the government to control the population.

Although the earliest Mormon missionaries arrived nearly twenty years before these reports were printed, they too noted the prevalence of animals in the city – the numerous, dogs, cats, hogs, and chickens that seemed to swell the streets.  Joseph F. Smith, in particular, noted their presence in his diaries.  He found their ubiquity within the homes of native Hawaiians disturbing.  With few exceptions, he wrote in his July 4th, 1856 journal entry, ?hoges, doges, cates and they live together.?  The animals he saw were not the clean pets that he had envisioned in Utah.  He saw ?doges particularly besides other animals, compleately covered with the itch so that there have had all left their bodies in a scale.?  What disturbed him most was the close contact such animals had with his food.  In one Hawaiian home, he complained, he had seen a dog ?its eyes and mouth? drolling,? its body more skin than bones, and its flesh covered with ?running sores and scabs? standing over the ?calabash of poi? that he was to eat.

Joseph found the sanitary habits of Hawaiians no more appetizing.  He wrote that he had ?seen whol families who ware one sollid mass of scabies? and ?eaten food mixed up like unto batter with such hands.?  Furthermore, he had ?slept in places wher should my bag sleep [,] my stomach would forbid me of it[;] I was working for Joseph.?

In his journal, he continually complained about the living conditions on Hawai’i, as the journal entries below suggest.

May 10th, 1857: ?Spent the day preaching Mormonism to Mr. Meyer.  He is concerned about the work ? and is canvassing its principels.  I hope with an earnest heart.  I am horably afflicted with some kidney biles, which are verry sore + disagreeable ? coupled with that I have a verry severe pain in my kidney which is verry afflicting and sore sod I am quite a cripple at present.  This is the first sabath one that I have ever spent sinse I could talk  the language without preaching to the natives?

August 8th, 1857: ?This morning dined upon boiled squash ? and a few ears of roast corn == spent the day syphering writing in my journal + c.  In the evening we partook of squash boiled again, in rehearseing the boiled squash and squash boiled ? I sometimes think of Home!  ?I do!?  yes, I think if my Folks just knew the affluant and flattering circomstances with which we are surrounded, while preaching the gospel. They would envy our oplency?.  I presume I wll now as much as my shaddow, dare pretend to weigh?

As a young, hotheaded boy, Joseph often blamed his circumstances upon the native Hawaiians, who he saw as frequently being lazy and immoral.  In his May 4th, 1857 journal entry, he wrote:

?On any consideration, now my opinion is, I have ate enough dirt and filth, put up with enough inconviances slept sufficiently in their filth, muck + mire, lice and every thing else, I have been ill treated, abused and trod on by these nefarious ethnicks just long enough, I believe it is no longor a virtue, if they will not treat me as I merit, if they will not obey my testimony = and my counsels, but persist in their wickedness, hard heartedness and indifference, their lyings, deceitfulness, and hard hearted cruelty as regards the servents of the Lord, I will not stay with them, but leave them to their fait.?

By the end of his mission in Hawai’i, Joseph was tired of living with native Hawaiians and had given up on the possibility of their accepting the gospel.  His back was sore, he had lost a significant amount of weight, and he wanted to go home.  He had become sick and tired of seeing so many animals living in Hawaii homes and swarming on the streets.  On July 28th, 1857, he encountered a cat that simply would not be quiet while he was staying temporarily with some other missionaries.  The following is his journal entry describing the encounter:

?Last evening we were aroused from our sleep by the suden pitiful yawlings of a cat that had evidenly become ensnared by her own Trappings.  This morning we took old ?Tabby? and after pronouncing her guilty of attempted manslaughter and chicken murder; she was sentenced to be hung!**  We called in her friends; they took the last lingering look at her, + returned, then we proceeded to the gibit to exicute the manicled culprit.

“The ensuing scene would be horible!  Tabby had no notion of dying and Irea (?) we had some notion, she should, but our resolutions were not  indefea_ble. We, however, indevered to shortin her carear, by virtue of Stones, which were aimed at her head with uncalculable persision!  At length the rope parted by the poor thing?s cranium coming in contiguous relation with an infuriated adamant of not uncommon size!  Poor Cittys head was then decapitated and her obsequies attended to.?


I?m going to end as another JIer suggested with one word: Discuss.

*The title here is playing off Robert Darnton?s famous book The Great Cat Massacre.

**The practice of trying animals and then sentencing them to death was a common one in Puritan England and America.  In trying the cat, Joseph F. and his compatriots were drawing on a long history in which animals could be held guilty of sin and could commit crimes.

Article filed under Cultural History Miscellaneous


  1. Interesting–and a bit disturbing. I’m quite amazed that there was a history of trying animals to death in Puritan England and America as well… were they normally as crude as this demonstration?

    Most of Joseph F. Smith’s complaints re: all these darn animals seems to stem from a notion that they are in the wrong places and spaces–and that a human community should certainly maintain strong boundaries between human and animal. Perhaps poor tabby had to pay for the sins of the entire animal community.

    Comment by Chris — April 3, 2012 @ 9:45 am

  2. ?hoges, doges, cates and they live together.? Mass hysteria! (Couldn’t resist).

    “nefarious ethnicks” !

    Fascinating post, Amanda. There’s a lot going on here, but one thing that drew my attention was how Bliss drew comparisons between the animals’ calls and the Hawaiian language and the implication there for his views of the Hawaiian people. Similarly, Joseph F. Smith’s comparisons between the scabby animals and people.

    It’s interesting that JFS seems to imply that they rounded up other cats to participate. Do you read it that way too?

    Comment by Jared T — April 3, 2012 @ 10:31 am

  3. Clever title drawn from a fabulous book. I’ve stumbled across the issue of animal trials a few times, and it seems like a practice that combines long tradition (as I understand it, there were formal legal proceedings against animals in the middle ages for crimes like murder, destruction of property, and ironically “bestiality”), with sport killings and humor and revelry. I agree with Chris that this is a bit bracing today, but I suspect before the emergence of animal rights (last fifty years?) no one would have batted an eye. Judging from stories I’ve heard from older people, we’re only a couple of generations removed.

    Comment by Ryan T. — April 3, 2012 @ 10:53 am

  4. Fascinating, Amanda. Thanks for the post. I’m reminded of a letter to the editor in the BYU Daily Universe a few years complaining about the presence of deer on campus.

    Ryan, animal rights have been around a lot longer than the last 50 years. As early as 1824, there was a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in England. Debates over the issue stretch back even further to the 17th century and as early as the 1630s there were laws enacted in the English-speaking world aimed at protecting animals from cruelty.

    Comment by Christopher — April 3, 2012 @ 11:35 am

  5. Great article Amanda! I do feel profound sorrow for the martyred St. Tabby, who proffered her cranium to atone for the moral (and hygienic) lapses of those “nefarious ethnicks.”

    I wonder what would Jesus have done???

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — April 3, 2012 @ 11:49 am

  6. @ Chris – Excellent point about the boundaries between animals and humans. One of the things that often comes up in descriptions of indigenous peoples is a failure to maintain those boundaries and to allow animals into their homes. I think two things are going on there: 1 – Many 19th C white Americans saw indigenous people as living closer to a state of nature and closer to animals in general than Westerners. Depicting people with animals is a way to make them seem savage and beastlike. 2 – I think it also has to do with class. Working class people are also depicted as living with animals and being unclean.

    I don’t know if “crude” is quite the right description for the trial. It’s actually quite elaborate.

    @ Jared – I do interpret it the same way. I imagine them gathering several tabbies off the street and making them walk and wave with their paws. That’s all my imagination, of course. The comparison between Hawaiians and animals is certainly interesting. There’s been a developing field within history and English about the way animals become stand-ins for people. I don’t know too much about the historiography there to make a meaningful comment.

    @ Ryan and Christopher – I think the reaction certainly would have been different in the 19th C than it is now. There certainly were animals trials, as Ryan suggests and they were a thing of sport and fun. BUT, they did exist alongside animal rights movements. Both things existed in tension with each other.

    @ Connell — Whatever he would have done, he certainly wouldn’t have killed poor St. Tabby!

    Comment by Amanda — April 3, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

  7. Fun post. Joseph F. Smith was definitely a diamond in the rough in these early years. Nice tie-in with “The Great Cat Massacre.” As I recall, those cats were also a substitute for the real target of animosity. Since JFS came to love the Islands after a number of subsequent visits, one can gather that he must have lived in better circumstances in those later visits, where sick dogs didn’t drool in the poi.

    Comment by kevinf — April 3, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

  8. Thanks, Chris(topher), for the correction. Point taken on animal rights having been around for a while. I guess I was thinking of when animal rights really penetrated popular consciousness and became a prevalent ideology. It sounds, though, like that may have begun earlier than I guessed, too.

    Comment by Ryan T. — April 3, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

  9. @Kevinf — Well, some of the rough edges remained throughout his life. I’ve read the correspondence with some of his wives and I can almost hear them sighing and clucking in the background as he reminds them for the umpteenth time that lye is dangerous to leave around the house and to watch the children in case something bad happens. (That doesn’t mean they loved him any less.)

    I don’t think that we can blame Joseph F.’s initial disgust with Hawai’i on his living conditions. One of the things that I find fascinating is that Joseph F. interprets poverty in a completely different way when he is in Hawai’i than when he is in England. In Hawai’i, he tends to blame any uncleanliness or dirtiness on ignorance, unwillingness to change, and slovenliness. In England, he blames the British class system for the poverty of the working classes. Part of the difference can be attributed to culture shock. Part of it is also probably the result of racism. The move he makes in calling Hawaiians lazy and the English working classes oppressed was a common one in the 19th C.

    He is friendlier to Hawaiians in his later writings, but it’s important to remember that he’s living in a white enclave in Laie. Although Laie was a Hawaiian plantation, his living space is an Americanized one. White women prepared his food, cleaned his clothes, and mended his garments. Although I assume there were native servants, they are largely absent from his narratives. He and his wife Julina joke about the little society they have created — and it’s clear from their writings that they weren’t including native Hawaiians in that circle. He was able to love Hawaiians, but only when he wasn’t living with them.

    Comment by Amanda — April 3, 2012 @ 8:38 pm

  10. Amanda– Kudos for having JI’s Best.Title.Ever.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — April 3, 2012 @ 10:22 pm

  11. I agree. Best title. (And a great post).

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 4, 2012 @ 8:44 am

  12. I hope it’s not too late, but Amanda’s readers may be interested to know that the entries cited from Joseph F. Smith’s diary are available in Nate Ricks’s edition of “My Candid Opinion: The Sandwich Islands Diaries of Joseph F. Smith, 1856-1857,” published last year by the Smith-Pettit Foundation.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — April 4, 2012 @ 9:59 am

  13. Amanda, I’ve read some of those later letters, and have to agree that he could be both tenderhearted and abrupt, sometimes even rude. He had little or no tolerance when he perceived others to be in the wrong. I’ve been working on a project with his letters to his adopted son, Edward Arthur Smith, and both sides of his personality show up there. He remains for me an often contradictory but fascinating subject. This cat incident, though, is a real gem. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by kevinf — April 4, 2012 @ 10:47 am

  14. JFS was a flesh and blood, imperfect young man. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Pedro — April 4, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

  15. Wow! How very sad..for years I have shared many stories of JFS. This isn’t one I would’ve shared and probably won’t.. How grateful I am he served a mission to the Hawaiian Islands. Had he not, I wouldn’t be a member and neither would the many generations of Hawaiians before me..But I do have a better understanding of why I love animals so much.

    Comment by Sandra — April 9, 2012 @ 11:21 pm

  16. Sandra – I think we often err in having too high of expectations for church leaders. Joseph F. Smith was human and had a great many faults. In many ways, he was racist and he, as shown in this post, could be cruel. I don’t think that diminishes the faith of the Saints in the Hawaiian islands or elsewhere in Oceania, which boasts extraordinarily high rates of church attendance and membership.

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 10, 2012 @ 9:40 am

  17. […] of kindness to animals – this post from Amanda at the Juvenile Inspector seemed […]

    Pingback by The Great Hawaiian Cat Massacre and Joseph F. Smith « The Contrarian Mormon — April 11, 2012 @ 3:13 am

  18. Amanda,
    This was one of my favorite stories from JFS’ first Hawaiian mission–it reminded me of my own run-ins with raccoons and rats in rural Washington state.

    In my book I rendered the transcription of the entry as follows (Thanks, Gary B., for the nod):

    “last evening we were aroused from sleep by the sud[d]en pitiful yawlings of a cat, that had evidently become ensnared from her own Trappings. this morning we took old ?Tabby,? and after pronounding [sic] her guilty of attempted man-Slaughter, and chicken murder, she was sentenced to be hung! we called in her friends. they took the last lingering look at her, & returned, we then proceded to the pikit [picket] and to exicute the manicoled culprit, the ensuing scene would be hor[r]ible! Tabby had no notion of dying on a Trea, we had some notion, she should, but our resolutions were not indefagable. we however, indenired [intended?] to shortion her carear, by the ?vertue? of ?Stones? which were aimed at her head with uncalculable persision! at length the rope parted by the poor things? cranium coming in contiguous relations with an infuriated ademant [adamant?] of not uncom[m]on size! poor ?Cittys? head was then decapitated and her obsequise attended to. I was taken sick to day?I had a bad head-ache, dizziness, and was verry weak.”

    A few comments:
    1. This scene took place while JFS was on Lanai, at the mission “gathering place”, with his good friend William W. Cluff. (He would later accompany Cluff and Ezra T. Benson to Lanai in 1864 to depose Walter Murray Gibson.) It seems from internal evidence in the entry that the wildcat had been snared outside the chickencoop and was–as any predator of livestock on any 19th century farm would be–disposed of (though certainly with more theatricality!)
    2. I suspect that, if JFS and W.W. Cluff holding a mock trial was similar to Puritan practices, it was not influenced by those practices, but was simply a more youthful, male exhibition of their belief in humanity’s complete dominion over all in the animal kingdom.
    3. He was, after all, seventeen years old at the time–perhaps a little bit of his “fiery meteor” days resurfacing in the mission field.

    Thanks for a great post! I liked your connection to his British mission–there’s a lot of fodder for comparison there.

    Comment by Nate R — April 12, 2012 @ 10:05 pm

  19. Nate R. — Thanks for the comment! As long as you didn’t routinely kill the said raccoons and rats in horrific ways we can be friends. The question of whether or not they would have been influenced by Puritan animal trials is an interesting one. It certainly was a common practice and continued into the 19th C, although more as a lark than anything else. During the 17th and 18th centuries, such trials were often quite serious (although not always as Darnton shows). By the 19th C, they were almost always fun. I don’t think there’s a direct correlation between JFS’ experience and Puritan animal trials, but I do think that such things were a part of his culture and would have rubbed off on him.

    HOWEVER, no matter what the correlation I do think you are right that they saw it as fun and as part of their god-given dominion over animals. And, it’s important to remember that he is only 17, though, he remains obstinate and slightly self-righteous throughout his life. My favorite from his letters is actually when his wife Julina writes to one of her sister wives that she can’t help laughing at his sometimes overly wounded reactions to things. She obviously loves to jab at him and make him a little hot and angry.

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 12, 2012 @ 10:32 pm


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