(This is NOT Thomas the Cat. This cat does display the exact condition that Thomas did. This cat was found living in a builder’s yard in Trafford Park, Manchester, England. Source: http://unmyst3.blogspot.com/2011/09/winged-cat-sightings.html).
It has been snowing here for two days nearly non-stop. In fact, the entire eastern coast of the United States has been slammed with a winter fist hard enough to make California see icicles. So far, we have about six and a half to eight inches of powder and ice. Some locations have up to one foot of snow, eleven people have been reported to have died as a result of the storms and South and North Carolina are at a virtual stand-still.
Thankfully, we have not yet lost power. We have heat and our water is still flowing. The snow plow trucks are finally making it up and down our roads, scraping and salting as best as they can. Highway 81 was nearly totally shut down all night and so the delay to getting to the side roads is normal. The poor men and women who work the highways are probably exhausted and I wish they knew how much we appreciated their efforts during blizzard like conditions.
The storm came out of nowhere it seemed. Even though we were warned, I didn’t really think it would happen since our meteorologists have been notoriously spotty with their predications lately but I admit, I was wrong about them. Their math seems to have been fairly accurate and for the first time in months, their predictions hit right on schedule. As the snow peppers down outside, a silent sound that mixes with the occasional rumble and screech of metal on asphalt as the salt trucks lumber by, I take a sip of my Coke and think about the fact that I should have probably paid more attention to the weather report.
It also makes me think about the fact that if I had been outdoors and overlooked or not paid attention to those reports, I could have been in a much more precarious position and so that brings me to me blog post for today, the theme of which, for me at least, is over looking the obvious even if you have seen it many times.
One of my favorite authors and researchers of all things strange and weird was John Keel. Mr. Keel was a dedicated researcher, who for more than thirty years studied all forms of UFOs, monsters, ghosts and hairy wierdos from all states and hidden parts of the country. He is infamous for his biting wit often surprising you by teaching you something or making you think all the while keeping his tongue firmly in cheek. He is most associated with his investigation of West Virginia’s Mothman sightings back when the creature was most active in 1966 just a year prior to the collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant which killed over thirty people on December 15, 1967. Some blame the creature. Others blame metal fatigue and bad maintenance topped off with old age and Christmas crowds.
Last night I picked up one of Keel’s books, The Complete Guide to Mysterious Beings (one of my favorites alongside The Mothman Prophecies). I was reading through the early chapters in my living room recliner (which is where I am writing to you from right now), watching through our bay windows as the snow continues to fall and I began the chapter entitled “Flying Felines” covering reports from around the United States of strange unknown cryptids that resembled cats that had the ability to fly or otherwise acted as out of place large cats where no large cats were supposed to be (black panthers for example in North Carolina, the Beast of Bladenboro, the Beast of Exmoor, etc).
The first story in the chapter relates a strange and humorous tale of one such speculated flying feline from a place Keel called Pinesville, West Virginia. Now, bear in mind, I have read this book multiple times, so much so that I have worn the cover completely off. It is full of data, charts and anecdotes that I have used as jumping off points for research for many years. For the first time in the history of my ownership of this book, I noticed the name of the location in the story.
Pinesville, West Virginia.
That made me pause.
I re-read it again. Pinesville,West Virginia.
For over a year now, myself and Sammy have been going to Pineville, West Virginia to see Sammy’s four-teen year-old son, Doug. Doug is very well versed in local lore and loves to share his knowledge about history especially if it’s about his home town. A certain pride pervades those from the mining towns of West Virginia that borders on religious reverence for their histories.
There have been times we have sat and listened to him lecture about the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s, only to have him switch over to Bigfoot and local Indian lore for many hours as we traveled around the back roads and through the mountain towns, over to Beckley and back.
Never did he mention a flying feline. I double checked the text to make sure I was reading it right. It read “Pinesville” not “Pineville”. Given the multitude of small unincorporated mining towns that line the foothills of lower West Virginia, I researched the name to see if there was such a town. There wasn’t. In fact, upon deeper digging, I found that John Keel’s editor or Keel himself had made a typographical error. He really meant Pineville, West Virginia. I confirmed it as a I skipped ahead to the end of the story and found that yes, in fact, he had meant Pineville, West Virginia as he later gives the correct name in the closing paragraphs.
The story begins over fifty-five years ago in a very unlikely way.
In 1959, a simple domestic housecat made nationwide shockwaves, launching them from Pineville. The story was published in every major news outlet, both as a serious piece and a local color piece. The cat even made several television appearances. For a lowly housecat (named Thomas), this was quite an adventure. What on earth would have made a cat so famous?
In the modern world of social media we do have famous felines. Ranging from Grumpy Cat (really her name is Tardar Sauce and she is adorable, suffering from feline dwarfism, famous for her pouty face) to the infamous and sadly now passed away fluffy Scotch loving Colonel Meow and his minions (of whom I was also a fan), so its not so unusual. But in 1959, social media was non existent, except at the water cooler or at the local church after services (heaven forbid you be sinful enough to gossip during the service).
So what then could hold an entire town of several hundred people (now somewhat larger) and the country in awe?
Thomas the cat, had wings.
And, according to those who knew him, he could use them.
To hear those tell it, Thomas, when he got angry or upset, would flutter his little wings like a bee. No one however can recall ever seeing him take flight. Not that it mattered much really to the small town West Virginians who flocked in droves paying ten cents a head ( a little more if you wanted a picture taken with him) to see Thomas and his wings.
It was May 1959 when fifteen year old Douglas Shelton found and captured the cat that would be later called Thomas. Armed with a dog and a .22 rifle, Shelton said that “My dog treed it. I almost took a shot at it, but then I saw it was a cat, so I shimmied up the tree and caught it!” (Keel, 2002).
The boy quickly saw that he had no ordinary cat; the animal, it seemed, had two stumpy lumps growing out of its back, wings, Shelton thought stunned.
“It acted like it was used to people. And its manners were pretty good until you pulled on those wings. Then it would get mad and start clawing”, Douglas recalled. He took the cat home and soon it was one of the family. However, like all small towns, word spread quickly that something unusual was in Pineville…a cat with wings!
A reporter, Fern Miniacs from the Post-Herald out of Beckley, West Virginia, a town I am also familiar with, picked up the story and ran with it. Not long after, the stampedes of people rushed to the Shelton home, wanting to see this wonder, this marvel, this freak of nature. Miniacs was one of the first people outside the family who got to take a good long objective look at Thomas. She made two interesting discoveries (Theresa’s Haunted History of the Tri-State, 2013).
The first was that Thomas was really not the most appropriate name because Thomas was a female. The second was that the wings were very unusual and un-wing-like. She described Thomas as about thirty inches long, with a bushy squirrel-like tail and two perfectly formed nine inch long wings on either side of her body. Miniacs said that “the wings are boneless but evidently have gristles in them.” (Miniacs, 1959)
“Thomas” was said to be a Persian cat, with long soft fur, somewhat larger than normal feet and a build that put her at above average but not monstrously large for her breed. A conservation officer looked Thomas over, saying that the wings were soft but gritty near the attachment points on the cat’s body and proclaimed that the cat was just shedding its fur. This did not go over well with the residents of Pineville, who had quickly turned into something of a winged cat cult, and they refused to listen to the advice, instead rocketing Thomas into national stardom as the story broke in paper after paper. Compounding the issue, an “expert” veterinarian from Baltimore investigated Thomas and said that he had no explanation for the wings and that maybe it was the cat’s body’s attempt to grow another pair of legs. Which as it turns out, wasn’t really that bad of a theory but more on that later.
At last, the story of Thomas and Doug reached New York City, and Dave Garroway of NBC’s Today show asked the boy and the now famous cat to come on the show, which they did (by train no less. Doug’s mother thought it was beneath the cat’s dignity to fly by plane ironically). On June 8, 1959, the show aired and Thomas sat well behaved on stage as Doug told his story to the American people. The boy admitted he had been offered as much as four hundred dollars (equal to $3,225.59 in today’s money) for the cat but turned the person down. The cat, while not seemingly interested in the hubbub around her, did, as Keel related, develop expensive eating habits, preferring fresh meat and mackerel fish over ordinary canned cat foods (Keel, 2002).
The small town of Pineville was now on the map and people traveled from far and wide to see the winged cat. The Shelton family realized that there was a profit to be made and soon, as I said before, started charging ten cents (0.81 cents today) per head– plus a little more if you wanted your picture taken–to see Thomas. It was estimated that Doug and his family took in over $2,000 dollars ($16,129.03 in today’s money) over the several weeks of Thomas’s fame, though Doug himself later disputed that claim.
The case of the flying cat of Pineville was about to take another dramatic turn, this time into the court room.
Mrs. Charles Hicks, a window from around Pineville-Baileyville Road, came forth and proclaimed that Thomas was really her cat and that Thomas’s real name was Mitzi.
“I don’t want to cause any trouble. I just want my cat back!” she claimed. (Keel, 2002).
Mrs. Hicks claimed that a friend had given her Mitzi over five years ago after purchasing the furry feline in a pet store in California for twenty-five dollars. Hicks claimed that everyone in her family was used to seeing the wings and that they didn’t find it anything special to wonder at and would testify to seeing them. Hicks stated that one day she had put some medicated drops into the cat’s ears and the cat took off, running away into the woods. Four days later, she said, Shelton found the cat.
Shelton, still busy raking in money, declined to give the cat back and Hicks sued him and his family.
The court date came on October 5, 1959. The judge listened as Hicks told her story. Then, Doug Shelton himself came into the courtroom with Thomas/Mitzi under one arm and a box under the other. The crowd gasped. Something was different about Thomas.
Her wings were gone.
“She shed her wings in July” Doug said, opening the shoe box, revealing the shed “wings”.
Mrs. Hicks became icy and snapped haughtily at the boy and the judge.
“That is NOT my Mitzi.”
The judge awarded Hicks one dollar in damages for “her trouble” and Doug was given full custody of Thomas the cat.
At last the drama of the flying winged cat of Pineville came to a close and over the next few weeks, the furor died down and life in the sleepy small town returned to normal. There aren’t many reports that I could find of what happened to Doug or Thomas/Mitzi after that and like Keel, I can only assume she lived out a normal cat life, her brief flash into the bright spot light of fame uncared for by her in favor of fresh fish and good eats and maybe the occasional brushing.
So were Thomas’s wings the result of just matted fur? Actually, there are three situations that may have explained the unusual wings, with matted fur just being the first. The second explanation could be FCA, feline cutaneous asthenia.
Feline Cutaneous Asthenia is a rare inheritable disease found in cats. It is related to Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, found in humans and in other animals. The skin flaps and fur do have nerves and as stated, they can be moved at will but are not wings. Great care has to be taken with these skin flaps and cats should be declawed to avoid damage because cats with this condition have very thin and soft skin. ( Fernandez, Scott, Hollis & Minor , 1998).
The last explanation could be a genetic mutation in which, as the veterinarian from Baltimore noted, the body tries to grow extra appendages and if safe, they should be removed to allow the animal to have a normal quality of life if the extra limbs interfere.
In the case of Thomas or Mitzi if you prefer, the case is strongly suggested to have been the resulted of matted fur, a town gone wild over a mystery, and the failure, like my own, to notice often what is obvious and right in front of your face.
I plan on telling this story to Doug (our Doug, not Doug Shelton) and wonder if he sees the irony in its content. While winged cats are either the stuff of dreams or nightmares, it is unlikely that they will ever be found to be a biological reality. After all, a house cat can often be a handful on his or her own. Do we really want to encounter a flying cat?
You’d better duck…or at least, watch out for hairballs.
Theresa’s Haunted History of the Tri-State. Thomas, the winged cat of west virginia . (2013, January 21). Retrieved from http://theresashauntedhistoryofthetri-state.blogspot.com/2013/01/thomas-winged-cat-of-west-virginia.html
Keel, J. (2002). The complete guide to mysterious beings. (3rd ed.). New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
Fernandez, C., Scott, D., Hollis, E., & Minor , R. (1998). Staining abnormalities of dermal collagen in cats with cutaneous asthenia or acquired skin fragility as demonstrated with masson’s trichrome stain. Veterinary Dermatology, 9(1), 49-54. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-3164.1998.00074.x
Miniacs, F. (1959, May). Thomas, the winged cat. Beckley Post-Herald.