James Morton

Steven Bouquet, convicted in June of cat killing in Brighton, seems to have been something of a throwback to the New York of the 1890s. Then Sarah J Edwards was a member of the all-female Midnight Band of Mercy, whose mission was the elimination of the thousands of New York’s stray and often half-starved cats which roamed the streets, particularly in the Bowery and over the Hudson in New Jersey.

This was achieved by the kindly method of capturing them, putting them in a basket and chloroforming them. Since the cats were mostly feral, this was done at some personal risk to the missionaries. Nor did the cats always respond to the calls of ‘Kitty, your soul is going to the Lord’ – and so the Midnight Band’s work was never done.

There were, however, also suggestions that not all the cats met the requirements for the death penalty and some were household pets which made up any deficiency in the night’s work. Complaints were made and in the summer of 1893 Edwards was found with a dead cat in a basket.

She explained to a reporter from the New York Times that she was not being cruel but kind; and that if the ASPCA did its work properly there would be no need for the Midnight Band, which was responding to complaints that rats were become bolder and could be seen in theatres.

Edwards was arrested again in the September when she was found with another dead cat in her basket. She appeared charged with cruelty to an animal at Harlem Court. For her attorney, Abe Hummel, it was not one of his greatest successes.

One of her witnesses, a Grace Devine who was said to have killed 8,000 cats, also claimed, to much laughter, to be the Father of the Band. She wanted to be allowed to demonstrate her work by killing a cat in court. When permission was refused, she produced a dead cat, saying Edwards could not have been guilty of cruelty because ‘of the smile on its little face’.

Edwards was fined $10 after the prosecutor asked for leniency.

James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor