Paw and order: Dormie, the dog who went on trial for cat murder

Dormie was an Airedale Terrier who ran afoul of the law

Published May 16, 2021 8:00PM (EDT)

Airdale terrier (Getty Images)
Airdale terrier (Getty Images)

This story originally appeared on Mental Floss.

mental floss logo; logo

The defendant was said to have arrived to court in good spirits on the morning of December 21, 1921. He had exercised, eaten a full breakfast of sausages, and had received well-wishes from the children in his neighborhood, who gave him comforting pats on the head before he was carted off.

The charges were serious. He was up on 14 counts of murder, with numerous witnesses prepared to testify they had seen him commit the violent acts on their own property. One witness, Marjorie Ingalls, recalled seeing the corpse of her close friend laying in a vacant lot next to her home. The victim, Sunbeam, was just 8 years old. The defendant was alleged to have accosted her without provocation before turning his wrath to her three young offspring.

If convicted by the jury, he would face the death penalty. Already, The Buffalo Times had published a photo of the death chamber, his would-be executioner posing next to it.

It's rarely advisable for the accused to speak in their own defense, and so the subject of the trial insisted on remaining silent. His name was Dormie, and he was an Airedale Terrier whose life rested in the hands of 12 human jurors. His crime? Killing neighborhood cats. It was the first time in modern history a dog had been put on trial, and San Francisco area cat lovers made no bones about it: They wanted to see Dormie go down.

* * *

Through the 19th century, it was not uncommon for European courts to hold animals up to the same moral standards—and deliver the same punishments—as their human counterparts. In 1379, herds of pigs were brought to justice after killing a man named Perrinot Muet in France. The porcine onlookers were pardoned; the three pigs responsible for the attack were executed. In 1587, the town of St. Julien, France, put weevils on trial for destroying crops. The judge's decision, which somehow took eight months to render, remains unknown as the final page of the court record did not survive the passage of time. Ironically, it's believed that insects ate it.

In more enlightened times, there should have been no venue to put a dog on trial. But Dormie had the misfortune of living in San Francisco, California, which had an ordinance on its books that made both the owner and dog liable for aggressive behavior. The human would be charged with a misdemeanor and issued a fine; the dog would be put down.

This didn't sit well with Eaton McMillan, an automobile dealer of some financial means, who was Dormie's owner. He protested when his neighbors accused Dormie of rampaging through their yards then confronting and murdering their cats. Dormie, McMillan argued, had a license that afforded him the freedom to roam around the area. Because he had not instructed Dormie to attack any pets, he insisted he was not liable. Rather than acquiesce to the fine and have Dormie euthanized, he hired a defense attorney, James Brennan, who insisted on a jury trial.

"The ordinance under which this case is brought is ridiculous and we expect, not only to save Dormie, but to attack this law," Brennan told The Stockton Daily Evening Record. "[And] we will protest against women on the jury, as they are notorious cat fanciers."

The idea of a dog being brought up on charges and having a jury decide its fate was irresistible to the media, which made frequent and exhaustive reference Dormie's case. That the dog's trial was covered with any degree of attention is probably attributable to the fact that the media had recently been deluged with the (first) trial of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, a famous actor who had been charged with raping and killing Virginia Rappe during a salacious party in San Francisco in September 1921, just three months prior to Dormie making headlines. Newspapers covered the Dormie case almost as a satire of the Arbuckle story. (Arbuckle had two mistrials and was found not guilty in his third, though the allegations effectively ended his career.)

It helped that both Brennan and prosecuting attorney John Orcutt seemed to embrace the case as a kind of performance art. Orcutt told members of the press that two of the deceased cats' bodies were to be "exhumed" to present as evidence; neighborhood children who adored Dormie took up a collection for his defense, shoving pennies into a jar; dog lovers and cat enthusiasts sparred in newspapers.

"We deny that Airedales, individually or as a breed, have an intent to injure cats," wrote A. X. Decourtieux, president of the Pacific Coast Dog Fanciers' Association. "Their history is brimful of chivalrous acts toward weaker animals, cats in particular." Most notably, Decourtieux said, was Rowdy, the brother of President Warren G. Harding's dog Laddie Boy, who befriended the cat of United States District Attorney John T. Williams.

"Sunbeam was cut off in her prime of cathood," wrote Mrs. Frank R. De Castro, president of the San Francisco Cat Club. "She was but eight years old. The ordinary cat dies between 8 and 12 years, but Persians live to be about 19. A Persian cat at the age of 8 is peaceable and dignified. She keeps her thoughts to herself, and is happy when not interfered with." Dormie, De Castro speculated, may have pounced on the hapless Sunbeam when she was roaming the vacant lot to eat grass.

 * * *

Dormie's day in court came relatively quickly. It was set for December 21, 1921, just weeks after the December 2 discovery of the late Sunbeam. Judge Lile T. Jacks presided over an atmosphere that was thick with tension. Among the spectators were worried children who considered Dormie a friend, as well as area cat lovers looking to see justice served.

Speaking to the jury — nine men and three women — Brennan insisted his client was not guilty. To cover his bases, Brennan introduced the idea of "irresistible impulse." If Dormie had done it, it was because he was instinctively driven to attack a cat. As for McMillan, who was being charged with a misdemeanor, Brennan argued that it was pointless.

"How could McMillan be guilty of intent, unless he could look into his dog's mind and see the future?" Brennan said.

The prosecution's key witness, Marjorie Ingalls, insisted it was Dormie who had terminated Sunbeam. Brennan was prepared: He ushered in several dogs of various breeds, including Airedales, and then asked Ingalls if she could identify which one was Dormie in what amounted to a canine lineup. Ingalls couldn't. Brennan had successfully raised reasonable doubt. Perhaps it had not been Dormie, but another Airedale who had snuffed out Sunbeam.

Cross-examining other witnesses, Brennan was relentless. When sparring with cat owner F.L. Stone, who insisted Dormie had killed one of his cats and was prepared to knock off another, Brennan interrupted.

"I object," Brennan said. "You don't know what was in that dog's mind."

"Well, Dormie chased the cat into the woodpile," Stone said.

A Mrs. L. Norris was fierce in her condemnation of the defendant. "Dormie was a public nuisance," she said. "He ran out and snapped at automobiles that passed. We tried to run over him and sorry we didn't."

Brennan summed up his case by making a direct appeal to pet stereotypes. Dogs were loyal to humans, he said; cats were possessed of ingratitude.

The jury was out just 20 minutes. When they returned, they said they were undecided. Seven voted for acquittal; five wanted to convict him. Brennan made a motion for dismissal, which Jacks granted. Dormie was released and allowed to go home.

Dormie's case ended up setting a kind of canine legal precedent, establishing that while a dog could have a trial by jury it was also up to the prosecution to leave no room for reasonable doubt. That if a dog was to be charged with a crime, it would also need to be proven that it was indeed that specific dog who committed the crime. It also seemed to declare an unlicensed cat had few or no rights.

No reporters followed up with Dormie in the ensuing years, and it's not known whether McMillan decided to restrict Dormie's movements or if the neighborhood endured any other cat losses. Dormie appears to be the only dog put on actual trial with his life at stake, but not the only one who flirted with the judicial system. In 1924, Pep, a black Labrador, earned notoriety after it was reported he had been "sentenced" to Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary by Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot for killing his wife's cat.

In fact, Pep was a gift from the Pinchots to the prison to help boost prisoner morale. The "sentencing" was propagated by journalists who resented Pinchot's political stance on the government controlling the state's natural resources.

Unlike Dormie, Pep got a mugshot.

By Jake Rossen

MORE FROM Jake Rossen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Animals Crime Deep Dive History Mental Floss