Cats in Bags and Barrels

He are some examples of how the cat, throughout history, was used and abused in an unthinking way at the convenience of people. Centuries ago the attitude towards cats was probably less enlightened resulting in callous, officially sanctioned abuse. There are more examples than the few listed here.


The first example comes from Turkey, an important country in the world of cats. Sarah Hartwell found this picture of Turkish policeman stuffing a cat into a large sack that already contains a woman had been deemed to have committed adultery. The judgment of adultery and the woman’s punishment was no doubt decided by men. The punishment was to be drowned in a sack. The cat’s role was to scratch the woman as the cat tried to escape before drowning with the woman.

Turkish adultress and cat

It is a bit of Turkish cat and human history. I am not sure of the date – probably late 18th century as a wild guess. From an animal welfare point of view the punishment is using the cat as a robot, a non-sentient being. That attitude is still present today in some places.


This Dutch example (from Finn Frode) shows a similar underlying attitude towards the domestic cat. People do like to place cats into bags and containers of some sort. On this occasion, it is a barrel and a carnival that led to cat abuse and cat cruelty, in the past. Thankfully, a cat is no longer utilized (see picture).

Striking the cat out of the barrel Dutch festival

It concerns a Shrovetide carnival (‘Fastelavn’). The big fun event on Fastelavn Monday was to partake in “striking the cat out of the barrel” (‘slå katten af tønden’ in Danish).

This is what Finn writes:

…in the old days until 1830 or so, a live black cat would have been placed in the barrel. After some beating the bottom went out and the terrified cat escaped, only to be mercilessly beaten to death by the festive crowd. It was clearly an animal sacrifice and supposed to kill evil symbolised by the black cat. As described elsewhere, this kind of cruel superstition was not uncommon in Europe, often in connection with witch-hunts.

On one day during a religious festival, over many decades and even centuries, annually, black cats across the country where terrorised and mercilessly beaten to death in the name of religion.


Cats were used as pig substitutes in a con trick by farmers in the late Middle Ages (14th and 15th centuries). Once again, this form of cat abuse indicates the lack of value placed on a cat. I feel that that attitude subsists today in some quarters of society even amongst cat owners. Incidentally, dogs were also used as pig substitutes. One reason to value cats so poorly was because they were in plentiful supply at the time. It appears that England in the Middle Ages had a feral cat problem akin to the American feral cat problem of 2013.

This bit of “cat in a bag” history is the origin of two idioms:

  • “don’t let the cat out of the bag” or “who let the cat out of the bag?” – meaning don’t disclose a secret and
  • “never buy a pig in a poke” – a poke was a bag.

Farmers in the 15th century sold piglets in bags. To con the buyer some would put a cat in the bag rather than a piglet. Clearly the contents of the bag needed to be inspected. Equally clearly it was not sometimes.

If the cat did escape the cat was “let out of the bag” and the farmer’s attempted con exposed.

It is a little strange to me that the cat is placed in a receptacle in each of these historical, cat-orientated events. Perhaps the idea of placing a cat in a receptacle was presented to people because cats like to hide inside enclosed areas.

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Cats in Bags and Barrels — 39 Comments

  1. I think it’s horrible how cats have always been abused over the centuries and that they still are being abused all over the world, particularly in some countries, illegally by cruelty or legally by such as declawing. Also being skinned for their fur or eaten in some countries, too.
    I think if the human race survives, that hundreds of years from now people will look back with horror at what is still happening to animals in this supposedly enlightened day and age.

    • So right, Ruth AKA.
      It’s sad that humankind hasn’t risen above our ancestors.
      In fact, it might even be worse now.
      So much for “learning from the past” theory.

    • Oh yes, in 200 years we will look back and think that “barbarians” lived in 2013! I think you are right when you say that the cat has been picked on. I think it is because the cat is very accepting. The cat should protest more.

  2. Hello Michael,

    Could you please let us know the source or author’s name of the first picture where you describe ”Turkish policeman stuffing a cat into a large sack”?

    Thank you.

        • Fernand Mery was a French veterinarian, activist and journalist, not a historian. So he should provide primary historical sources in his book. What source Fernand Mery cites? If nothing is given in his book – that’s his opinion and opinions are not historical facts of any kind.

          In Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris? Whats there? What should I look for in Bibliotheque Nationale? Please share with us the references that could be verified, not some vague stuff. Thanks.

          • I have shared the image reference with you. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. That is the reference. It’s very easy and convenient to dismiss anything one doesn’t like as “opinion” or prefer to be in denial about darker acts of the past. Or perhaps to rewrite such acts out of the official history? I’m not willing to continue an acrimonious discussion on someone else’s web page. Mery expressed no opinion of his own about the image.

            I find it interesting that the outcry is about the treatment of the cat, not the treatment of the woman.

            • I do not dimiss. I asked you because I didn’t understand what you refer to.

              If you have book or have read it can you tell me the author list a reference there at all? Or its just written in a few sentences, picture added and nothing more?

  3. That picture of stuffing a cat into a sack with a women is not even a picture. It is a drawing. Anyone could have dreamed that up as a propaganda tool.
    You have recently posted some very good articles which show the reverence and respect Turks have for cats dating back hundreds pof years. It is highly unlikely that a person in an official position in Turkey such as a policeman would be allowed to do such a things.
    This has all the hallmarks of typical Armenian anti-Turk propaganda. Armenians go as far as claiming Van cats are extinct in Armenia because the Turks killed them all. Really? The Turkish Van is the national symbol of Turkey and is revered by all and protected by law. . There is even a University in Van dedicated to their conservation. I am 100% sure that if it possible to trace the origins of this drawing there will be a bad smell.

    • That picture of stuffing a cat into a sack with a women is not even a picture. It is a drawing. Anyone could have dreamed that up as a propaganda tool.

      True. It actually did not occur to me that it could be fiction. However, I do have great respect for the attitude of the Turks towards their cats. Without being sure, what is happening in the picture seems at least possible because 200 years ago or whatever, these sorts of things were possible and it doesn’t matter if the country has a good relationship with the cat or not. Officials are often not cat sympathetic.

      Britain is said to be a country of animal lovers yet we eradicated our only wild cat from England by around 1835. The last one in England was shot by a pain in the arse toff. There are always exceptions.

    • It comes from a time pre-dating photography. Source is the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. It’s not the first reference I’ve found to this in my reading, so mabe it’s something that has been airbrushed out.

  4. The original version of this punishment seems to refer to them being thrown in the ocean. (See “Fact” No 6)
    Does that mean it only happened if there were an ocean conveniently close by? Not much ocean in most Turkish towns or villages.
    It’s unlikely that this form of punishment existed in Turkey since it runs contrary to the well established reverence for cats, and even less likely that it was a an officially sanctioned wide-spread punishment. This kind of cruelty to animals and worse was the general rule in European countries with the backing of the Church. Note the massive protests in Turkey when plans were revealed for the culling of cats and dogs. That is effectively what is proposed in the USA, New Zealand, and Belgium, but no protests! Only wildly inaccurate junk science to promote the case for mass killing of cats. I have heard of no country other than Turkey where the Municipalities build shelters and food dispensers for stray cats and dogs. Perhaps also in Israel.

      • Would you like to share with us some historical sources that pre-date the internet? Because we can’t find any and a claim was made by you so we expect you have something to back it up!

  5. Harvey Harrison, thank you!

    And that so called fact from a link you share here comes from a book named ”1,001 Facts that Will Scare the S#*t Out of You: The Ultimate Bathroom Reader” :)Should it be counted as a historical book? 🙂


    I found the same drawing in Sarah’s flickr page Where was it taken from? I don’t know but it has no source – it looks suspicious. It could be drawn by anyone and anytime. Note the text from drawing was cut, where its written ”might be condemned..”. An author of drawing is ”guessing”. Well, all we have are guesses illustrated by a drawing…

    Drowning women in a sack with a CAT, Is not a practice documented by any reliable historical source. Sure it makes a nice story and in some rare cases could happen but it could happen anywhere, in any country – what it has to do particularly with Turkey?
    And if was widespread then sure we should have some REAL historical references. If it doesn’t it’s not better than any internet rumor and should not posted unless one aims to use it as a tool of propaganda.

    ”I am not sure of the date – probably late 18th century as a wild guess.”

    Guess? Just like author of drawing guesses. But why its presented as a fact then? Just because Sarah Hartwell sent it to you? Is Sarah Hartwell also an expert on Turkish history? Why didn’t you ask the source of her claim?

    ”From an animal welfare point of view the punishment is using the cat as a robot, a non-sentient being. That attitude is still present today in some places.”

    Sure it has been told in general. But as someone who reads about ”Turkish policemen” brutally killing a woman and a cat – what idea do I get? Sure, ”Evil Turks” who hate cats. This is what I will think after reading first part of your article. Is this a message you wanted to deliver to your readers?

    • I am sure people who have prejudice against Turks will be happy to use your article as reference. I wouldn’t bother to comment if it had some historical basis.

      But a problem is, it doesn’t. There are no sources to back up other than SARA’S OPİNİON and a picture with no source.

      I am still not getting what is the point to post such a fiction. Very disappointed!

      • Source – Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris via Fernand Mery “History & Magic of the Cat” – a respected writer, a respected publication (in several languages) and a respected library. So it’s hardly a work of fiction or imagination.

        It’s a drawing because, believe it or not, there was a time before photography existed and drawings, woodcuts, engravings or aquatints were the main way of reproducing images.

        It’s very easy to dismiss as fiction or opinion anything that does not concur with one’s own preconceptions. Nor do I claim to be an expert in Turkish history. I notice a bad case of being in denial whenever something that is not all rosy about Turkey is found.

        • Thanks. But Fernand Mery is not a historian therefor he should cite the source that supports his claim. If you have his book you should able to find it if its present. He can be respectable author but I have to repeat he is not historian and he did not live in times he made a claim about. This is a very logical reason question what he says. Because writers can get things wrong, write opinions or just things they believe without proof.

          I am not in denial and I would never accept censoring the truth about Turkey be it good or bad. If its truth – be it, if only rumors and opinions – this is called propaganda. I would love to hear where authors claims written in 1960’s book come from.

    • In the 1950s here when I was a small child, people were still drowning unwanted litters of kittens, before the neutering of cats became almost routine. We are only talking about 60 years ago and this barbaric act was thought acceptable!

      • But illegal now in some countries thank goodness although I suppose it still goes on and the murderers aren’t caught 🙁

  6. Hi everyone,

    Questions for Admin:

    Where did you get this wrong information exactly? Where is the link?
    Who is Sarah Hartwell(probably one British who hates Turks)?
    Is Sarah Hartwell a director of this page? I see you trust her even without a source and link.
    Probably you will share anything from her without your own critism.
    What is the point to make an article about this unknown BS with huge unknown propaganda painting?
    Can you expain us why Sarah Hartwell wanted from you to post this BS here?
    If the topic is torture, abuse and cat in the world, Turkey must be at the end of the list not on the TOP!
    I would like to ask the mission of the pictures-of-cats?

    Related unknown examples:

    “In spite of the veneration which the Egyptians had for the cat, we are told that the punishment for adultery by a woman in Egypt was to be sewn into a sack with a live cat and flung into the Nile” – Mildred Kirk

    “Turkish women suspected of cheating where tied in a sack of cats and thrown into the ocean.” Where is the source of it, no where… It’s so funny even there is no ocean next to former Ottoman or modern Turkey.

    That method-rumoured to-used by witch hunters in middle age. I HIGHLY doubt it has anything to do with Turkey. Even you can not prove this.

    By the way, I made a search from Turkish side too, the examples written as a method which used by Mongols and Chinese. With various animals like scorpion, snake, etc. There is no point to use sweet cats in order to punish someone with torture. What kind of torture can be? Just a few scratching on the body maybe, thats all. It’s not logical. We can believe this only in fairy tales.
    Let me tell you it’s just a myth, rumour or one of any random quoetes.

    Please research carefully instead of copy paste and used by someones agendas. People tend to believe what they read without questioning first and since I’m a Turkish woman this made me kinda sad and very offended.

    Hope you feel sorry and will remove this BS as soon as possible.

    • Hi Ayla. Thanks for visiting and commenting. I own this website. My name is Michael Broad.

      Who is Sarah Hartwell?

      Answer: She is an extremely knowledgeable and intelligent woman who owns and runs the website. She probably knows more about cats than anyone else. I respect her.

      But, I am open to criticism and comment that adds to the debate.

      The mission of this site is to discuss cats, find the truth, publish great cat pictures, donate money to cat charities and more.

      Don’t be so angry. You can have your say in comments and rectify mistakes if there are mistakes. But provide evidence. Don’t just rant.

      Important: I always research carefully and use trusted sources. Always. Please don’t insult me by implying that I am careless.

      I don’t feel sorry. I won’t remove it. But I hope you stick around and make more comments and argue your case. But never insult people when commenting. I don’t like being insulted by visitors.

      • I am also in no way anti-Turk (I learnt much of what I know of Islam in a mosque in Izmir). I am an impartial reporter and Where I have a personal opinion, I make it clear it is an opinion. I believe other people should be free to make up their own minds when presented with information. Of course, this means I usually get shot down by both sides of any argument on the basis of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”. I’m not sure why there is a feeling that “everyone hates the Turks”. Though I didn’t travel widely around Izmir, I met people who were happy to tell me about their country and their beliefs and I spent time at historical sites and in mosques.

  7. The fact that the drawing appears in a well-respected library does not in any way prove anything even if linked to a well respected writer. The meaning that the drawing intends to portray must be backed up by further evidence and proofs. There are innumerable drawings, accounts, learned and authoritative pronouncement from Church leaders of people possessed by the devil and cats involvement in Witchcraft, but none of it is true. Why should this drawing prove anything? It’s appearance in
    Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, does not lend it any more credibility than appearing in a junk website, for lack of any corroborative evidence. Respected author indeed! Writing about Magic and mixing it with history is hardly the best of credentials.

  8. Agree with you Harvey Harrison.

    There is incredibly a lot of prejudice and propaganda against Turkish people. It’s widespread in foreigner literature. When you try to find sources for most of these ”facts” , many of them turn out blatant lies. I don’t aim to make Turks look good, that’s not a point. Here like everywhere else were and still are bad people doing bad things.

    But a claim that Turks were famous for drowning women and cats in sacks is very questionable. First thing it’s unheard for Turks themselves. Second, where are historical sources? Who said that? If we can’t find anything to support this, then we should accept there is a high possibility that a story is a fiction. Fictional stories can be repeated over and over again but it doesn’t make them more real.

    • Well, I trust you more than an old picture in a book. So, let’s conclude that it is not a true reflection of the Turkish people’s relationship with the domestic and community cat. As usual, thanks a lot for your invaluable comments. They are always appreciated.

  9. Thanks Michael,

    No, don’t trust anyone, always ask for evidence. Always.

    It seems the article will stay unchanged. Nobody is going to read the comments, so many readers will be persuaded by your article:”I told you that Turks are barbarians, they hate women AND cats”.

    I don’t have that book but when it will be available I will check it out. As I know it is a mix of fiction and history, I doubt author cares about providing the sources. And why should he… this is not a serious historical book. It follows we should be careful what sources we choose to believe.

    Kind Regards

    • I don’t believe people ignore the comments on this site because they are damn good comments and an important of the page. Also I don’t think this one picture is going to change people’s ideas about Turkish people and their cats. Don’t forget this is a very old image. Life has moved on. It possibly has historical value but does not reflect the attitude of people today.

  10. Sadly the beating of a cat or kittens out of a pot or bag seems to have once been widespread in western Europe. I remember IFAW appeals in the 1990s because it was still happening in Spain. In Denmark, the tradition is called “hit the cat out of the barrel”, though the wooden barrel now contains sweets (a bit like the tradition of pinatas).

    From Shakespeare: “Hang me in a bottle like a cat.” (Much Ado about Nothing, i. 1.) It appears that a live cat might be enclosed in a bag or leather bottle, and hung to the branch of a tree, as a mark for bowmen to shoot at. A similar “sport” was to put the cat in a soot bag, and hang it on a line; the players first had to beat out the bottom of the bag without getting sooty, and the person who succeeded was allowed to hunt the cat afterwards.

    A continental European equivalent of a pig in a poke/cat out of the bag is “buying a cat in the sack”. A couple more, probably from the Middle Ages are “fight like two cats in a sack” (bets were taken on which one would survive); “as mad as a bag (full) of cats” and “as mad as a cat in a sack”.

  11. Sorry for reviving a thread from three years ago. FWIW, I first saw this picture of the woman about to be drowned in a sack with cats when I was eight or nine years old, 1971-ish. It was in a book called “History & Magic of the Cat”, which is still readily available for purchase at Amazon and other vendors. It appeared exactly as shown here, with the same caption. Whether or not any references are provided I do not know. I sometimes wonder if this image somehow affected my life in unmentionable ways.

    • Thanks for commenting John. Images can affect people for their lives I believe. They are an experience. I have an image of animal sacrifice from the internet which I should not have looked at which I can’t shake from my memory. It affects me.

  12. This is a quote in your page under Holland: (‘slå katten af tønden’ in Dutch). This is Danish not Dutch.

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