"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Talking Cat Fought the Law, and the Law Won

Carl Miles and Blackie


"That a talking cat could generate interest and income is not surprising. Man's fascination with the domestic feline is perennial. People of western cultures usually fall into two categories. Generally, they are ailurophiles or ailurophobes. Cats are ubiquitous in the literature, lore and fiber of our society and language. The ruthless Garfield commands the comic strips, the Cat in the Hat exasperates even Dr. Seuss, and who hasn't heard of Heathcliff, Felix or Sylvester? Historically, calico cats have eaten gingham dogs, we are taught that 'a cat can look at a king' and at least one cat has 'been to London to see the Queen.'

"It is often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. To the animal world, I am sure that the sincerest form is anthropomorphosis. The ailurophobes contend that anthropomorphosis abounds, and that it is the work of ailurophiles. The ailurophiles say that they do not anthropomorphize cats but, rather, that cats have such human qualities as they may condescend to adopt for their own selfish purposes. Perhaps such was the case with Saki's ill-fated Tobermory, the cat who knew too much and told all, who, when asked if the human language had been difficult to learn, '... looked squarely at [Miss Resker] for a moment and then fixed his gaze serenely on the middle distance. It was obvious that boring questions lay outside his scheme of life.'

"For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, people have carried on conversations with cats. Most often, these are one-sided and range from cloying, mawkish nonsense to topics of science and the liberal arts. Apparently Blackie's pride does not prevent him from making an occasional response to this great gush of human verbiage, much to the satisfaction and benefit of his 'owners.' Apparently, some cats do talk. Others just grin." 
~District Judge Bowen, from his ruling in Carl M. Miles, et al., Plaintiffs, v. City Council, et al., Defendants, 1982.

Few things make me happier than welcoming a talking cat through the hallowed gates of Strange Company HQ. If this particular feline also happened to shape legal precedent, even better.

The plaintiffs in our little drama were Carl and Elaine Miles, "owners and promoters" of Blackie the Talking Cat. They challenged the constitutionality of Augusta's Business License Ordinance, claiming that it violated the rights of speech and association. In short, the city of Augusta insisted that Blackie, as a professional public speaker, get a business license, and Mr. and Mrs. Miles resented having to pony up the required $50. In their original 1982 suit, the District Judge Bowen ruled in favor of the city. ("The ordinance challenged by the plaintiffs is constitutionally valid depriving them of neither due process nor equal protection. The ordinance is a legitimate, rational means for the generation of revenue for the benefit of the defendant. It does not trammel the fundamental rights of the plaintiffs as guaranteed by the state and federal constitutions.") Carl and Elaine then brought their case to the United States Court of Appeals.

Carl's deposition was introduced into evidence, where he explained Blackie's origins and subsequent rise to fame: "Well, a girl come around with a box of kittens, and she asked us did we want one. I said no, that we did not want one. As I was walking away from the box of kittens, a voice spoke to me and said, 'Take the black kitten.' I took the black kitten, knowing nothing else unusual or nothing else strange about the black kitten. When Blackie was about five months old, I had him on my lap playing with him, talking to him, saying I love you. The voice spoke to me saying, 'The cat is trying to talk to you.' To me, the voice was the voice of God."

Never one to quarrel with the wishes of the Almighty, Miles developed "a rigorous course of speech therapy" for Blackie. Carl explained, "I would tape the sounds the cat would make, the voice sounds he would make when he was trying to talk to me, and I would play those sounds back to him three and four hours a day, and I would let him watch my lips, and he just got to where he could do it.

"He was talking when he was six months old, but I could not prove it then. It was where I could understand him, but you can't understand him. It took me altogether a year and a half before I had him talking real plain where you could understand him."

Blackie hit the show business circuit, with great success. He spoke on radio shows, and made an appearance on the TV series "That's Incredible."  (He also recorded a holiday tune, "A Special Christmas Featuring Blackie the Cat That Talked," and I will never rest until I find a copy.)  This was one performer who truly appreciated his audience, which even included the District Judge, who revealed that one day when he encountered Blackie on the street, he gave the cat a dollar.  In return, Blackie purred, "I love you." (The court noted that "this affectionate encounter occurred before the Judge ruled against Blackie.")

As so often happens to even the most deserving talents, Blackie's nationwide fame began to subside. He was reduced to hanging out on street corners, soliciting contributions from passerby to hear him talk. (We are told that "Blackie would become catatonic and refuse to speak whenever his audience neglected to make a contribution.") Some busybodies went to the Augusta police, complaining that Blackie had no right to act as a professional Talking Cat without the proper paperwork.

The plaintiff's lawyer pointed out that "the Augusta business ordinance contains no category for speaking animals. The ordinance exhaustively lists trades, businesses, and occupations subject to the tax and the amount of the tax to be paid, but it nowhere lists cats with forensic prowess."

The Appellate court ruled against the plaintiffs. The judges pointed out that Blackie spoke in return for money, so therefore these "elocutionary endeavors" were indubitably commercial. In other words, Blackie was certainly a businessman...uh, businesscat, and therefore required a license just like any other Augusta entrepreneur. They also dismissed the argument that Blackie's right to free speech had been infringed upon.   "[A]lthough Blackie arguably possesses a very unusual ability, he cannot be considered a 'person' and is therefore not protected by the Bill of Rights. Second, even if Blackie had such a right, we see no need for appellants to assert his right jus tertii. Blackie can clearly speak for himself."

So this is how Blackie went into legal history as--to the best of my knowledge--the world's first officially licensed talking cat. Unfortunately, he failed to find the lasting fame and fortune he undoubtedly deserved.  In 1989 Carl Miles developed cataracts, and he stopped publicly exhibiting his prized feline, although Blackie was still happy to chat with visitors to the Miles home.

After battling multiple health problems, Blackie passed away in 1992 at the age of 18.  Miles told a reporter that just before the end, the cat looked up at him and said one last time, "I love you."

7 comments:

  1. The judge was clearly wrong - I guarantee that if you check the law it would say any person, not any cat, required a license. There is no justice.

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    1. I agree with busterggi. If the judge ruled that Blackie the cat is not a person under the Bill of Rights, then it is clearly inconsistent to define him as a "business-person" for the purpose of imposing a tax or license fee.

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    2. Besides, everyone knows all cats are above the law.

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  2. https://www.amazon.com/Blackie-Talking-Cat-favorite-judicial/dp/0314202994

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  3. even better https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FuCC1VJkNI

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    1. Thank you! I was hoping to find some sort of recording of Blackie. Now if I could only trace that Christmas 45...

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  4. Well, that's a tale! You would think, though, that Blackie could have been classified as an entertainer, rather than a 'business'. I doubt that stage performers and movie actors must have business licences - though Blackie may have had to join a union.

    (It's good to know that Blackie wasn't neglected by his people after he stopped earning for them; they clearly cared for him. And I liked the last line of the story, too.)

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