LOST BREEDS - MEXICAN HAIRLESS, or AZTEC CAT
The first supposed hairless "breed" was the now extinct Mexican Hairless (also called the New Mexican Hairless). In 1902, a couple from New Mexico received two hairless cats from local Pueblo Indians. It was claimed that these were the last survivors of an ancient Aztec breed of cat. The Mexican Hairless cats were litter-mates and noted to be 25% smaller than local shorthair cats. They were normally whiskered and seasonally coated, growing a ridge of fur down the mid-back and tail during the colder seasons. The male, not yet sexually mature, was killed by dogs and the owners searched for a hairless mate for the female. In fact the loss was avoidable. The female could have been bred to similarly shaped domestic cats and the offspring back-crossed to their mother to re-establish the hairlessness trait. The female cat was sold as a pet and possibly exported to Britain or continental Europe in 1903 where she was exhibited, but apparently not bred. Even in 1902, enough was known about livestock breeding to have made this feasible. They resembled the modern Sphynx but were less extreme in face shape. There is the (remote) possibility that some later occurrences of random hairlessness trace back to this female since pet cats were not spayed in the early 1900s.
The earliest detailed report of hairless cats I have so far found is in 1878. It tells us that hairless cats were cropping up at random in litters. "POOR PUSS. Boston Post, January 22, 1878 [...] For the first time in its history Boston has a cat show [...] two hairless cats, “Scud,” a male, and “ Mystery,” a female. They are owned and entered by William P. Marshall, 114 Sudbury street, and they were raised by Addison S. Cressy in Bradford, N. H. Their mother is a common Maltese cat, and by her these prodigies were disowned and neglected from birth. One can scarcely wonder at her conduct for they look more like dogs than cats, and it is asserted that they have many habits that do not commonly manifest themselves in the members of the feline family. They move very nimbly around the large cage in which they are, and are the cause of many curious surmises as to their origin." So, we already have a brother-sister pair of random-bred hairless cats and they were interesting to the public, but due to their ordinary background, they were not a sensation.
In "The Book of the Cat" (1903) Frances Simpson reproduced a letter written by E J Shinick to Mr H C Brooke regarding a pair of hairless cats which had come into Mr Shinick's possession. Brooke commented "A most extraordinary variety, of which next to nothing appears to be known, is the hairless cat, and we cannot do better than quote in extenso the description given by the owner of what, if his surmise should unhappily prove to be correct, was the last pair of these peculiar animals, a portrait of which we give. We can only add, while deeply regretting that Mr Shinick did not mate his cats, the earnest hope that we may hear that he has discovered the existence of other specimens."
"In answer would say my hairless cats are brother and sister. I got them from the Indians a few miles from this place. The old Jesuit Fathers tell me they are the last of the Aztec breed known only in New Mexico. I have found them the most intelligent and affectionate family pets I have ever met in the cat line; they are the quickest in action and smartest cats I have ever seen. They are fond of a warm bath, and love to sleep under the clothes at night with our little girl. They seem to understand nearly everything that is said to them; but I have never had time to train them. They are marked exactly alike - with mouse coloured backs; with neck, stomach and legs a delicate flesh tint. Their bodies are always warm and soft as a child's. They love to be fondled and caressed, and are very playful; will run up and down your body and around your waist like a flash.
"Nellie" weighs about eight pounds, and "Dick" weighed ten pounds; but I am sorry to say we have lost "Dick". We have never allowed them to go out of the house, as the dogs would be after them. They were very fond of our water spaniel, and would sleep with her. "Dick" was a sly rascal, and would steal out. One night last year he stole out, and the dogs finished him. His loss was very great, as I may never replace him. The Chicago Cat Club valued them at 1,000 dollars each. They were very anxious for me to come on with them for their cat shows, but I could not go. They were never on exhibition; as this is a small city, I feared they would be stolen. I have made every endeavour to get another mate for "Nellie", but have not been successful. I never allowed them to mate, as they were brother and sister, and I thought it might alter "Nellie's" beautiful form, which is round and handsome, with body rather long. In winter they have a light fur on back and ridge of tail, which falls off in warm weather. They stand the cold weather the same as other cats. They are not like the hairless dogs, whose hide is solid and tough; they are soft and delicate, with very loose skin.
"Nellie" has a very small head, large amber eyes, extra long moustache and eyebrows; her voice now is a good baritone, when young it sounded exactly like a child's. They have great appetites, and are quite dainty eaters - fried chicken and good steak is their choice. Have never been sick an hour. The enclosed faded picture is the only one I have at present - it is very lifelike, as it shows the wrinkles in its fine, soft skin. "Dick" was a very powerful cat; could whip any dog alone; his courage, no doubt, was the cause of his death. He always was the boss over our dogs. I have priced "Nellie" at 300 dollars. She is too valuable for me to keep in a small town. Many wealthy ladies would value her at her weight in gold if they knew what a very rare pet she is. I think in your position she would be a very good investment to exhibit at cat shows and other select events, as she doubtless is the only hairless cat now known. I have written to Old Mexico and all over this country without finding another. I would like to have her in some large museum where she would interest and be appreciated by thousands of people." E J Shinick, Albuquerque, New Mexico, February 3rd, 1902
In “Animal Life and the World of Nature” (Vol 1, 1902-1903), Shinick was quoted "Dick was a very powerful cat, and could whip any dog alone; his courage no doubt was the cause of his death. He was a sly rascal and would steal out, and one night he got out and several dogs killed him. His loss was very great and I may never replace him. The Chicago Cat Club valued him at 1,000 dollars. I have sent all over the country and endeavoured to get a mate for 'Nellie,' but I fear the breed is extinct."
As a background to the ancient Aztec breed, we have to understand that not all cats exhibited at those early shows were there because of their pedigree. Some were there as curiosities or celebrities. Medical curiosities were routinely exhibited, as were cats that had survived adverse circumstances.Their stories were displayed on their cages. Shipwreck-survivors were popular, as were exotic cats from foreign climes. One famous hoax was that of the bald cat Eulata exhibited by practical joker Brian G. Hughes. Eulata had allegedly been a mascot on the Spanish ship Vizcaya during the Spanish-American War and had been owned by no less a person than the King of Spain. Eulata was allegedly a Hindustani cat presented to the King of Spain by a Bombay merchant, before being presented to Captain Don Antonio Eulate of the Vizcaya. When the Vizcaya was sunk in 1898, she swam to the USS Oregon and was rescued by sailors. This was all entirely plausible because shipwrecked cats had been exhibited as celebrities at much earlier shows. Since no-one knew what a Hindustan cat should look like, she had been completely shaved, except for her head and tail-tip, giving her an exotic appearance never before seen by cat show judges. The cat was shaved except for the head and the very tip of the tail and looked much like a hairless dog. The story on the cage read “Eulata, mascote del Vizcaya.” Was presented to Captain Eulate of the Vizcaya by the boy king of Spain, to whom it had been sent by a Bombay merchant, it being one of an almost extinct species of Hindustan, India. She was named Eulata and looked upon as a mascot until the vessel went down with the others of Cervera’is fleet on the memorable 3d of July, l She swam to the Oregon, was handed aboard by one of the crew, from whom she was purchased by her present owner, Nairb G. Sehguh of New York. For sale: price. $3,000."
The case of the Mexican – or Aztec – Hairless cats warranted deeper investigation, so where better to look than newspaper reports of the time. Starting with the Albuquerque Citizen (Albuquerque, New Mexico) Wed, May 6, 1903, there is this short mention, which indicates that the cats were already famous: “T. J. Shinick was about the last man to shake hands with the president [Roosevelt]. He had no chance during the afternoon to meet him, as he was on the go all the time. When the president saw his old Oyster Bay business card of 1870, which read “Wright & Shinick, Carriage Builders. Oyster Bay, Long Island,” the president was greatly pleased, and, clasping Shinick's hand said he remembered him well, and was glad to see an old Oyster Bay man out in this fine country. Shinick gave him a little present for his sick boy Archie. It was a large photo of Aztec cats raised by the Indians, and the only two hairless cats known in captivity. Both the President and Secretary Loeb was greatly pleased with the picture.”
In 1908, tragedy struck when the surviving cat died, as reported by The New York Times of 31st December, 1908: “Cats and chickens were rivals for popular favor in Madison Square Garden yesterday, and the cats on the occasion , of the formal opening of the Atlantic Cat Club’s seventh annual “Championship Show“ had a shade the advantage. The opening of the cats’ part of the exhibition was attended by the announcement of the demise of the greatest feline curiosity of the show in transit from Albuquerque, N. M., to make her appearance as a metropolitan star. The deceased was the hairless cat which had aroused great Interest among the exhibitors as the Aztec cat. The animal was regarded as something more than a curiosity, because of the antiquity attributed to its species, and it was stated by Dr. Cecil French of the Atlantic Cat Club that with the consent of the owner, T. J. Shinick, the hairless body would be presented to the Museum of Natural History here and may be offered in evidence that the cat had a part in Aztec as well us in Egyptian civilisation. The Aztec cat’s misfortune gave opportunity for understudies, however, and a tame lynx and a tame ocelot now are rivals for the quarters that the hairless cat will not occupy."
According to the New York Tribune, also of 31st December, 1908, “Death, too, has invaded the exhibit, for the Mexican hairless cat died on the way to the scene of her expected triumph. This cat, which was the property of Miss. L. Spink, of Big Lake, Minnesota, is said to be the last of a famous Aztec race.” I can only assume the owner’s name is an error. Not until this excerpt from the Albuquerque Journal of 29th December, 1928 (evidently a reprint of an earlier article) did I learn “T. J. Shinick, of this city, received a letter from Washington yesterday saying that the hairless cat, Nellie, which he sent to the national cat show, died of dropsy.” Dropsy is an accumulation of water in the soft tissues, which can be due to heart failure or, in cats, Feline Infectious Peritonitis.
Then there is this little snippet from The San Francisco Chronicle, 11th, May 1919: “Dr. Cecil French of Washington owned perhaps the strangest pet feline of all – a hairless Aztec cat. On account of the great difference in climatic conditions between Washington and Mexico, the home of this feline curiosity, Dr French housed ‘Moko,’ as his Aztec pet was known, in a glass case with regulated temperature.” It doesn't give us the date when Dr. French owned a hairless cat, but 1919 is a decade after Nellie's death. It suggests that any hairless mutation fro New mexico or Texas was assumed to be Aztec - or Mexican hairless - Cat.
Interest in the hairless cats of New Mexico was stirred up by Mr. H.C. Brooks in 1926. For example, there is the Albuquerque Journal of 12th January, 1926: ‘DUKE CITY ONCE ' OWNED HAIRLESS CATS, IS REPORT. Albuquerque was once the home of two hairless cats, believed to have been the survivors of an ancient Aztec, breed, according to H.C. Brooks, cat editor of “Animals,'’ a monthly magazine published In Taunton, England. Mr. Brooks is extremely anxious to obtain specimens of this peculiar breed of feline for scientific purposes. Hairless dogs Mr. Brooks has owned. In fact, he loves them. But of hairless cats he has none. Unless New Mexico comes to his rescue, it appears that he will go hairless catless. Mr. Brooks writes to the Morning Journal as follows:
“I have received a letter from a gentleman in Artesia, which tells me your paper has been interesting itself in any inquiries of Hairless Cats. I am most anxious to learn if any information can be got as to those animals. About a quarter of a century ago, two specimens were in the possession of a Mr. Shinick of Albuquerque, who kindly sent me a photograph and description of them. He said they were obtained from some Indians, and that the Jesuit Fathers thought they were the last survivors of an ancient Aztec breed. Most unfortunately, Mr. Shinick didn’t mate the pair, because they were brother and sister, and apparently did not preserve the bodies on death, a scientific calamity. From his description, they presented a certain analogy with some Hairless Mice I am now breeding. The Mexican Hairless Dog I know I well - have bred numbers - I love to breed. The last one in England died about five years ago. I am most desirous of obtaining any possible information as to the Hairless Cats, and if any should still be in existence, I would pay big price for them.” ‘
From this, we can deduce that Mrs. McLaren's cat was not one of Shinick's Cats, but was yet another hairless mutant.
This elicited a reply from one of Mr. Shinick’s daughters, which was published in the Albuquerque Journal of 14th January, 1926: “Albuquerque at one time had two hairless cats, it was learned after an inquiry from H. C. Brooks, cat editor of “Animals,” a monthly magazine published In Taunton, England, had been published In Tuesday's Morning Journal. Mrs. Michael Palladino, 310 North Sixth, is a daughter of the late Mr. Shinick, whom Mr. Brooks mentioned as having sent him photographs of the cats. According to Mrs. Palladino, her father had two of the hairless cats, a male and a female. He intended to mate them, but the male was stolen. The female he kept until she was about 13 years old, then sent her to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. She died soon after arriving in Washington, and Mrs. Palladino thinks was mounted and placed in the museum. This was In December, 1909. Mrs. Palladino did not know where her father obtained the cats.”
From this I can only assume that Mr. Shinick did not want to tell his daughter the ghastly truth of Dick’s demise by dog attack and instead told her the cat had been stolen.
Brooks’ request also appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of 13th March, 1926: “MEOW! WHO’S SEEN A HAIRLESS CAT IN ALBUQUERQUE? ENGLISH EDITOR WILL PAY 100 POUNDS FOR A PAIR. SANTA FE, March 12 – H. C. Brooks, of Taunton, England, is determined to find out what became of the hairless cats which he is assured once roamed in New Mexico. Following previous correspondence, Mr. Brooks, editor of a magazine called "Animals," has again written Kenneth Chapman of the state museum, asking him to make a further effort to get Information about the nude felines.
"It is really a scientific calamity,” writes Brooks, "that none have been preserved and nothing is known about them. There is no doubt they existed In Albuquerque in the possession of a Mr. T. J. Shinick, who wrote me In February, 1902, giving me full particulars and a photograph. The female was then still alive; the male had been killed by dogs. Mr. Shinick said he could whip any dog singly, but a lot set on him - a terrible calamity. Mr. Shinick gave a very exact description, even to the fact that at certain times they would grow a very slight coat, which fell off again directly, just as I observe in my hairless mice, and a detail no one would be likely to invent. They were obtained from soma Indians, and the Jesuit fathers thought them to be the descendants of an ancient Aztec breed. Do you know if the Aztecs had tame cats? The Hon. Mrs. McLaren Morrison also collects curious foreign dogs and cats, assuring me that she owned a specimen long ago. If you by a possibility can find out anything about them, I do hope you will do so, as the matter is, I think, of world-wide scientific Interest. If there are any existing I would give one hundred pounds for a pair delivered alive in London.”
Some time ago, when Mr. Brooks made his first inquiry, relatives of the late Mr. Shinick said that the body of the hairless cat that he owned had been sent to the Smithsonian Institution.”
Brook’s request was also carried by the El Paso Herald (Texas) on 15th March, 1926. His letters sparked renewed interest in the almost forgotten Shinick cats, but little information was forthcoming. In 1927, HC Brooke lamented "Of the New Mexico Hairless Cat, specimens of which were yet alive in 1900, absolutely no record seems to exist, either here or in New Mexico, except the photo and description we were fortunate enough to secure for science."
In the 1930s, hairless cats had been born and researched in France. There was no possibility of them being Aztec in origin when born to Siamese parents. The Montana Butte Standard, 26th December, 1937 tells us: "Until about 75 years ago, all longhaired cats were called "French" cats because of their popularity in that country, says Nelson Antrim Crawford in an article titled 'Cats.' Most curious new breed is the so-called peke cat, bred for a nose resembling that of a Pekingese dog. Though Mexican hairless cats are supposedly extinct, a specimen is owned in New Mexico, says Mr. Crawford, and there may be others." This once again suggests that Dick and Nellie were more likely a pair of hairless siblings with a nice back-story for the purpose of exhibition, than relics of an ancient breed.
Then, on 20th March 1956, the Albuquerque Journal carried another request for information: "John White, head of the department of information of the state extension service and the Experiment Station at New Mexico A&M College, has a letter from an El Pasoan who wants information on what is called the Mexican, and sometimes New Mexico, hairless cat. White is stumped. So are the others in the department. The El Paso man first wrote to Mexico City College, Mexico City, for information. The college apparently told him the animal was mouse-colored and the underparts were pinkish. The animal also has a ridge of fur along the back and upper surface of the tail. Mexico City College advised the El Pasoan to write to New Mexico A&M. Many know of the Mexican hairless dog, but, says white, if anyone has seen a New Mexico hairless cat, or knows there is such an animal, he’d like to hear about it."
Once again, Shinick's daughter replied. According to the Albuquerque Journal, 3rd April, 1956 (One- Time Owner of Two Hairless Cats Recognizes Both in Journal Picture), she recognised the photograph of Dick and Nellie. The report said: "One of the last two - and only known - hairless Mexican cats to have existed in Albuquerque was sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C., in January 1909, Mrs. Michael Palladino, 310 Sixth NW, said today. The other was stolen [note: according to her father, it was killed by dogs, but she was a little girl at the time and probably not told the truth]. Mrs. Palladino should know. For they were her pets as a little girl. And the photo carried in the Journal Monday morning were her two pet hairless cats. She has the original photograph to prove it. The photo was taken from a book published in 1900 by Helen M. Winslow entitled ‘Concerning Cats.”
The subject of hairless cats was revived recently when an El Paso man wrote to John White, head of the department of information of the State Agricultural Extension Service and Experiment Station asking for information on the Mexican, sometimes called the New Mexican, hairless cat. Old-timers and veterinarians at Las Cruces said they had never seen or heard of the hairless cat. But with Mrs. Palladino, it’s different. When she was a child some 60 years ago, her father, the late Thomas J. Shinick, gave her two hairless Mexican cats as pets. The year was about 1894. She called one Dick and the other Nellie. She played with them for years. One morning Dick didn’t come home, and “the family always believed the milkman stole it,” Mrs. Palladino recalled. [once again the fiction told to her as a child]
She said when Nellie was about 15 years old, her father decided that because hairless cats were so rare, that the Smithsonian Institution might be interested in having it. Officials of the institution, in reply, wrote that they would like to have the cat before it died. “I can rememler fixing up the basket to ship the cat,” Mrs. Palladino said Monday. “The cat arrived in Washington in good condition, but died a month later," she said. The cat was mounted and put on exhibit in the museum, she said. She has a certification of appreciation dated Jan. 22, 1909, from the assistant director of the institution. Shinick never told his daughter anything about the origin of her hairless cat, but she said she understood they were Mexican hairless cats. And the communication from the Smithsonian Institute classified the cat is received as “Mexican hairless cat - Felis domestica.” "
According to Katharine L Simms in "They Walked Beside Me" (1954): "Only in Mexico is there a cat at all different from all other cats, and even he is the same in size and boen formation. But he is completely furless except for a ridge of hair down his spine. In that country also is the chino, or hairless dog, with blue-grey skin matching the Mexican cat. Maybe it is too hot in Mexico for fur or hair to be bearable, though our furry Indian and South African cats thrived in 100F in the shade." At the time Simms wrote that comment, the Mexican Hairless was already long extinct.
The above illustration, from Charles Henry Lane's book "Rabbits, Cats and Cavies" (1903) is a portrait of a Mexican Hairless Cat called "Jesuit" that belonged to the Hon. Mrs McLaren Morrison. It was the only specimen the author had been shown and he believed it to be the only one ever exhibited in England. A lot of digging around in archives indicates that Jesuit was probably a random mutation, because Nellie was too valuable to leave the USA. Mrs. McLaren Morrison collected curious cats and would have snapped up any hairless cat to be found (this lady later became a cat hoarder). Sadly, the Mexican Hairless was lost through lack of a breeding programme. There was reputedly a pair in Europe, but whether these were genuine Mexican Hairless or a new mutation was unproven. In 2006, it was claimed that new examples of the Mexican Hairless had been found. This remains to be confirmed. A true Mexican Hairless cat grows a ridge of fur along the spine in winter.
In my opinion, the supposed Mexican Hairless (or Aztec) breed were a pair of hairless siblings acquired by Mr. Shinick and, like many curious cats of the time, given a fictionalised account of their origin and the romantic suggestion that they were the last of a nearly extinct breed.
The hairless mutation has occurred several times since 1902 - and even earlier than that - and is represented on the modern show-bench by the Canadian Sphynx, the Donskoy Sphynx and the Peterbald.