Here is another of those important life rules not taught in schools: Should you acquire an extraordinary fondness for cats, once you die you will be remembered forever as a crazy cat person, and only as that.
First corollary: This rule applies only to women.
“Cat lady” has been a cultural touchstone since the Victorian era, even though the most cat-obsessive famous Americans were men. Doubt it? President Lincoln couldn’t keep his hands off any kitty within his reach, enjoyed getting down on the floor to play with them and fed a favorite at the table during a formal state dinner. In 1924 the Washington, D.C. police issued an APB when one of President Coolidge’s four cats went missing while a Secret Service agent broadcast a description over the area’s top radio station. (Imagine the Fox News fury if a President Hillary had done such things.) Sam Clemens could not bear to be without a cat on his Mark Twain lecture tours and took to renting local felines when away from home. Yet curiously, such details of men’s lives are rarely mentioned. Honestly, did you know any of these facts before reading about them here?
Kate Johnson, who died 125 years ago at her mansion near Sonoma, wasn’t known as a cat lady until the end of her lifetime. She was EXTREMELY wealthy (worth the equivalent $70 million today) and spent much of that fortune on philanthropy – most famously, founding what’s now the Seton Medical Center. She was an amateur painter but a professional art collector; for quite a while she owned one of the most celebrated paintings by an American artist, and the collection was so substantial that the auction for the non-museum quality holdings took three days. And on the grounds of the historic Buena Vista winery she and husband Robert built “The Castle,” likely the largest home ever constructed in Sonoma county, centered on a six-story tower with a breathtaking view of the Sonoma valley.
Back to Kate’s cat story in a moment, but there is a book yet to be written about the Valley of the Moon during the Gilded Age, when “San Francisco’s right-fork-conscious new high society” (as Stephen Birmingham called them in “California Rich”) descended upon the valley to build great country estates, where they lived the imagined lives of landed gentry during late 19th century summers. There were stables filled with racing thoroughbreds, private game reserves for hunting and artificial lakes stocked with trout. Grounds were always perfectly tended in competition with Golden Gate Park, which was then being landscaped.
The end of the affluent era was probably marked by the 1904 fire that destroyed Rudolph Spreckels’ mansion at Sobre Vista (although it was rebuilt and in the 1920s-30s mid-1930s his sister-in-law, Alma, again spent lavishly on the estate in a campaign to brand it as the “San Simeon of the North”). But the Gilded Age surely began here in 1880, when Kate and Robert Johnson purchased the 6,000 acre Buena Vista ranch and vineyards at an auction on the courthouse steps in Santa Rosa.
The Johnsons were not interested in wine production, as the sad history of Agoston Haraszthy’s vineyard only demonstrated how risky it was after the grapes on the property were nearly wiped out by Phylloxera. Instead they turned the wine cellars into carriage houses and looked upon the beautiful setting as if it were a fresh canvas. After Kate died, a San Francisco paper described what they had done with the 27 landscaped acres around the house: “…[it] is laid out in the same elaborate style as Golden Gate Park, though on a smaller scale…the fountains plentiful and the flora is the most variegated [sic] in the valley. Babbling brooks run through the grounds. The little watercourses are spanned by rustic bridges of unique pattern…rustic seats ornament the sward at the sides of the walks and drives.”
|Postcard of the Johnson mansion at Buena Vista, c. 1900. A later view can be found in the following article
Then there was the mansion which was completed around 1885 and said to cost $80,000, which would be over $2.5 million today. Alas, there’s little information about it aside from a couple of exterior views. It supposedly had 40 rooms and was “finished in rare and expensive woods.” There is a good chance the state had a set of photographs of how it looked c. 1919, but I am not holding my breath they will ever surface.
Again, this was just their county place; their main residence was in the city at the corner of O’Farrell/Leavenworth streets with 22 rooms – but not that they were there all that much, either. Kate and Robert were often somewhere else buying wonderful things: Art, antiques, and yes…exotic cats.
Kate’s fortune began with her father-in-law, George C. Johnson, a diplomat and industrialist in Gold Rush-era San Francisco. He was the Norwegian-Swedish Consul General until his death in 1872 (one description called him an “unusually pro-Swedish Norwegian,” but I’m unclear if that was a compliment or insult) and among the investors in the Buena Vista winery, being president of the corporation’s board for a year. That was the start of ties between the Johnson and Haraszthy families; before buying the whole ranch, Robert purchased about 100 acres of land in Napa from Agoston’s son, Attila.
Before any of that, George was a sea captain with a bark (a sailing ship with three masts) hauling cargo for the United States government. His last voyage took him far inland to drop off supplies for “Camp Far West,” a small military post on the Bear River near modern-day Wheatland. He ended up berthing his ship permanently at Nicolaus, which was then the Sutter county seat and an important way station for the 49ers. There he became a property developer and agent for the express company shuttling gold dust down to San Francisco. Fifty years later in 1902, a San Francisco gossip newspaper named “Town Talk” printed a tale about how George got his start in Nicolaus; it’s most likely a complete pack of lies, but still a helluva good story:
|George C. Johnson came to this city in the early fifties, as captain of a bark loaded with United States commissary stores. He sailed up the Sacramento river as far as Nicolaus, tied her up to the bank, spread out awnings and settled down to take his case. With a whole cargo of stores under deck, and his salary accumulating, he didn’t worry much about the future. There he waited orders for two hole years when inquiry came from Washington as to his whereabouts. Captain Richard L. Ogden was detailed to look him up and the latter found the bark at Nicolaus. The vessel was enclosed with awnings, and going aboard Ogden found Captain Johnson swinging in a hammock, and his wife sitting in a rocking chair. They presented a picture of solid comfort. On inspection the cargo was pronounced worthless for issue. Ogden sold it at public auction. It consisted principally of pork. Captain Johnson bought it in for a dollar a barrel, and after cleaning off the rust and repacking it, he sold it in Marysville for sixteen dollars a barrel. On the capital thus obtained he went into partnership in this city with George W. Gibbs in the hardware business. He became Swedish Consul, was knighted and died worth three million dollars. The wife who in early days had kept a boarding house in Baltimore became one of San Francisco’s Four Hundred. Her only son, Robert C. Johnson, became one of our later day capitalists. His wife, Mrs. Kate Johnson, inherited the estate which had its origin in rusty pork. She was a well known patron of art.
George left an estate worth a million bucks and his son Robert followed the same path, investing in Bay Area real estate and leaving Kate $2 million when he died in Paris in 1889.
Kate’s taste in art seems to have been Roman and Greek antiquities, some Japanese objects and lots of oil paintings, particularly by the romantic ultra-realists who pattered themselves after the Pre-Raphaelites. She did not throw money around like William Randolph Hearst but when she saw something she liked, was known for paying the asking price without dickering. She was said to have paid $50,000 for her most celebrated acquisition: The painting Elaine, which she purchased in 1875 and loaned to a San Francisco gallery, where it was promptly stolen by being cut from the frame. The theft was front page news in newspapers all over the state; when detectives recovered it three days later, crowds mobbed the police station in city hall, leading officers to spread the canvas on a table in front of a window so the throngs could see it. For years afterwards she was referred to in the press as “Mrs. Johnson, of Elaine fame” or similar, and when King Kalakaua of Hawai’i visited San Francisco in 1881 he specifically wanted to visit the Johnson’s home to see the painting.
With such a solid reputation as a patron of the arts, there was probably no surprise in the tightly-knit art world when it became known in 1891 she had given Austrian painter Carl Kahler a generous commission for an oil painting.
The painting was to be a group portrait of her cats.
|“My Wife’s Lovers” by Carl Kahler, 1893
“My Wife’s Lovers” is 8½ by 6 feet and took over two years to complete, as Kahler had to first sketch each of the 42 cats. Also: He had to learn how to sketch cats, having never drawn one before. He was known for portrayals of race horses.
It’s doubtful the painting ever hung on a wall in any of her mansions; the same year it was finished in 1893 it was sent to Chicago to be part of the California building’s “Woman’s Department” at the World’s Fair, which ended just about a month before Kate died of pneumonia at the Buena Vista estate.
The painting must have drawn considerable interest because not long after the Fair opened, an article about painter Kahler and Kate appeared in the Chicago Inter Ocean, which then was one of the most widely read weekly newspapers in the Midwest and West. Here the Crazy Cat Lady myth was born, with its demonstration of the second corollary: Once the C. C. L. premise takes hold, there’s no limit to the exaggerations and outright fibs that can be larded on to prove the craaazzzy.
Written by Hartley Davis – a freelancer who specialized in lightweight articles about vaudeville, the circus and other entertainments – “Kahler, the Cat Painter” was an interview with the artist and included a subhed, “the history of the California cat ranch.” Note the author was so ill-informed as to call the town “Samona”:
|The Angoras live in royal splendor at Buena Vista, Mrs. Johnson’s summer residence near Samona [sic]. She has more than three hundred cats with long tails and pedigrees, and there is a retinue of Japanese servants whose sole business is to look after them. To be sure there are several other pets on the big ranch, but they are merely a back ground to the cats. For instance, there is a fine collection of parrots and cockatoos. Their business is to help make life interesting for the cats…Mrs. Johnson has devoted herself to cat raising for a great many years. She has imported cats from Persia, she has bought them whenever they pleased her, and never bothered about the price. Twenty-five of the cats make up her personal court. They are always in attendance upon their mistress…
Shortly after that appeared the San Francisco Call offered its own article on Kahler, headlined “His Queer Ways” and calling him “a very erratic genius.” Included there were anecdotes about Kahler demanding a San Francisco restaurant set up a table for him in the middle of Market street and how he would toss empty wine glasses over his shoulder, building up a pile of broken glassware behind him. The other article described how obsessed he became about painting cats and even took to adding them to his previously finished works. There’s an article about him as a cat painter with other examples showing up from an image search for “kahler cat“.
Kahler may have been eccentric or maybe even outright nuts, but my guess is he was actually trying to project an “artistic personality” for the sake of publicity. And as the sole source for the Inter Ocean’s information on Kate’s cats, it would also been to his benefit to portray the situation at Buena Vista as memorably odd as possible – hey, while you’re at the World’s Fair, be sure to stop by and see my picture of the freakishly pampered pets.
Cat painting is an unusual niche – as well as quite profitable, I’ll wager – and the Chicago paper described, “now his whole artistic soul is wrapped up in cats.” Kahler died in the 1906 earthquake, but I’ll also bet he never again had to worry about where his next commission would come from. Sad that his good fortune came at the expense of Kate’s reputation.
After she died in 1893 at age 60, the San Francisco Call ran a story on what would become of her “feline family.” According to the reporter – who had no first-hand knowledge of the scene – “the number of these furry beauties exceeds 200” and they “lived placid lives of mouseless but otherwise highly satisfactory luxury and indolence, their every want supplied by attentive servants in delightful apartments of their own under the wide-spreading roof of Buena Vista, her country seat.”
Kate made no accommodation in her will for care of the cats (supposedly she was told pet cats couldn’t legally be considered personal property) but the SF Call mentioned “a certain bequest made in her will is understood by those fitted to ‘read between the lines’ to cover that ground.” The deal was that Helen Shellard, an in-law of her late husband, was to use the $20,000 left to her for care of the menagerie in her San Francisco home.
A profile of Shellard in the Chronicle a few months later found the kitties settled in with her on Telegraph Hill. But there were not 300 of them. There were not 200. There were 32 – still a lot of cats, but nowhere near the epic hoard everyone expected.
In the years that followed, Kate Johnson’s unfair reputation as the Crazy Cat Lady was cast rock solid. The mansion picked up the nickname of “The Castle,” then sometimes the “Cat Castle.” It became widely claimed she had devoted an entire floor of the mansion to her cats. According to a letter that appeared in a 2013 issue of the Bohemian, local tour guides were saying Kate’s prized cats were abandoned and devolved into a feral colony lurking in the corners at Buena Vista.
It’s bad enough that the sketchy 125 year-old cat tales (with new twists added, apparently) are still being told to tourists and written up on the internet, but the real shame is that it has completely overshadowed her real legacy as a pioneer in public health care.
“Kate Johnson, through her own personal experiences, had a keen sense of the suffering of women and children,” says historian and Kate Johnson biographer Barbara Skryja. Through “Mary’s Help Hospital” (which became Seaton) she “specifically directed that all patients were to be treated no matter their religion, race, creed, or nationality” and were to receive the best care available anywhere – free. The hospital had state-of-the-art equipment and she even made sure the architectural layout reflected the most modern thinking. “She researched the latest medical procedures and hospital designs,” Skryja explains.
Unfortunately, what keeps the cat angle in the forefront is that damned painting, which is revered among cat aficionados as if it were something like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Try a Google search for “meowsterpiece painting” and guess what pops up again and again and again.
One reason “My Wife’s Lovers” is so well known today is because it has been often in the news since the turn of the millenium. (The provocative name might have been another publicity effort by Carl Kahler to sensationalize Kate – although that name appeared in the official World’s Fair report, another 1893 description called it simply, “Cats.”) It was offered for sale in 2002, sold privately later, then bought for $826,000 in 2015. The following year it was exhibited at the Portland Art Museum.
But the painting’s popularity has never wained. After Kate Johnson’s death it was among the finer works sold to the “Palace of Art,” a cafe on Post street which was a must-visit spot for upscale tourists. During the 1906 earthquake it was among the handful of paintings the owner managed to save – although one of the artworks fell on him, causing severe nerve damage to his arm (weighing in at 227 pounds, the cat painting was probably to blame).
In 1917, 20,000 people in San Francisco paid 25¢ to look at it as part of a charity drive for the “Belgian Babies Relief Fund.” In the 1940s it toured the country and remained continuously on display somewhere except for a few years. Along the way umpteen thousands of reproductions have been sold to cat lovers worldwide.
Kate’s mansion near Sonoma sat empty for years, the great white elephant of Buena Vista. It was reported North Bay railroad baron A. W. Foster, president of the California Northwestern, was in talks to buy it for a resort destination but nothing came of it. For a few years after the turn of the century it did become a resort called the “Buena Vista Castle” (rates $10-15/week), then was sold to a man named Henry Cailleaud, who told himself he was a winemaker but wasn’t. The Seventh Day Adventists also toyed with the idea of buying it for a colony.
Then in 1920, when the great mansion was not even forty years old, it found a new use even more controversial than the castle of cats. The state of California bought it for “an institution for the confinement, care and reformation of delinquent women” – which meant housing women convicted of prostitution or related offenses, usually with incurable cases of venereal disease. The town of Sonoma yowled in outrage.
A cablegram states that Robert C. Johnson. of Buena Vista Farm, located in the suburbs of Sonoma, died in Paris on the 6th inst. Last October deceased while traveling abroad, was taken sick in Paris. He immediately cablegramed Mrs. Johnson of his illness, and hastily leaving her affairs in the hands of an agent, she left Sonoma for the bedside of her sick husband. She arrived in Paris the latter part of October and was a constant attendant at his bedside up to the hour of his death. Deceased was a gentleman of large fortune and the owner of one of the finest country estates in Sonoma Valley, upon which he had expended many thousands of dollars for improvements the past few years.
– Santa Rosa Democrat, March 17 1889
A NOTABLE WILL.
Generosity of Mrs. Kate Johnson.
MANY LIBERAL BEQUESTS.
One-Third of the Estate To Found a Hospital.
LEGACIES TO HER FRIENDS.
Disposal of an Estate Valued at $2,000,000, In Which Many Claims Are Remembered.
The will of Mrs. R. C. Johnson of this city and Buena Vista, Sonoma County, was filed for probate yesterday. The instrument, which was executed on January 10, 1892, and was witnessed by T. B. Barry, a real-estate man, of San Rafael, and M. Taylor, son of Attorney J. M. Taylor of Oakland, and disposes of an estate valued at $2,000,000, and consisting of real estate yielding a monthly rental of $4500: stocks, bonds and notes valued at $60,000, yielding an annual revenue of $4000; furniture, jewelry, works of art and livestock valued at $40,000, and $2970 in bank. This disposition of this immense property marks both the broad-minded and minute generosity of the late Mrs. Johnson. She was noted for her charities in life, but by the law was enjoined from bequeathing more than one-third of the estate to charity.
The chief munificent bequest consists of the decedent’s city real estate aud art treasures, together with money, making up in all one-third of the estate, to Archbishop Riordan in trust for the foundation and endowment of a free hospital to be located in this city. Thereafter follow handsome legacies to relatives and a long list of friends, the residue of the estate devised to the living sisters and brother of the testatrix and to the heirs of her deceased sister and brothers.
In the list of kindly bequests a number of dependents are handsomely remembered. Among these are servants or former servants, including Annie Goold, Mary and Annie Gill, John Burke, two Japanese domestics, John Goltenburg, John and Maggie Kusel. Helen Shallard, a maiden schoolteacher, comes in for a substantial sum. Joseph Schoer is given a legacy contingent on his adherence to a certain agreement, understood to be a temperance pledge. Each of the servants in the employ of the decedent at the time of her death, twelve in number, is given $100. Father John J Prendergast, James M. Taylor and Benjamin Bangs are nominated executors, with complete authority to realize on the property, and a request that they close the estate within five years after the death of the testatrix. Father Prendergast and Attorney J. M.Taylor have declined to serve, and Mr. Bangs has petitioned the Probate Court to be appointed executor without bonds. Following is the full text of the will: I, Kate Johnson, of the city and county of San Francisco, State of California, do now make, publish and declare this my last will and testament. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Thanking God for bis undeserved mercies and acknowledging my grateful affection for my friend and father-in-law, the late George C. Johnson, through whom I am enabled to make the following gifts I ask all who may receive them to pray for the repose of his soul. I give, devise and bequeath to Archbishop Patrick W. Riordan of San Francisco, Cal., all my pictures and valuable bibelots; also all that certain real property situate in the city and county of Sao Francisco, State of California, and described as follows, to wit: Horner’s Addition blocks numbered 173 and 174, bounded on the north by Twenty-ninth street, on the east by Castro street, on the south by Thirtieth Street and on the west by Diamond street; also my new warehouse, known and deslgnated as the Gibraltar Waiehouse, and the lot on which the same is situated at the southeast corner of Sansome and Gilbert streets; also such a sum of money as will, with the real and personal properly aforesaid, comprise onethird of my entire estate, all ot the same to be held in trust by him to and for the uses. intents and purposes following, that is to say: It being my desire to found and endow a free hospital to be located in said city and county of San Francisco, all said money and property is to be by said trustee paid, conveyed and delivered over to a corporation to be hereafter formed by a society to be composed or the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco and R. C. Tobln, Dr. C. F. Buckley, Dr. W. S. Thorn and Dr. Luke Robinson, or the survivors of them, and such other persons as they or their survivors and successors in their discretion shall elect io fill vacancies la said society; said corporation to be formed under the laws of the State of California; the name of such corporation to be Mary’s Help Hospital; the purposes for which such corporation shall be formed to be to receive endowments and acquire property for and establish, erect, maintain and conduct a free Hospital for all sick women and children of the poor, without regaid to religion, nationality or color, excepting such as the officers of the hospital consider dangerous to other inmates, such hospital to be conducted by the Roman Catholic Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, commonly called tbe Sisters of Charity, under the direction of the board of dlrectors ot said corporation. The place where the principal buslness of said corporation shall be transacted shall be the city and county of San Francisco, state of California, and the number of its directors shall be five and I direct the said trustee, Archbishop Patrick W. Riordan, to pay, convey and deliver over to such corporation when so formed all of the money, property and estate aforesaid.
It Is my wish that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco be a member of said society and ex-offlcio one of the board of directors of said corporation, and that the others of such directors shall at all times consist of one business man and three physicians, and that the medical stiff of the hospital shall have the right to give clinical instruction in the hospital to sludents and graduates of medicine. I give and bequeath my dear sisters, Sarah J. Dlllaye, Elizabeth Henry, Rispah B. Kellogg, and my brother, Herny Birdsall. and to Jane Birdsall. widow of my brother Maurice, the sum of $25,000 each; deducting, however, from portion of Elizabeth Henry the sum of $8000, being the value of a house and for heretofore presented to her. I give and bequeath to Henry Fenton and Brush Fenton, the sons of my deceased sister Adelaide, $7000 each; to Adelaide Birdsall and Ben Birdsall the children of my deceased brother Ben, $12,500 each; to my nieces and nephews, Florence Vann and Florence Vann, her daughter, and Dlllaye Vann. her son; Fenton K. McCreary, Lizzie Welty, Rlspah Phillips, Sarah Feindel, Adelaide Kendal, Elizabeth Bangs, Suzette Birdsall, Kate Birdsall, Grace Birdsall and Bailey Birdsall. $5000 each; to my nieces Adelaide and Katharine McCreary, $10,000 each; to Benjamin Bangs. $5000; to Ida Johnson, the young girl now living with me, $6000, to be invested by my executors and held for her until she shall arrive at the age of 21 years except that they shall give to her from time to time, such sums thereof, as she shall actually require for expenses. I request that Sister Rosalia, the present superioress of the Technical School in San Francisco, be appointed her guardlan, and I give and bequeath to said Sister Rosalia the sum of $5000 to cover all expenses of her living and instruction; I give and bequeath to my frlends. Mr. and Mrs. H. Humphrey Moore, $25,000 if both shall survive me. If only one of them survives me the survivor shall receive one-half ot that sum; I give and bequeath io William Newton of Flint, Michigan, $10,000; io Julia Shaffer Hamilton $8000; to Mrs. Fied Deakin, $5000; to Bertha Kellogg, May Kellogg. Lillian Marsh, Katharine Marsh and Mrs. Grace Gass, $5000 each; to tbe two daughters, if living, of A. H. Ward, deceased, formerly bookkeeper with George C. Johnson & Co., $2500 each; to Julia Steere, if llving, $2000; to Mary and Agnes Cook, daughters of Harriet Cook, $2000 each; to my dear old friend, Annie Goold, $4000; to Mary Gill faithful and true. $5000; to Annie Gill, $3000; to Mrs. Maria Cahlll, $2000; to John Burk of Sonoma, $1000; to lso and Yone Akiyama $3000, io be equally divided between them; to John and Maggie Kusel, $3000 to be equally divided between them; to George, a Japanese boy now in my employ, $200; to Willie, now my gardener, $500; to Lizzie Cunningham, formerly in the service of George C. Johnson, $2000; to Ernest and George Claxton. $1000 each; to Miss Helen Shallard, $20,000; to John Gottenberg, $1000; to all persons who shall be in my service at the time of my death, $100 each; to Father Brennan, now parish priest of Sonoma, $3000; to Father Sasla, $5000; to the Presentation Convent in Sonoma, $5000; I direct my executors to pay to Joseph Schorr $5000 accordlng to the terms of an agreement signed by me March 9, 1802, of which he has a copy. I give, devise and bequeath to my sisters, Sarah J. Dillaye, Elizabeth Henry, Rispah Kellogg, and to my brother, Henry Birdsall, and the heirs of my deceased sister and brothers, Adelaide Fenton, Benjamin Birdsall and Maurice Birdsall, all the rest and residue of my esstate, the said Sarah J. Dillaye, Elizabeth Henry, Klspah Kellogg and Henry Birdsall each to take one-seventh thereof, and the heirs of Adelaide Fenton one-seventh thereof, the heirs of Benjamin Birdsall one-seveuth thereof, and the heirs of Maurice Bhdsail one-seveuth thereof by right of representation. I nominate and appoint Father John J. Prendergast, James M. Taylor and Benjamin Bangs to be the executors of this will, and no bond shall be required ot them or either of them as such executors; and in case Father Prendergast declines to serve as such executor he is hereby authorized and empowerd to appoint some person as executor in his place. I authorize my executors to sell any or all my property, real and personal, which is not hereinbefore specially devised, or bequeathed, either at public or privaie sale, with or without notice, and without any order, supervision or control of any court. 1 request my executors to settle and close my estate within five years after my death. I hereby revoke and annul all other and former wills by me made. In witness whereof, I, the said Kate Johnson, do to this, my last will, sign my name and affix my seal, in the ciiy and county of San Francisco, state of California, this 19th day of July, A. D. 1892. [seal.] Kate Johnson. On this 19th day of July. 1892. the foregoing will was signed, sealed, published and declared by the testatrix therein named, Kate Johnson, as and for her last will. In presence of us and each of us, who, at her request and in her presence and in the presence of each other, do now subscribe our names as witnesses to the same. T. B. Berry, San Rafael. Cal. Montell Taylor, Oakland, Cal.
– San Francisco Call, December 10 1893
A FELINE FAMILY.
Fate of Mrs. Johnson’s Many Cats.
WITHOUT LEGAL STANDING.
The Executors of Her Will in a Mild Quandary.
HELEN SHELLARD’S LEGACY
Understood to Cover the Care of the Angora and Other Cat Beauties.
When Mrs. Robert Johnson died, a few weeks ago. she left many behind to mourn her loss. She was a good woman in the truest and broadest sense of the word — good to her family and friends, good to her servants and good to all who, being unfortunate in a worldly sense, appeared to her for assistance.
All these she remembered by generous bequests in her will; large sums of money were left to her relatives; her friends were most substantially remembered; her servants each received a material expression of her good will and appreciation of their faithful services, and as for the poor the fact that she left nearly one-third of her large property to Archbishop Riordan, in trust to build for them a free hospital in our city, shows that they were not forgotten or overlooked.
One thing, however, surprised the community in general when this will, full as it was of loving thoughtfulness for the welfare of others and kindly recognitlon of pleasant relations with her friends, and the humbler members of her household, was made public and that was this: Careful as Mrs. Johnson had been to make provision for so many whom she beloved and valued she had utterly forgotten or neglected to take any legal steps to insure tne future comfort and well being of a large number of dumb friends who had occupied an enviable place in her immediate world during her life.
Not one word was said in the whole carefully considered document regarding the disposal or care of the beautiful Electioneer horses, the valuable Holstein and Jersey cattle, the prize-winning dog, the cockatoos, paroquets and canaries tbat the loving-hearted woman of wealth had gathered around her in her lovely home in Sonoma County. More than this, not one word was said about the little animals which were Mrs. Johnson’s especial pets, the graceful and beautiful cats which lived placid lives of mouseless but otherwise highly satisfactory luxury and indolence, their every want supplied by attentive servants in delightful apartments of their own under the wide-spreading roof of Buena Vista, her country seat.
Of these wonderful cats many tales have been told, but they nave been mostly apochryphal since no Turkish harem is never more jealously guarded from the intruslon of strangers than have always been the rooms devoted to the occupancy of these fortunate feline pets. It has been stated that the number of these furry beauties exceeds 200, and that they are the gentlest, the best trained, the most affectionate and the most altogether lovely of any 200 cats that ever existed, as such they may be since they are the millionaires their kind, and have had every advantage that money could give them since their first advent into this world of cats. Nearly all or them are Angoras — the favorite pet cat of civilization — but rumor has declared that among them are members not only of the tortoise shell or Spanish family, but of the bluish-gray Chartreuse, the Chinese, with pendulous ears, the tricolored Tobolsk and the twisted-tailed Madagascar breed.
However true this may be, certain is that Mrs. Johnson was very fond of every member of her numerous feline family, and that while she lived they suffered for nothing for which the heart of the most pampered cat could wish. Now, however, that the kind mistress to whom they were each and all so dear is no longer here many have wondered how it will fare with the pets that she can no longer care for. Dogs, horses, cows and birds have a special value both in the eye of the law and in public estimation, but cats are in a way outcasts. They are not legally property and although one can give them away they are notoriously averse to such a procedure themselves, and do not easily transfer their affections to strange people, while strange houses are an abomination in their eyes to be deserted at the earliest opportunity. So it is that cats in wholesale quantities are hard to dispose of satisfactorily, and so it is that the executors ol Mrs. Johnson will find themselves, as one of them expressed it yesterday, “with a lot of white elephants on their hands.”
Although Mrs. Johnson made no written statement in regard to her wishes concerning her cats, a certain bequest made in her will is understood by those fitted to “read between the lines” to cover that ground. Miss Helen Shellard, a connection through marriage of Mrs. Johnson’s family, is a beneficiary to the amount of $20,000, and it is stated that a portion of the income of this sum is to be used by her in caring for the cats and kittens of Buena Vista.
“We are in a rather peculiar position as regards these especial animals,” said one of the executors when inquiry was made concerning them, “Miss Shellard will probably take charge of them eventually, but as it is no small task and expensive to look after and feed so many in the way to which they have been accustomed, it will not be possible for her to do so until she comes into her legacy, which may not be for some months yet, as legal processes are slow. We wish to get an order from the court allowing us a certain sum for their maintenance until the property is settled, as is done in the case of livestock in general, but cats do not come under this head, there are no property rights in such animals, legally they do not exist, therefore it is very doubtful if any such provision can be made for them. Certain its, however, that they will not suffer, as Mrs. Johnson’s relatives would alter nothing of that kind, although as far as the estate is concerned they have legally no right to any share in it.”
– San Francisco Call, December 31 1893
A COLONY OF CATS.
Miss Shellard’s Family of Angoras.
Bequeathed to Her by Mrs. Johnson.
Thirty-two Felines Find Shelter and a Happy Home.
In one of those old residences on Telegraph hill, facing Montgomery street, between Union and Green streets, lives a refined woman, Miss Helen Shellard. Miss Shellard has unwittingly become the subject for gossip in the neighborhood, not because of any special act of her own, but because of the presence in her house of a colony of Angora cats, a sight of which would make a fancier turn blue with envy. There are cats in the parlor, cats up stairs, cats down stairs, cats outside, cats everywhere, presenting in their entirety a collection of felines never before seen in a private residence anywhere.
“Everybody who passes the house,” said Miss Shellard to a CHRONICLE representative yesterday, “stops and tries to get a peep at my pets. When I go to the door the boys yell, ‘There goes the woman with 200 cats and twenty thousand a day!’ The impression has gone abroad that I have 200 cats in my house, but the number is actually thirty-two.”
Miss Shellard explained that the cats had belonged to Mrs. Johnson, the millionaire, who dies some months ago. Long before her death Mrs. Johnson had intended to make some provision for her feline pets in her will, but she was advised that this could not be done, inasmuch as cats were not recognized in law as personal property. This grieved Mrs. Johnson sorely, and she often spoke of her pets to Miss Shellard, a distant relative of the deceased. She expressed the hope that Miss Shellard would take care of the cats after her death. Miss Shellard promised to do so, and in conse- [text missing] she showered with impartial freedom upon them.
“As a luxury,” said Miss Shellard, “these cats are expensive and troublesome. I have been in possession of them only since February 1st, but I have become so attached to them that I would dislike to part with them. People visit me every day with offers to purchase some of them, but I have so far declined all offers. They were a legacy to me, and as such I hold them to be sacred.”
Owing to a report that Miss Shellard had 200 cats on the premises the neighbors were beginning to protest with vigor, but when it became known that the number was actually thirty-two their visions of sleepless nights were soon dispelled, and tranquility was restored.
– San Francisco Chronicle, March 13, 1894
PATRONS OF ART.
Another Feast of Rare Chances.
A Sacrifice of Miscellaneous Art Works Will Follow the Gems in Oil.
The auction sale of Mrs. Kate Johnson’s art collection was resumed yesterday at Golden Gate Hall, with no visible decrease in the two former days’ attendance. If anything there were more ladies present than usual, the sale of rugs, works of art and miscellaneous articles other than oil paintings, being sufficient to draw them thither in large numbers. Most of the paintings disposed of on the day previous had been removed from the hall during the forenoon, and in consequence the exhibition feature of the sale was in a large measure destroyed.
There was no improvement whatever noticeable in the bids offered and accepted. The new-comers were determined to enjoy as big a “snap” as those who had been in attendance from the start, and the latter showed no indication of bidding any higher than usual, even tor the sake of downcast art. One of the paintings passed on thhe previous day was the first to be sold. It was Hugho Fisher’s “Returning to the Fold,” and was purchased by Christian Weiss for the sum of $175. Keith’s productions brought extremely low prices and Tom Hill fared no better. His large canvas, “The Saco River, Maine.” which was valued at $5000. was purchased by Edward Bosqui for $800, and one of Keith’s twilight landscapes became the property of E. E. Potter for $100. Schmitzberger’s painting, “Dogs and Cats,” was one of the gems ot the collection and was purchased by Frank J. Sullivan for $100.
The collection of paintings was disposed of during the afternoon, and the evening was devoted to sacrificing the plaques, Japanese screens and the magnificent Persian and Turkish rugs.
Following are the purchasers of the more valuable oil paintings and water colors: Water color, Summer landscape, by R. M. de Longpre, Mrs. John Wise, for $110. Oil painting, landscape, by Keith, C. W. Tuttle, for $60. Oil paintging, Rustic Bridge, by Wores Mrs. I. W. Hellman, for $28. Oil Painting, A Narrow Escape, by Schmitzberger, F. J. Sullivan, for $190. A. Keith, landscape, H. F. Fortman, for $190.
The following also secured valuable paintings at a sacrifice…
– San Francisco Call, November 11 1894
ART WENT BEGGING.
Bidding Was Not Brisk at the Johnson Sale.
Rare old Roman marbles, quaintly carved Venetian statues, beautiful bronzes, swords of the days when there were Daimos in Japan and each wore two, and rare old clocks— all, all went under tbe hammer at Golden Gate Hall yesterday at figures that must have made the angels weep. An heroic “Mercury” in bronze was ruthlessly knocked down by the auctioneer for a few paltry hundreds, while any number of exquisite cameos went at prices which were cut as artistically as the articles themselves.
Another fashionable crowd attended the sale of Mrs. Kate Johnson’s wonderful collection of the masterpieces of art, and, while the bidding was lively, competition was not nearly as keen as it might have been. An immense number of smaller articles sold rapidly, and many mansions in San Francisco and adjoining cities will be adorned by bits here and there of this really magnificent collection.
One of the most notable saies of the day was of the two Venetian carved pieces, “Children at Play,” which were sold to Dr. Bingham for $270.
C. de Lange bid in another fine Venetian piece. “The Maskers,” for $230.
Two beautiful Roman lamps were knocked down for $75 apiece to John Hinkel and E. J. Page. Even the beautiful life-size statue by F. Simmons, the “Promised Laud,” only brought the sum of $450.
– San Francisco Call, November 14 1894