A thief steals a package or plastic bag from a shopper but gets only the
body of a dead cat that the other person had been intending to dispose.
Sometimes two packages are accidentally switched—the cat’s corpse with
a package of steaks, a ham, or the like.
This classic urban legend of poetic justice—the thief gaining only an undesirable
item—is extremely widespread and varied. In the United States, the
story can be traced as far back as 1906, though it reached its peak popularity
in the 1950s, and it has persisted ever since. “The Runaway Grandmother”
tells much the same tale, with a different stolen corpse, and “Alligators in
the Sewers” is another urban legend about the disposal of a dead pet.
Most older versions describe someone’s pet cat dying; the owner, an
apartment-dweller, wraps the dead pet with the intention of giving the
package to a friend whom she will meet in a department store; the friend
will bury the cat in her suburban yard. But the package is stolen by a little
old lady who passes out in public when she peeks into the package.
An Australian version of the story published in 1993 in the local newspaper
The St. George Leader renders the typical plot using some Aussie
dialect and place names:
From a reader who swears it really happened to his wife’s mother’s best
A cat belonging to a little old lady who lives in a home unit at Caringbah
died suddenly two weeks ago.
Unable to give puss a proper burial in the backyard, she placed it in a
plastic bag in the boot of her car and drove to Westfield Shoppingtown
Miranda, thinking to dispose of Mog in one of the many rubbish containers
to be found there.
As she was rummaging around in the boot, a woman walking past
snaffled the plastic bag containing the remains, thinking she had got her
hands on something valuable.
When she later took a peek, she got such a fright she fainted dead away;
ambulances were called and she and the plastic bag containing Mog were
transported to Sutherland Hospital.
Which all goes to prove that (1) you can’t trust anyone and (2) sometimes
the punishment does fit the crime.
Later versions describe a shopper accidentally running over a stray cat
in a shopping mall parking lot. She puts the cat into a plastic bag with a
store logo, leaves it on the top of her car, and it is stolen. Often these versions
end with the unconscious thief being carried from the mall on a
stretcher with the unopened plastic bag placed on her chest by a helpful
bystander. The details of the cat’s death, the mall, the store logo, and the
thief’s behavior are all made very specific and local in these versions.
When the story includes the accidental switching of two packages, usually
the pet owner has wrapped the package, intending to dispose of it
during the day. But each time he or she tries to abandon it, the package
is returned by a “helpful” stranger. Back home that evening, the owner
discovers the switcheroo.
“The Dead Cat in the Package” has inspired numerous cartoon illustrations,
at least two songs, and a poem in mock Middle English. The
Russian author Yevgeny Yevtushenko included a version in his novel
Wild Berries (1981).