In May 1895, the first official cat show in New York City took place at Madison Square Garden. More than 200 felines ranging from humble street cats (such as Brian Hughes’ Nicodemus) to the high-society cats of Mrs. J.J. Astor and Mrs. Stanford White were all on display at the first National Cat Show.
Although they did not take home any ribbons, a trio of black cats belonging to Colonel William D’Alton Mann, publisher of the Town Topics society magazine, were the center of attraction that year.
According to Helen Maria Winslow, author of “From Concerning Cats: My Own and Some Others,” the three cats were named Taffy, The Laird, and Little Billee. They were all jet black and 14 months old. The New York Times reported that the handsome cats reposed on a red cushion and slept for most of the time.
Although The New York Times article claimed the cats were named Little Billie, Leo, and David, I’m more prone to believe that Ms. Winslow has it right. (I also don’t think Leo and David are suitable names for cat-show participants.)
Not only was Ms. Winslow familiar with Colonel Mann and his office cats, but Taffy, Little Billee, and The Laird were popular names during this time: These were the names of the leading male characters in a long-running play called Trilby, which was based on the 1894 novel by George due Marurier. Trilby had opened at the Garden Theatre on Madison Avenue just one month before the cat show.
In 1895, when this story takes place, Colonel William D’Alton Mann was the owner and publisher of Town Topics, a weekly magazine of social gossip. The Town Topics office was located on the top floors of 208 Fifth Avenue near 26th Street, overlooking Madison Square Park.
According to Ms. Winslow, Colonel Mann was a devoted lover of animals who had a standing order: Should any of his employees see a starving kitten on the street, they were not to leave it to suffer and die. Hence, the Town Topics office was a sanctuary for unfortunate cats. As Ms. Winslow writes, “One may always see a number of happy-looking creatures there, who seem to appreciate the kindness which surrounds them.”
Had Colonel Mann only exhibited some of that same kindness toward his readers, he may have avoided numerous lawsuits and prison time.
Colonel Mann, the War Hero and Extortionist
Like the street cats he rescued, William Mann had a humble beginning.
Born in Sandusky, Ohio, in 1839, Mann grew up on his father’s farm and was one of thirteen children. From this simple start, he epitomized the American dream.
Mann was a Civil War hero at Gettysburg, an entrepreneur and inventor (he invented a luxury railroad car called the “Mann Boudoir Car”), and later a business tycoon, millionaire, and publisher. He was also a family man who doted on his daughter, Emma, and his office cats.
Alas, Colonel Mann also was a dirty blackmailer who extorted tens of thousands of dollars from New York’s millionaires via a column called “Saunterings” in Town Topics.
The Town Topics Bribery Scam
The weekly magazine had been founded in 1879 as J.R. Andrew’s American Queen, a National Society Journal. Louis Keller (founder of the Social Register) took over in 1883, and under his editorship, the publication was “dedicated to art, music, literature, and society.”
When the publication went bankrupt in 1885, William’s brother Eugene purchased it and renamed it Town Topics. Under Eugene D. Mann’s reign, the weekly magazine morphed into a scandal sheet that often identified high-society wrongdoers by name.
In 1891, Eugene went into hiding after being charged with sending obscene matter through the mail. Colonel Mann came to New York City and assumed ownership and editorship of the publication.
Much to the dismay of the Vanderbilts, Goulds, Morgans, and other millionaires, Mann took the art of scandal to a mastery level that would have put publications like today’s National Enquirer to shame.
Many articles have been written about this Town Topics scandal, so I’ll sum it up in a few sentences.
What Colonel Mann did was establish a network of paid spies comprising servants, telegraph operators, hotel employees, seamstresses, butlers, and grocers to spy on the socialites and supply the magazine with juicy gossip.
Mann would then meet with the “guilty parties” at his favorite place–Delmonico’s–where they could negotiate for discretion.
The amount of money that Mann managed to extort from America’s wealthiest men was staggering. For example, William K. Vanderbilt paid $25,000 (that’s over $700,000 today), Charles M. Schwab paid $10,000, and Senator Russell Alger paid Mann $100,000 in shares of his lumber company’s stock.
As time went on, the well-to-do members of New York’s Gilded Age became so paranoid that their own maids and butlers were supplying gossip to Town Topics.
Sometimes they would make up gossip as a test to see if their own servants or associates could be trusted. If they read this made-up gossip in Town Topics, they knew there was a leak somewhere within their household or circle of “friends.”
Despite all this paranoia — or maybe because of it — Town Topics was the most widely-read magazine in society (of course no one would ever admit to subscribing to it).
Taffy and the Town Topics Cats
The Town Topics office cats made their home at 208 Fifth Avenue (aka 1128-30 Broadway), a Renaissance Revival designed by Berg & Clark for Alfred B. Darling in 1894. (Prior to this date, the address was a five-story brick and brownstone building occupied by the Chesterfield Hotel in the 1870s. See photo below.)
The new seven-story building at 208 Fifth Avenue had frontages on Broadway and Fifth Avenue and housed stores and offices. Until the Cross Building was constructed at 210 Fifth Avenue around 1904, a narrow, vacant lot separated the building from the famous Delmonico’s restaurant, which was on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 26th Street from 1876 to 1899.
In the spring and summer months, Taffy, The Laird, Little Billee, and other Town Topics office cats would crawl out on the wide window ledge to enjoy the fresh air and the view of Madison Square Park below. Sadly, The Laird and Little Billee came to their deaths by jumping from their high perch to chase after some sparrows.
Following this tragedy, Colonel Mann put up a strong wire grating across the windows. From that point on, Taffy, described as a “monstrous, shiny black fellow,” was the leader of the Town Topics cat colony.
The Demise of Town Topics
The bribery continued to escalate, leading to numerous lawsuits, and, in 1905, to the arrest of Colonel Mann on charges of perjury (the complainant in this case was Robert J. Collier of Collier’s Weekly). Mann’s daughter, then Emma Mann Wray, bailed him out by offering as collateral the vacant lots at
810-828 West 38th Street, where Mann was building new offices for Ess Ess Publishing (now a parking lot across from the Jacob Javits Center).
Mann was ultimately cleared of perjury, but by that time Town Topics lost most of its bite. Two years after Mann’s death in 1920, A. Ralph Keller organized the T.T. Publishing Company to buy Town Topics. The paper lingered on until eventually folding in the 1930s.
A colorized photo of from 1908.