Hemingway’s Six-Toed Cats

Posted by Stephen Petrey on Wednesday, October 17, 2018

If you ever find your self in Key West (the Southernmost Point in the continental US), do yourself a favor. Go visit their local museums.

Key West has a very interesting maritime history. According to local tradition, many years ago, it once was a very popular marine salvage port. Conveniently, there was also an alarmingly high population of grifters and pirates in Key West who would, on occasion run false lights near the reefs and beaches to confuse oncoming ships and their captains. Ships moored or run-aground by these false light antics would become damaged (mostly at the hands of pirates). They would raid the ships cargo, set it ablaze, and ultimately the ship would become salvaged:

Maritime records abound with events where complete ships, cargos, passengers and crews were saved. Most expect that the entire gambit from heroism to outright piracy existed. Tales of moving navigation lights to placing false lights exist. The Georgia Gazette of October 7, 1790 ended an article of two English ships, one saved and one lost, as follows: “. . . The wreckers [Bahamians] generally set the ships on fire after they have done with them, that they may not serve as a beacon to guide other ships clear of those dangerous shoals.” This editorializing by the writer implies that the wreckers did not want markers showing other ships where the dangerous reefs were. The same arguments can be made that wreckers moved navigation lights to cause groundings. Most likely when any ship saw any light it would immediately know it was far too close and steer away to seaward. A better argument would be that they extinguished the lights. There is no real data to substantiate these allegations. 

Pretty neat huh? But what I really want to talk about, is Ernest Hemingway. You know, that one. He once lived in Key West, and now his home is the Hemingway Home & Museum. Interestingly, Hemingway was given a six-toed (polydactyl) cat:

The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum is home to approximately 40-50 polydactyl (six-toed) cats. Cats normally have five front toes and four back toes. About half of the cats at the museum have the physical polydactyl trait but they all carry the polydactyl gene in their DNA, which means that the ones that have 4 and 5 toes can still mother or father six-toed kittens. Most cats have extra toes on their front feet and sometimes on their back feet as well. Sometimes it looks as if they are wearing mittens because they appear to have a thumb on their paw.

Ernest Hemingway was given a white six-toed cat by a ship’s captain and some of the cats who live on the museum grounds are descendants of that original cat, named Snow White. Key West is a small island and it is possible that many of the cats on the island are related. The polydactyl cats are not a particular breed. The trait can appear in any breed, Calicos, Tabbies, Tortoise Shell. White, Black, etc. They vary in shapes, sizes, colors and personalities.

[…] Hemingway named all of his cats after famous people so we follow that same tradition today. Cats are capable of learning and responding to their names, particularly if they have an affectionate relationship with
the person who calls them.

Here’s a picture of one of the polydactyl kitties, the image sourced from the museum website:

Hemingway’s six-toed cats continue to live onward. Just, living the best life. I love it.


Leave a Comment