Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » “Here, kitty, kitty,” or, The lions of the Lion House

“Here, kitty, kitty,” or, The lions of the Lion House

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 15, 2008

I like cats.

Now I know that at least half my readers just decided to click off, but hang on there! Susa Young, one of Brigham Young’s daughters, didn’t like cats. And as much as I love cats, she didn’t like cats – was afraid of them, and their claws, and their unpredictable ways – twice as much.

So no matter how you feel about cats, you have somebody on your side – either Susa or me – while you stick around to read this story.

Brigham Young banned pets from the Beehive and Lion Houses. It isn’t that he didn’t like animals – there were horses on his property, and for a time he even had a pet eagle living on a platform behind the Beehive House, but the dogs and cats that lived in the outbuildings and gardens behind the family houses belonged outdoors, not inside. Yet sometimes, kids being kids, some of the Young children would smuggle a favorite cat into the house, sometimes with the complicity of one or another of the mothers, and hide it from their father, usually in the stone basement of the Lion House, where “The Pantry” restaurant is located today.

In 1863, when Susa was 7 years old, her little sister Rhoda was born. Apparently Rhoda was a fussy baby or at least sensitive to noise, so Lucy Bigelow Young, Susa’s and Rhoda’s mother, moved her family’s rooms into the basement. That way the baby was far enough away from the noise in the rest of the house to sleep undisturbed in her blue-painted cradle.

Susa didn’t much care for that arrangement, though. She hadn’t spent much time in the basement and was unfamiliar with the shadows and creaks that filled the rooms at the other end of the long hallway. Her imagination, and the weakness of the family’s candles, left her quivering in fear on the few occasions when her mother asked her to watch the sleeping baby while Lucy tended to errands elsewhere.

One evening Susa was left to watch Rhoda while their mother went to the theater. Rhoda was supposed to sleep all the time their mother was gone, but instead she was wide awake and demanded to be carried. Susa walked with her – a difficult thing, because Rhoda was a large baby and Susa was a small girl – and sang to her, but Rhoda kept crying, and Susa was too afraid of the shadows to carry the baby to the family members she could hear upstairs.

But suddenly the baby’s cries were drowned out by the yowls of a tomcat that had apparently sneaked through an open door to sniff after the pet cat living in the basement. Susa screamed, and assorted brothers and sisters and aunts thundered down the staircase, coming to Susa’s rescue. “Take the child. I shall faint, I know I shall,” Susa said over and over, while her brothers stared in disbelief and laughter at the small, furry source of her terror. But Susa remembered later that her father came to her rescue, handing the baby to someone else and cuddling Susa himself until she was calm again. Then he renewed his ban on cats in the house.

“Take the child. I shall faint, I know I shall,” her brothers teased her from time to time over the next few months. “Take the child. I shall faint, I know I shall.”

The following summer, while Susa and her mother and sisters still lived in the basement, a sudden wind and rainstorm blew up. Lucy called Susa to once again watch her baby sister, while Lucy ran with others to close and latch the dozens of windows in the Lion House. Susa – she who became the fearless editor and world traveler of later years – was then still a timid child, afraid of lightning, and dark shadows, and cats.

And this time, in the dim basement rooms, responsible for her sleeping baby sister, Susa was once again certain – absolutely, terrifyingly certain – that there was once again a cat in the house with her. She could hear it purring, or growling, somewhere in the shadows. She knew it. She heard it.

And then she saw it.

It wasn’t her imagination. Neither was it a barn cat. This time, it was a mountain lion, a cougar, come down from City Creek Canyon just above the Lion House. A real mountain lion. Not Susa’s imagination. A cougar looking for a way out of the strange house he had wandered into.

This time the screams of the mountain lion summoned help from the family upstairs. Susa’s brother Oscar was first to arrive. He snatched the baby from her cradle and tossed her to someone in the hallway, but in his excitement he did not notice Susa sitting paralyzed on her chair. He slammed the door, locking the big cat in with him, and with the unseen Susa.

The record doesn’t tell us what weapon the 18-year-old Oscar had armed himself with, but he fought that cat to the death, there in that room in the basement of the Lion House.

“Poor little [Susa] was mercifully spared any sight or knowledge of the death scene, for when Father at last came to the door and quietly opened it, Oscar was just through with his gory work, and [Susa] was crumpled upon the couch quite lifeless. Her pale face was caught between Father’s safe and strong hands, and Father kneeled down by the couch, quite unmindful of the courage of Oscar in the suffering of [Susa].” Once again he held and comforted the little girl however long it took for her to feel safe again.

It is no wonder Susa was devoted to the memory of her father for as long as she lived.

But I still like cats.

[See Susa Young Gates, “The House with the Twenty Gables,” The Juvenile Instructor, May 1913, 299-304.]



  1. Cool story.

    Comment by Edje — July 15, 2008 @ 8:06 am

  2. Wow! I’ve never heard that one.

    Comment by Mark IV — July 15, 2008 @ 8:14 am

  3. I read this story to my boys and they thought it was great, although they’re not too sure about the idea of eating cookies in the basement of the Lion House anymore…

    And they are very curious how the cougar got in.

    Comment by Amira — July 15, 2008 @ 8:15 am

  4. You lost me with the first sentence. I’ll check back in when I’m over the trauma.

    Comment by Ray — July 15, 2008 @ 8:38 am

  5. You lost me when you mentioned that BY had a pet eagle…

    …But then I read the rest of the story and enjoyed it thoroughly. I like cats as well.

    Comment by Ben — July 15, 2008 @ 9:23 am

  6. Wow. A lion in the Lion House. A Libertarian in Las Vegas.

    (Sorry to comment on the sidebar in the body of a post, but your brother sounds a lot like you. The encyclopedic memory, the gentle logic, and armed to the teeth. :-))

    Comment by Researcher — July 15, 2008 @ 9:25 am

  7. Ha! Glad you all liked it. It was new to me, too, when I found it, buried in the slightly disguised names Susa gave to everyone, and her florid writing style.

    Amira, I should think your boys would be excited to go there for cookies … as long as you’re there to protect them. Just think of the brave boyhood imagining they can do!

    (My brother is a great guy, Researcher, and it’s flattering to be compared to him. His beard is much longer than mine, though.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 15, 2008 @ 9:46 am

  8. This is at once, horrifying and delightful.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 15, 2008 @ 10:09 am

  9. Great story, Ardis! And your talent for telling it makes if all the more interesting.

    And all this from the Juvenile Instructor. Great periodical.

    Comment by Jared T. — July 15, 2008 @ 11:20 am

  10. Your blog is amazing. simply amazing.

    This is beautiful testament to the love of a father for his daughter. We say a lot of bad things about BY, but clearly he was an incredible many in many, many ways.

    Comment by TrevorM — July 15, 2008 @ 11:41 am

  11. Wow, terrible grammar there.

    let’s try again:

    This is beautiful testament to the love of a father for his daughter. We say a lot of bad things about Brigham Young, but clearly he was an incredible man in many, many ways.

    Comment by TrevorM — July 15, 2008 @ 11:47 am

  12. I think one of the fun un-stated lessons from this story is the fact that one of BY’s homes had a basement big enough for a cougar to get lost in :)

    Comment by Ben — July 15, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

  13. My cellar isn’t very big, but it’s a big enough mess that a cougar could easily get lost in it.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 15, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

  14. “His beard is much longer than mine, though.”

    But is it darker?

    Comment by Ray — July 15, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

  15. Ray, never ask a lady “of a certain age” for details about her beard. Glen’s is white.

    Ray’s impertinence aside :) , this is another batch of really fun comments. Thanks, everybody, for taking time to read and comment.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 15, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

  16. What–no Cougar fans here?

    Comment by JimD — July 15, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

  17. Wow, I don’t like cats either, but I think she had a lot better reasons.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — July 16, 2008 @ 2:09 am

  18. I’ve just had a fun conversation with one of the LDS archivists who is *the* expert on downtown SLC LDS buildings. He read the original Susa Young Gates story last night, which has many details I didn’t include about the arrangement of furniture in the room and some distinctive architectural clues, and says that the room where Oscar fought the mountain lion is the reception room of The Pantry, that first room you enter when going to the restaurant, where you line up to get your tray and tableware. (Today’s entrance door was a window then, since cut down to make the door.) So when Amira takes her boys for cookies, they can know they’re right in the room where it happened.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 16, 2008 @ 10:51 am

  19. Ardis, have I mentioned that I love your blog? That was an amazing story. You may yet get me to like Brigham Young.

    Comment by Jami — July 16, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

  20. Thanks, Jami /blushes/ — There’s a book I’m planning to review that I wish you would look at, as long as I’m tempting you towards Brigham Young. Chad Orton has writen 40 short (5-6 pages) essays about different ways to look at Brigham Young — as a religious figure, a colonizer, a businessman, a father, a despot, a polygamist, etc. Really fun and informative, even for somebody like me who thought I knew Brigham Young pretty well.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 16, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  21. In honor of this story, they should rename The Pantry and call it The Cougareat II.

    Comment by Mark IV — July 16, 2008 @ 2:17 pm

  22. Or The Cougareat U2.

    Comment by Mark IV — July 16, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

  23. Ardis, I’ll give it a gander next time I’m over at DB.

    Comment by Jami — July 16, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

  24. Cats are the worst. Every kind. The horrible mountain lion kind that stalk you in the hills. And the so-called domesticated city-dwelling kind that poop all over your yard. Worst, worst, worst.

    So, I’m happy to read that Father Brigham would come in and comfort the rightly distraught Susa. But what is up with that part about him “at last [coming] to the door and quietly [opening] it”? “At last”? “Quietly opening it”?? I mean, I would’ve expected the Lion of the Lord to come bursting through the door! And with a gun drawn (or at least a cane or a letter opener)!

    Comment by Hunter — July 17, 2008 @ 1:33 am

  25. I must say it would have been cooler if the Lion of the Lord had fought the mountain lion himself, but still loved the story.

    Comment by john f. — January 19, 2009 @ 7:33 am

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