In 2009, during a tour of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, then-curator Isaac Gewirtz asked me if I wanted to see Charles Dickens's cat's paw.
Prior to this I had only associated libraries with books, maybe some maps... so for that and just so many more reasons, it took a few seconds for my brain to connect the dots — Dickens saved his dead cat's paw and through the transference of property it was now in Midtown, about to be placed before me.
Further, and for reasons we'll never fully understand beyond that humans of this era were pretty into taxidermy, Dickens's sister-in-law affixed the paw to a letter opener as a gift for the author. An ivory blade now shoots out just beyond Bob's paw pads, and so that it may never be mistaken with another cat's limb, it is personalized: C.D. In Memory of Bob 1862. Dickens kept the item on his desk (which is also a part of the Berg Collection) for the rest of his life.
If you are curious if cats can shed posthumously the answer is yes, for at least 147 years after its death, a cat can shed its fur. Little strands of Bob's fur were left behind on the green felt it was laid upon. I briefly contemplated pocketing these stray hairs, believing there was likely a black market for this kind of thing, but I feared a curse would befall me had I done so. If ever there were a cursed talisman it would almost certainly be a dead cat's paw belonging to Dickens, right? Well, I wasn't about to chance it.
And so, it was in 2009 that I learned the Library wasn't just a library, but a museum that is home to not only this strange piece of Dickensiana, but physical pieces of old New York, and so much more — it was this cat's paw that helped inspire this Dear NYC series. Thanks, Bob.
As part of our month-long Dear NYC series, we're looking at New York City gems hidden away at the New York Public Library. The NYPL’s four research centers offer the public access to over 55 million items, including rare books, manuscripts, letters, diaries, photographs, prints, maps, ephemera, and more. Integral to these robust collections is the Library’s extensive material related to New York City, and as NY works to come together, cope, heal and recover from the 2020 pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the many issues that divide us, it is important to look at that history and remember: New York is resilient. New York is strong. New York has seen its share of hard times. And, as always, with Patience and Fortitude (the names given to the Library’s beloved lions in 1933 by Mayor LaGuardia for the virtues New Yorkers needed to get through the Great Depression) we will get through it, together.