Dormie — The Dog That Went on Trial for Murder

The charges against the defendant were almost unimaginable. Prosecutors accused him of leaving a trail of twelve corpses. A dozen lives were tragically and unjustifiably cut short by an inexplicable killing spree.

No punishment other than death would be appropriate, and that was exactly what was at stake. The nature of the crime was so heinous that The Buffalo Times published a photo of the death chamber and the man who had already been selected to serve as the executioner.

An alleged mass murderer. Twelve victims. A high-stakes murder trial. All the elements necessary to turn this into a headlines-grabbing event were there, and if that wasn’t enough, and the defendant came from a wealthy family.

Oh yeah…. The defendant was also a dog.

Few trials in the 20th century achieved the notoriety of the murder trial of Dormie the Airedale terrier, who was charged with the despicable murder of twelve cats.

This was certainly not the first time an animal was put on trial. Commonplace Fun Facts has documented several such cases. That chapter in the history of jurisprudence appeared to have ended along with the conclusion of the Middle Ages. In the enlightened times of the 20th century, if you wanted to see an animal on trial, you would have to travel to some strange and mysterious realm, whose people have customs unfathomable to right-thinking individuals. In other words, San Francisco, California.

The ordinance books of San Francisco contained a provision that made both the dog and its owner liable for aggressive canine behavior. If found guilty, the human faced a misdemeanor conviction and a fine. For the dog, the penalty was death. The only alternative to capital punishment was a life sentence of having to wear a muzzle.

The trail of homicides felinicides murders led to an Airedale terrier named Dormie. Dormie grew up in privilege, belonging to automobile dealer Eaton McMillan. When charges of murder were levied against Dormie, his owner made sure he got the best defense money could buy. Attorney James F. Brennan was hired to represent Dormie throughout the proceedings.

Brennan’s job was going to be difficult. For one thing, public sentiment was strongly on the side of the victims and their families. One of the victims was a Persian-Angora cat named Sunbeam. She was owned by Mrs. W.L. Ingalls, a well-known socialite and cat fancier. She is the one who signed the complaint against Dormie. She alleged that the Airedale terrier had not stopped at killing Sunbeam but had also viciously ended the lives of three of Sunbeam’s children. The other ten victims were unrelated to Sunbeam or the Ingalls family and were described as assorted neighborhood cats.

Assistant District Attorney John Orcutt handled the prosecution. The case was assigned to the courtroom of Police Judge Lile T. Jacks.

Dormie gets pawprinted before his trial

Brennan took the initiative by demanding a trial by jury, as the law permitted. Not content with the typical method of jury selection, however, Brennan insisted that the judge impanel a jury of Airedales. “The law provides that jury trials be before a jury of the defendant’s equals,” said Brennan.

Orcutt responded with the counter-argument, “I admit that a jury of equals is necessary, but I know many an Airedale whom I would rank above and not below many men.”

When Judge Jacks denied Defense’s motion for an all-canine jury, Brennan next moved to exclude women because women are well-known to be notorious cat fanciers. This argument also failed to persuade the court. When the jury was sworn in, it consisted of nine men and three women — all of whom identified as human.

The matter came before the court on December 21, 1921. On the first day of testimony, the courtroom was packed. The one individual who had the greatest stake in the matter was not present. Brennan explained that on the advice of counsel, Dormie would not be in the courtroom. “He resents the attentions of the morbidly curious throngs,” he said. “We will spare him and his aged mother all humiliation possible.”

Emotions ran high on both sides of the aisle. Offering support for the victims and their families, Mrs. Frank R. De Castro, president of the San Francisco Cat Club, submitted an affidavit: “Sunbeam was cut off in her prime of cathood. She was but eight years old. The ordinary cat dies between 8 and 12 years, but Persians live to be about 19. A Persian cat at the age of 8 is peaceable and dignified. She keeps her thoughts to herself, and is happy when not interfered with.” Attempting to imagine any scenario where Sunbeam and Dormie could have come into conflict, De Castro speculated that Sunbeam could have been attacked when she was roaming the vacant lot to eat grass.

A.X. Decourtieux, President of the Pacific Coast Dog Fanciers’ Association was quick to jump to the defense of the accused. “We deny that Airedales, individually or as a breed, have an intent to injure cats,” he wrote. “Their history is brimful of chivalrous acts toward weaker animals, cats in particular.” Decourtieux was not above some name-dropping by noting that an Airedale by the name of Rowdy was good friends with the cat of United States District Attorney John T. Williams. Not only was Rowdy an Airedale, but he was the brother of Laddie Boy, the famous canine occupant of the White House, owned by President Warren G. Harding.

The prosecution’s key witness, Marjorie Ingalls, testified that Dormie was the killer responsible for taking the life of Sunbeam. In a moment worthy of a Hollywood legal drama, Brennan responded by parading several dogs into the courtroom. In what amounted to a canine lineup, he displayed the different breeds to Mrs. Ingalls and asked her if she could pick the Airedale out of the mix. She could not.

Convinced he had established reasonable doubt, Brennan drove home the point that Mrs. Ingalls may well have witnessed a murder, but it could very well have been some other dog who was responsible.

Brennan told the jury that although there was more than reasonable doubt concerning Dormie’s presence at the scene of the crime, there was something else they should consider. He introduced the idea of “irresistible impulse.” If Dormie had attacked Sunbeam — just for the sake of argument — it was because he was instinctively driven to attack a cat, and it would be wrong to convict someone for something beyond control.

Brennan was also mindful that the fate of Dormie’s owner rested on the outcome of the trial. He said that charging McMillan with a misdemeanor was a gross injustice. “How could McMillan be guilty of intent, unless he could look into his dog’s mind and see the future?” Brennan asked.

Brennan was relentless in cross-examining every prosecution witness. When cat owner F.L. Stone insisted Dormie had killed one of his cats and was prepared to murder another, Brennan was on his feet. “I object,” he said. “You don’t know what was in that dog’s mind.”

Stone was forced to confine his testimony to, “Well, Dormie chased the cat into the woodpile.”

Brennan was also successful in exposing the worst natures of some witnesses. Mrs. L. Norris lost her cool on the stand and declared, “Dormie was a public nuisance. He ran out and snapped at automobiles that passed. We tried to run over him and sorry we didn’t.”

As the case wore on, animal lovers flocked to the scene, expressing their support for one side or the other. Neighborhood children went door to door, collecting pennies to help cover Dormie’s defense expenses. Fiercely-worded editorials filled the pages of the newspapers, extolling the virtues of dogs over cats and vice-versa.

Newspaper report of Dormie’s legal saga. Click image to expand.

In his closing argument, Brennan appealed to species stereotypes, arguing that dogs were loyal to humans while cats were possessed of ingratitude.

With the evidence and arguments concluded, Judge Jacks submitted the case to the jury. San Francisco held its breath, awaiting the verdict. The wait was not long.

After two hours of deliberation, the jury reported to the judge that they were hopelessly deadlocked. Seven jurors thought Dormie was not guilty. Five were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he was a murderer.

Since the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision, Brennan moved for immediate dismissal. Judge Jacks concurred, and all charges were dropped against Dormie.

The press appears to have honored Brennan’s appeal to respect Dormie’s privacy. There are no reports on record about Dormie’s life after the trial. By all appearances, he lived out the remainder of his days without any further entanglements with the criminal justice system.

Although law students do not typically study the landmark case of People of the City of San Francisco vs. Dormie, it did serve to establish some principles of legal precedent. The fact that a dog can have a trial by jury and that prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt are now established matters of jurisprudence — at least in San Francisco. The case also stressed the necessity of the identification of the defendant. It had the further unintended effect of suggesting that unlicensed cats do not carry many individual rights.

Perhaps an additional effect of the trial is that there have been no others like it. Prosecutors and judges evidently learned their lesson and have not allowed a repeat of the Dormie spectacle.

In 1924, much was made about a black Labrador by the name of Pep being sentenced to Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary by Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot for killing his wife’s cat. In reality, the dog was sent to the prison as a gift by the governor in an effort to boost prisoner morale. This leaves Dormie as the sole defendant in the canine jurisprudence of the United States who found that the criminal justice system is a dog’s best friend.

1 reply »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.