When Marco Island Historical Society curator, Austin Bell, describes the first time he held his new book, “The Nine Lives of Florida’s Famous Key Marco Cat,” it sounds like he's describing the sensation of holding the ancient Key Marco Cat itself.
“It was a great feeling,” Bell said in his soft-spoken style. "I picked the book up and thought, ‘Oh, this is lighter than I thought it would be. And skinnier.' But to handle it was a good feeling.”
When Bell held the Key Marco Cat for the first time, he was surprised at the heft of the six-inch-tall statue that weighs in at just under a half pound.
"It was really scary,” Bell said. "I didn’t want to drop it,” he said with a laugh. "I didn’t want to be part of some tenth life of the Key Marco Cat. I remember picking it up and thinking that it was heavier than it looked. I thought it was going to be really light. So that’s why we put a block of wood in the exhibit that weighs the exact same amount so you can pick it up and get an idea of how heavy it is without handling the actual artifact.”
You could say that Bell handled the cat with kid gloves.
"We had nitrile gloves,” he said, “I held it over a padded inert ethafoam surface and only held it inches above it, so if I were to drop it.”
"It was surreal being able to hold it,” Bell continued. "A very cool experience. Just thinking of the other hands that have held it - including Frank Hamilton Cushing’s and the person who made it so long ago. It’s cool.”
Bell spent between three and four years putting together his 240-page book, which is divided into nine chapters. He came up with the idea while working with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. to bring the cat home to Marco.
"I was already doing research on it for the exhibit and realized that this thing has a story that is much bigger than I even realized,” Bell said. "I thought it would be a great idea to put together all those different stories and lives it’s lived together into one place. So, while I was working on the exhibit, I had this in mind, and pitched it to the publisher.”
“The Nine Lives of Florida’s Key Marco Cat” is published by University Press of Florida, in Gainesville, where Bell graduated from the University of Florida.
Bell realizes some may find it curious to write an entire book about a single artifact.
"It seems kind of excessive to write an entire book about a little six inch tall statue,” Bell said, "but it’s through this object that you’re able to explore all these different time periods, which this object was a part of from its emergence in the wilderness as a plant, to its creation, to its loss, to its rediscovery, all the way up through now - its role as a rock star object, an icon of modern Marco Island’s identity.”
Bell started researching the book in 2018 by making trips to the Smithsonian and Penn Museum. He said the bulk of the artifacts found during Cushing’s famous Key Marco excavation in 1896 are split evenly between the Smithsonian and the Penn Museum.
There were about 2,000 artifacts found on the Key Marco site, but the Key Marco Cat is the most famous - and is definitely Bell’s favorite.
"Oh, it’s my favorite,” Bell said with a smile. "It has to be. It really is. From all of its historical importance, in association with Cushing, what it means to Florida, Florida’s indigenous people, Florida archeology, to my personal admiration for it. My daughter’s not even two years old and she comes into the museum and looks into that window display and says, ‘Cat, cat.’ Just seeing her reaction to it at a one-and-a-half years old makes it all very special to me.”
Bell goes so far as to say he wouldn’t be where he is today if not for the Key Marco Cat.
“You know,” he reflects, "I wrote in the preface how it changed my life. It was kind of tongue-in-cheek, but it’s true. Really, this museum was built with the ultimate goal of bringing the Key Marco Cat back on loan. Then I was hired to do exhibits to ultimately incorporate the Key Marco Cat. So, my job, in a way, sort of exists because this object exists,” he said, pointing to the photo of the Key Marco Cat on the cover of his book. "I feel very fortunate and honored to be drawn into this thing’s orbit. This amazing, miraculous piece of artwork from hundreds of years ago, made by Native American artists that were here before us. To have a hand in being able to share that with others and also to bring it back home to Marco Island, where it originated. To me that meant a lot. I really feel grateful to be involved with it at all. I write that it seems to have its own gravitational pull, it attracts different people to it for different reasons. It's just an interesting story, especially in the last 100-plus years as a museum object. It’s gone through all these different curators' hands. Just to be one in a long chain of people who have cared for it is an honor and a blessing.
"I worked with the Key Marco artifacts at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. When I was working on those objects for that museum, that’s when the Marco museum was being built. I had no idea or inkling that I would ever end up in Marco Island, let alone trying to get Key Marco artifacts back to Marco Island. It all has felt very serendipitous for me, being a part of it. So, yeah, this cat means a lot to me personally and professionally."
The Key Marco Cat was found preserved in muck by Cushing himself. But there is mystery surrounding Cushing’s discovery.
"Cushing found it in unit 15 of his grid system,” Bell explains. "He was the first person to lay eyes on it after however many centuries it was in the ground. There’s different theories about how the object wound up in the muck that ended up preserving it for so long. The short answer is that we don’t know exactly what happened. But there are many theories - probably the most popular one is that a hurricane swept these artifacts either through the storm surge or the wind because they were scattered throughout the muck randomly. They weren’t items that you would normally just discard. There is some thought that a hurricane or some large storm is responsible for depositing them in the muck. But there’s a whole chapter about that.”
Cushing kept detailed journals about his discoveries during the Key Marco dig. But one journal is missing.
"His journal - it’s interesting - ends on March 4.” Bell said. “The next journal, the only one that’s missing, begins on March 5, the day they found the Key Marco Cat. we don’t have his initial reaction to finding it, like we do the objects the day before. But he does describe it in his report that he wrote a couple of months later. It may have been removed by someone not associated with the dig. There was one object that he was accused of forging, which was the little painting of the human figure inside the clam shell that we had on exhibit until April. This guy who was a photographer at the Smithsonian at the time, he accused him of forging the artifact. Because that object was found on March 7, they may have used the journal as evidence against this accusation that was levied against Cushing to try to clear his name or something. For whatever reason, that particular volume of his journals was removed. The rest have been published in a book, also by the University Press of Florida. Hopefully, the missing journal is in an archive somewhere, yet to be found.”
But what does Bell think happened to the missing journal?
“I think it was probably misplaced,” Bell reasons. "I think there’s a possibility that it’s still somewhere in archive. But there could be something more nefarious there, I don’t know,” he laughed. "Probably not fair for me to say. But I hope that we find it someday.”
Bell said other journals corroborate Cushing’s story.
"There are other journals that are contemporaneous,” Bell said. "One guy, George Gause, who was a member of the expedition, kept his own journal. He couldn’t spell anything correctly, but you can make out what he meant in his journals. And his journal entry from March 5 said they found a lyon’s image. But he must have meant the Key Marco Cat. I think it’s called the Lion God even in Cushing’s report as the term that Cushing gave it in the field. Gause was just an excavator - he was just listening to what Cushing said. ‘Oh, we found a lion’ so he wrote lyon’s image. So that’s how we know the exact day it was found because even though we don’t have Cushing’s journal, this guy took notes. Mrs. W.D. Collier, who lived here on Marco, kept a diary and recounts some of the findings at the site in the early March window. I believe the findings are authentic, I just don’t know where that journal is. I wish we could find it.”
Through his research, Bell has developed a feel for Cushing and artist Wells Sawyer, who accompanied Cushion on the excavation.
“I think he was brilliant,” Bell said. "He was described by his peers as a genius - and his peers are all generally thought to be geniuses. The fathers of anthropology. He was kind of eccentric and flamboyant, especially in his writing. He had a lot of personality. If I could go back in time and meet historic figures, he would be one I would like to meet. Because he’s such an interesting person. And supposedly a remarkable storyteller.
“He was more an ethnographer than an archeologist. An ethnographer is somebody who studies living cultures - he was an anthropologist. He was one of the first anthropologists because anthropology was a young discipline back in the 1890s, and he was one of the first to do what’s called participant observation, where you go and live with the people that you’re studying. He gained a lot of fame and credibility with the Smithsonian. But he was accused of forging another artifact. He was accused of taking a damaged artifact and basically replicating it to make it like new. You’re supposed to collect it as it’s found and preserve it that way. He did that without saying he did that. That caused him a lot of controversy. But he was an anthropologist generally, and archeology is a subfield of anthropology. But his first big expedition was to Florida to do this. Even then he was innovative in using the grid system to document the site and point out where certain artifacts were found. They found like 2,000 artifacts and they probably documented 20 of them in the grid. He was better than most archeologists at the time, but still not up to what we hope for today. But yeah, he was ahead of his time in a lot of ways.”
Cushing died at 42, just four years after the Key Marco excavation.
"He died in 1900,” Bell said. "There are two accounts of how he died. One is that he choked on a fishbone and died. And the other is that he hemorrhaged. I think that’s more likely. In research, the fishbone story just kind of comes out of the blue in some 1960s documents. The obituaries from the time it happened, say he died of a hemorrhage. He was sickly his entire life."
Wells Sawyer was 33 during the Key Marco excavation. He lived to be 97 years old. Sawyer was an artist and a photographer. He is credited with shooting the first picture of the Key Marco Cat.
“He was known for being romantic,” Bell said of Sawyer. "He was an artist. He goes into fawning detail about the Key Marco Cat's beauty as an artistic masterpiece. He was really enamored with the object; you could tell by the way he writes about it.”
"I don’t know much about his life outside of this expedition,” Bell continues. “It was interesting reading his journal accounts of the expedition. Trying to get into his career as an artist. He was very depressed and anxious about this expedition because they weren’t finding anything good. He was saying, ’this is the worst art I’ve made in my life.’ Around the time they find the cat and these other objects, he writes that ’this is the best work I’ve ever done. It’s really important.’ He was really enjoying it. He went on to have a great career as an artist - painting landscapes mostly.”
The Key Marco Cat remains in remarkably good shape. Especially considering the wooden statue has been displayed for 74 years. Part of that may be due to an innovation of Cushing’s.
“One of the things I researched and wrote about in here is that Cushing, in all likelihood, actually dipped the cat in a glycerin bath,” Bell said. "He perfected it and then probably dipped the cat in it. Because in the Smithsonian’s condition report it said it 'has a previously undocumented wax treatment.’ I found in his correspondence that he is writing to people telling them that he is working on this bath that he wants to dip the Key Marco artifacts in - and that he’s almost got it. Eventually in his writings he says, ‘I’ve finally got it and I’m going to start putting the artifacts in it.' He doesn’t say which artifacts, but because of the writing on the condition report, and you can actually see pieces of a yellow, waxy-looking substance deep in some of the crevices on the cat. So, it’s probably one of the artifacts he put in the bath to try to preserve.”
“Nowadays they have much more scientific ways of doing this,” Bell explains. “They would probably keep objects like this in water until they could be preserved properly. They do that with dugout canoes that they find. But he didn’t write down anything about it, so he doesn’t really suggest that it’s been preserved. Which I don’t know that unethical is the right word, but it’s something you should disclose, at least in museum records. But at the time, that’s just how museums did things. But it’s in such good shape compared to some of the other artifacts - and we don’t know which of those were dipped in the glycerin bath.”
“It’s been on exhibit for more than 74 years out of the 125-plus years that it’s been out of the ground. And it was in rooms where actual sunlight was pouring in. It’s been on display so long that this undocumented treatment that Cushing probably gave it likely has really extended its life and made it last as long as it has.”
Bell said that some people feel the Key Marco Cat belongs permanently on Marco Island.
“Yes,” Bell said, "is the short answer. I feel that if the Smithsonian hadn’t had it for the last century-plus it probably wouldn’t exist in its current condition. Who better to take care of it than the Smithsonian? They have super, highly trained professionals. And a very secure facility, both environmentally and security-wise.”
"It’s a national treasure,” he said. “Yes, it was made on Marco, and it’s great to have it back here. But it really is something for all people to admire. More people have seen it in the Smithsonian than are ever going to see it on Marco here at this museum—even though we had 30,000 people come through in 2019. I mean millions of people visited the Smithsonian during the decades it was on display there. It was on display back in the 1950s and 1960s.”
"It’s great to have it back,” Bells concludes. "But someday it will have to go home. Frankly, they’re better equipped to take care of it than we are."
Bell will be doing a book signing at the Marco Island Historical Museum on Thursday, September 23, 2021, at 5:00 PM. The hardcover book is available now at the museum’s gift shop for $26.95.