A Black Cat Crossing Your Path Signifies That the Animal Is Going Somewhere

Groucho Marx? Jack Oakie? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Encountering a black cat may bring you good luck or bad luck according to a complicated rule dictated by superstitious beliefs. The nature of the omen depends on whether the cat was traveling from left to right or the reverse. It also depends on whether the cat was moving toward you or away. I prefer the simple analysis credited to the famous comedian Groucho Marx:

A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.

Did Groucho really say this? I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: This question is difficult to resolve. The earliest citation found by QI occurred in January 1931 when the quip was ascribed to the popular actor Jack Oakie. Yet, in July 1931 the joke was credited to Groucho Marx. Currently, Oakie is the leading candidate for authorship although future research may switch the attribution.

“The Marion Star” of Marion, Ohio published a piece about Oakie in January 1931 that included six jokes about superstitious beliefs. Here were three of them. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Oakie, you know, doesn’t believe in signs and superstitions and has drawn up a list of good and bad signs which can’t fail. Here are a few of them:

“A black cat crossing in front of a person signifies that the animal is going somewhere.

“Throwing salt over one’s shoulder is likely to give the impression that the wearer has dandruff.

“Thirteen is unlucky at a dinner when the host has only twelve chops.

The original phrasing of the black cat joke differed a bit from the common modern version.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In July 1931 “The Salt Lake Telegram” of Salt Lake City, Utah, 2 and “The Montana Standard” of Butte, Montana printed an article titled “Groucho Marx Discourses On Superstition” which included the following remark from the comedian: 3

“Now, a lot of folks have foolish meanings for signs and omens. What this country needs, besides a good five-cent cigar, are more practical interpretations on signs.

Groucho stated that he had worked out several interpretations. The six quips from the earlier 1931 article were contained within the list of fifteen jokes provided by Groucho. Here were the first four:

“Rapping on wood is a sure sign that one’s knuckles will be sore.

“A black cat crossing in front of a person signifies that the animal is going somewhere.

“Friday is a bad day for those who dislike fish.

“Throwing salt over one’s shoulder is likely to give the impression that the wearer has dandruff.

The articles about Oakie and Groucho mentioned their current movies: “The Gang Buster” and “Monkey Business”, respectively. Both films were created at Paramount Studios, and it is possible that a studio publicist or press agent who was shared between the two figures supplied the humorous text to newspapers to obtain publicity.

In 1936 a Tampa, Florida newspaper printed “Groucho’s Own Signs And Omens” which was very similar to the July 1931 article, but the black cat jest employed a shorter phrasing: 4

A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.

In 1977 “An Eccentric Guide To the United States” by James Dale Davidson used the saying immediately above credited to Groucho as a section epigraph. 5

In 1988 a letter to the editor of a Sunbury, Pennsylvania paper contained the following: 6

Comedian Groucho Marx had a way of changing a superstitious expression into one that is both amusing and authentic; for example, “A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”

In conclusion, QI tentatively ascribes this joke to Jack Oakie because he received credit in the earliest citation in January 1931. It is possible that it was crafted by an anonymous comic commissioned by Paramount Studios, and the organization sent it to newspapers for publicity. Groucho Marx received credit by July 1931, and it is conceivable that he created it. If he did create it then it entered circulation before he could employ it with a journalist.

Image Notes: Picture of a black cat from Skitterphoto at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to faktoids with a k whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to Ed and Elsy for their interest in this topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1931 January 15, The Marion Star, Theater News and Reviews: Jack Oakie Spends Pleasant Pastime Kidding Gangsters by Hallie Houck, Quote Page 16, Column 4 and 5, Marion, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1931 July 11, The Salt Lake Telegram, Groucho Marx Discourses On Superstition, Quote Page 5, Column 7, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1931 July 12, The Montana Standard, Groucho Marx Discourses On Superstition, Quote Page 7, Column 8, Butte, Montana. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1936 November 1, Tampa Sunday Tribune, Groucho’s Own Signs And Omens, Section 3, Quote Page 10, Column 4, Tampa, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1977, An Eccentric Guide To the United States by James Dale Davidson, Quote Page 127, A Berkley Windhover Book: Berkley Publishing Corporation. New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1988 May 13, The Daily Item, Section: Letters to the editor, Letter date: May 11, 1988, Letter from: Wesley C. Smeal of New Berlin, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Sunbury, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)