The Dog That Stood Trial for Murder

Mar 21, 2016 - by Nolan Moore

In 1921, San Franciscans witnessed one of the weirdest trials in U.S. history.  A purebred Airedale named Dormie was accused of viciously murdering 14 cats.  Only instead of winding up in the pound, Dormie found himself in a California courtroom, facing a jury of his (human) peers.  Of course, in the grand scheme of history, animal trials aren’t that uncommon.  This disturbing practice dates back to the Middle Ages when rats had lawyers, and pigs were hung for murder.

by Nolan Moore 

San Francisco has seen its fair share of murderers over the years, from the Zodiac to the Night Stalker. During the early ‘70s, the city was ground zero for the infamous “Zebra” killings, and before he became the poster boy for evil, Charles Manson spent 1967 hanging out in Haight-Ashbury. 

During the Roaring Twenties, the City by the Bay was home to yet another killer, only this one butchered his victims in broad daylight, spent his spare time gnawing on bones, and was completely covered in hair. He was Dormie the Airedale Terrier, Frisco’s most notorious cat killer. 

Only when Dormie was finally tracked down, this bloodthirsty Bingley wasn’t sent to the local pound. Instead, he wound up in a California courtroom, facing a judge and 12 of his (human) peers. Over the next several days, these incredulous jurors would decide whether Dormie lived to bark another day, or if he’d get a one-way ticket to the great big dog kennel in the sky. 

The story begins in 1921, the same year Hollywood superstar Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was tried for the death of actress Virginia Rappe. Sensational news stories aside, it was a run-of-the-mill December day, and Sunbeam the Persian-Angora cat was relaxing in her backyard, watching her kittens and lounging about like any other ordinary feline. Her owner, Mrs. Marjorie Ingals, was home that day and happened to look outside when something brown, black, and furry scurried underneath the fence and shot across her yard…straight for Sunbeam’s kittens. 

In a matter of seconds, the dog dispatched three of Sunbeam’s children and then turned its pointy teeth on the mother. According to Mrs. Ingals, the canine in question locked its jaws around Sunbeam’s neck, gave her a few violent shakes, and then dropped the battered body in the ground. It was a bloody and brutal attack…and the latest in a long line of cat killings. Sunbeam was just one of 14 victims, all murdered by Dormie the Airedale Terrier. 

Unfortunately for this homicidal hound, Marjorie Ingals recognized the dogs, and she was the kind of woman who held grudges. 

Dormie’s owner was a well-to-do car dealer named Eaton McMillan, and some wonder if a bit of class envy contributed to Ingals’s decision to seek justice. Dormie himself was the product of prize-winning parentage, but regardless of Ingal’s real motivations, a neighborhood meeting was convened, and McMillan was faced with an ultimatum. Have Dormie put to death or face the wrath of the California legal system. 

When McMillan refused to put his pet down, the businessman was charged with a misdemeanor. Back in the ‘20s, if you owned a “dangerous or vicious” canine, you could be issued a fine, and your dog would be sent down the Green Mile. Only McMillan wasn’t going to pay any fee.He pointed out that he’d purchased a license for Dormie, and that meant the terrier could legally wander around San Francisco, wherever and whenever he pleased.McMillan argued that meant he wasn’t responsible for Dormie’s behavior whenever the dog was out and about. 

On top of that, the car dealer said he never encouraged Dormie to kill any cats. 

Of course, McMillan wasn’t going to abandon his dog to the California justice system. Instead of washing his hands, he hired a defense lawyer named James F. Brennan. When the case made its way to Police Judge Lile T. Jacks’s courtroom, the attorney stood up, looked straight at the Honorable Judge Jacks, and asked for trial by jury. 

Thus began one of the craziest cases in the history of American jurisprudence. 

A Long History of Animals in the Dock 

While the idea of a dog trial might strike us as ludicrous, it really isn’t all that unusual, in the grand scheme of world history, anyway. During the Middle Ages, animals were often held accountable for breaking human laws. It didn’t matter if the defendant had fur, feathers, or scales. If it committed a “crime,” it ended up in court. 

Between 824 A.D. and the 1700s, animal trials were all the rage in Europe. Everything from dogs to horses to eels was regularly dragged into the halls of justice. More often than not, they were sentenced to death. 

In 1314, a bull was hanged for murder. In 1474, a rooster was burned for allegedly laying an egg, quite the abomination. Believe it or not, in 1595, three dolphins were sentenced to death in Marseilles. Unfortunately for the morbidly curious, no one knows why or how they were executed. 

While sheep and weevils often found themselves in trouble, the number one offender was the pig. That’s probably because hogs were everywhere in the Middle Ages, and they weren’t picky eaters. In 1379, three pernicious porkers murdered a French farmer while their four-legged buddies egged them on with “cries and aggressive actions.” When the case went to court, all the pigs were tried, but their owner convinced the Duke of Burgundy to pardon the bystanders. 

Things got even weirder in 1386 in the French town of Falaise. After snacking on a baby, the offending hog was dressed as a human, complete with gloves, pants, and a face mask. Then after a speedy trial, the unfortunate swine was hung by his neck until he was dead. 

Of course, things didn’t always end poorly for the pigs. In 1547, a sow and her babies were charged with “murdering” a young boy, but while the mother was hung from a tree by her hind legs, the piglets were released “on account of their youth and the corrupting influence of their mother….” 

Donkeys were also occasionally sparred from the gallows. In 1750, a jackass was charged with bestiality, but after a kindhearted prior testified the animal was quite “virtuous,” the court decided to free the poor beast. The offending fellow, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so lucky. 

However, there was a fate far worse than execution. If an animal ended up in ecclesiastical court (run by church officials), it might find itself excommunicated. This particular punishment was sure to bring down God’s wrath. Perhaps the most famous excommunication case took place in 16th century France. A pack of rats in the Autun province were charged with “feloniously” eating a barley crop, and if found guilty, they would be cut off from God’s grace. 

Luckily for these rodents, they were defended by the Clarence Darrow of the day, Bartholomew Chassenee. Unwilling to see the rats damned for all eternity, Bartholomew reached into his bag of legal tricks and came up with a doozy. He argued the court couldn’t excommunicate the rats if the animals weren’t summoned to court first. However, it was nearly impossible to alert all his clients, plus if they left their hiding spots, they might be eaten by hungry cats. 

Amazingly, the judge agreed, and the case was dropped. 

So what drove people to prosecute their pets and livestock? Was it to enforce man’s dominion over the earth? Was it just to give medieval lawyers something to do? Or perhaps it was a way of coping with the horrors of everyday life. When something bad happens, people want justice, and sometimes the scapegoat is literally a goat. 

 Maybe that’s why, hundreds of years later, Marjorie Ingals took Dormie to court. This dog murdered her precious pet, and he needed to pay. Whatever the reason, whether it was revenge or just old fashioned jealousy, the 1921 Airedale trial was part of a time-honored, incredibly bizarre tradition. Only instead of taking the case seriously like their European ancestors, most San Franciscans thought Dormie’s case was downright hysterical. 

Dormie's Trial 

When Dormie’s assistant, James F. Brennan, demanded a jury trial for his furry client, no one was more surprised than Assistant District Attorney John Orcutt, who assumed this was an open and shut case. After all, there were 16 witnesses ready to testify and, come on, this was a dog for crying out loud. Only Brennan wasn’t backing down.  He wanted a trial by jury, and in fact, he wanted a panel made up completely of canines.   

Orcutt could only take so much foolishness. He replied that most dogs were better than people, and since Dormie was clearly a renegade, he deserved to stand before 12 human beings. 

The trial started on December 21, 1921, and the courtroom was absolutely packed. As it turns out, Dormie was a very popular dog around town, and a multitude of children turned out to witness the proceedings. The kids were so invested in Dormie’s case that they actually took up a collection to pay for his legal expenses. 

Brennan’s first move was to discredit the prosecution’s primary witness, Marjorie Ingals. Hoping to show Mrs. Ingals was unreliable when it came to doggie identification, Brennan paraded all the neighborhood dogs through the courtroom, asking Ingals to pick out Sunbeam’s assailant. He brought in a water spaniel, a mastiff, a Russian wolfhound, and several Airedales, including Dormie’s brother. 

Brennan’s strategy backfired slightly after Mrs. Ingals correctly identified Dormie, but Brennan quickly pointed out that Dormie had been escorted into the courtroom by a police officer. Judge Jacks conceded the point and told jurors to disregard the line-up business entirely. 

After asking Mrs. Ingals if Sunbeam had provoked the attack, Brennan called in his first character witness. His name was Rowdy, another Airedale Terrier who just so happened to be the brother of President Warren G. Harding’s presidential pet. Over the next few minutes, Brennan revealed Rowdy was best friends with a Persian cat named Mary Ann, and after the feline passed away, Rowdy supposedly went into mourning for eight days.In other words, Airedales were far from vicious cat killers. 

As you might imagine, the newspaper had a field day with Dormie’s trial.  According to the Chicago Tribune, Dormie was “being persecuted by the sausage trust,” was being sued by a female dog for “breach of promise,” and was causing “consternation throughout the fashionable Burlingame kennels by threatening to expose the inner secrets of the entire upper strata of dogdom.” He also quoted Dormie as describing San Francisco’s cat population as “exceedingly catty.” 

Some reporter was clearly enjoying his job. 

However, not everyone thought Dormie’s trial was an excuse to make bad puns. On January 21, 1922, The Washington Times ran a letter from a concerned citizen named Harold A. Israel. According to Mr. Israel, the purpose of a trial was to scare future criminals from committing crimes. However, Mr. Israel wisely pointed out that an “execution of a dog can serve no such purpose.” It didn’t matter if the jury found Dormie innocent or guilty because “the dogs of the land will persist in their doggish ways and chase the cats.” 

It seems most of the jury sided with Mr. Israel. After deliberating the case, eleven jurors voted to set the puppy free. Only one thought Dormie should be put to sleep, and the result was a hung jury. Seizing the opportunity, James Brennan asked the court to dismiss the case, and not surprisingly, Judge Jacks agreed. Not only that, he also struck down the law that demanded the death penalty for “vicious and dangerous” dogs. As he put it, licensed dogs could go wherever they wanted, and cats simply needed to stay out of their way.  

Perhaps he had an Airedale of his own back home. 

Sadly we don’t know what happened to Dormie after the trial. Did he return to his serial killing ways? Or did he become a productive member of canine society? Perhaps we’ll never know. But while the Airedale case seems like one big joke, it might actually prove incredibly important to any future cases involving murderous mutts. 

In an article for Psychology Today, Professor Stanley Cornen of the University of British Columbia points out Dormie’s trial may have set several unique legal precedents. The most notable, of course, is that dogs now have the right to trial by jury. The case also implies dogs can call character witness, doggie death penalties can be challenged, and that cats have absolutely no legal rights. 

Sure, it sounds like a prank, but legal cases are often decided by referring to earlier decisions. Perhaps someday a lawyer might point back to 1921 and use Dormie’s trial as a way to get yet another killer canine off the hook. In other words, you better keep your cats indoors. 



The Jasper Weekly Courier – January 20, 1922 

The Seattle Star—December 21, 1921 

The Chicago Tribune – December 18, 1921 

The Washington Times – January 21, 1922 

Psychology Today 





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