An (Almost) Comprehensive History of Rat Kings

Musées of Strasbourg, M. Bertola
Musées of Strasbourg, M. Bertola

Behold the rat king!

A ball of furry fury, a rat king occurs when the tails of rodents become twisted, wrapped, and warped into a knot so impossible that not even the world's most loyal Boy Scout could untangle it. Rat kings have been reported since the mid-16th century (almost entirely within Germany), and everything about them—from their name, to their cause, to their very existence—remains suspended in mystery.

To start, the origin of the term rat king is hazy. It may be a mistaken translation of the French rouet de rats, a "wheel of rats" (rat king in French is roi-de-rats). But this is an unlikely etymology. More likely, rat king harkens to the German Rattenkönig—an insult for the pope, but also a term used to describe elderly rats. (It was believed that senior rats would sit on the tails of younger rats to make their nests, and that, if the tails tangled, the elder rat would survive by having its meals delivered by the rodent world's proletariat. As the New York Tribune described in 1857, a rat king, “like so many kings, princes, and democratic officer holders, [depended] upon the labouring classes for support.”)

The rat king's existence is debatable; while there are several preserved specimens, they might be fakes perpetrated by hoaxers who wanted to make a quick buck. (Don't put it past our ancestors: “In medieval times, some sleazy European merchants glued bat wings to lizards and sold them as ‘dragons,’” notes Quail Bell magazine.) Owing to a lack of solid contemporary evidence, zoologists remain skeptical of rat kings—but open to the possibility that they are freak accidents.

Other rodents, after all, do get tied up in each other’s business. In 1951, a "squirrel king" appeared in a South Carolina zoo. In 2013, six more tangled squirrels were saved by veterinarians in Canada. And just this year in Maine, four baby squirrels were recorded on video with their tails linked like "a giant dreadlock," according to the man who discovered them.

If real, how do rat kings occur? Some theories are more crackpot than others: In the 17th and 18th centuries, naturalists suggested the tails had been woven during birth, glued by the afterbirth. Others suggested that healthy rats deliberately tangled the tails of weaker rodents to make a nest. Both theories are unlikely.

The most plausible explanation is that black rats—which have long, supple tails and reside in close quarters during winter—may come in contact with a sticky or frozen substance such as sebum (secreted from the critters’ skin), sap, food, feces, frozen urine, or frozen blood. The bonding agent may solidify as the animals slumber. Once the rodents realize their tails are glued, they might create a tighter knot as they attempt to wriggle free.

This explanation has a ring of truth: Most rat kings were discovered during the winter or a frosty shoulder season, and they’re usually found in a tight shelter.

Over the past five centuries, there have been 30 to 60 recorded rat king sightings. In 1973, the biologist and writer Maarten ‘t Hart tracked down all of them. Using Hart’s delightful book Rats as our primary guide, we now present a timeline of nearly every recorded rat king sighting since the 16th century.

(Note: We excluded approximately a dozen sightings that Hart argued were dubious, and we're certain that more instances exist. But, to be frank, after seeing the photographs below, you might understand why this timeline is the sort we’d prefer to never have to update.)

Rat King from Sabucus's 'Emblemata'
Rat King from Sabucus's Emblemata

1576: Johannes Sambucus, a Hungarian historian, releases the fourth edition of his popular Emblemata—essentially a 16th century picture book—called Emblemata cum aliquot nummis antiqui operis. In it, Sambucus describes how servants in Antwerp, Belgium discovered seven rats with knotted tails. (The same volume contains stories involving unicorns, so take that for what it’s worth.)

July 1683: In Strasbourg, France, a man named Würtzen discovers in his cellar six “strikingly large rats with their tails so intertwined and fused that they could not be separated without injury,” a contemporary report states. The varmints are exhibited at the town hall, and an illustrated print of the braided bunch is published in the Mercure Galant.

1690: After hearing his floorboards squeak for all the wrong reasons, a bigwig in Kiel, Germany, orders boiling water poured down a rathole. Four rodents scamper out, but when the squealing continues, the homeowner decides to remove the floor tiles. He discovers 14 tangled rats, which are promptly dumped in a privy.

1694: In Krossen, Germany, 15 fused rats are found at a mill. They are killed with boiling water and strung from an oak tree, giving passersby a chance to gawk.

1705: A lump of snarled rats is discovered in Keula, Germany. It’s pickled in alcohol and later disappears.

1683 rat king
The 1683 rat king, as illustrated by Wilhelm Schmuck
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

July 1719: A rodent tumbleweed—population nine—appears in Roßla, Germany. (The naturalist Johann Heinrich Linck supposedly makes engravings of the monster.)

1722: Residents in the village of Dieskau, Germany, find another reason to avoid eating their vegetables when 12 tangled critters are found rooting through a barrel of peas. Euthanized by a cascade of boiling water, the rats are taken to Dresden’s Royal Natural History Collection. In 1849, this ratty rosette is presumed lost in a fire.

1722: A writhing cluster of rats (number unknown) grips Leipzig, Germany. The gnarled specimen is killed, pickled in a jar of alcohol, and paraded through the city. It’s later mummified in a private museum. Like any good mummy, it mysteriously goes missing.

1725: Eleven rats of various sizes—said to be a momma-rat and its young—are found entangled in Dorndorf, Germany.

1727: In a banner year for rat kings, naturalist Johann Linck reports that a whopping four rat kings are sighted in Germany. Hart, however, claims that only one of these is mildly credible: the rat king of the quaint mountainside town of Wernigerode, which is said to be preserved by a local count.

1748: German zoologist Johann Goeze reports that a gross ball of 18 rats has turned up in the town of Gross-Baullhausen, Germany.

An illustration of a Rat King from Henri Coupin's 1903 book Les Animaux Excentriques
An illustration from Henri Coupin's 1903 book Les Animaux Excentriques
Public Domain

1748: A lump of 10 plump male rats appears at a monastery in the spa town of Bad Langensalza, Germany. The sanctity of life apparently does not extend to rat kings: It’s killed, dunked in alcohol, and, like the other specimens, later goes M.I.A.

1759: A tinsmith in Arnstadt, Germany, is startled to find a buffet of six snagged vermin near the town market. The discovery becomes the subject of five oil paintings, four of which were lost during World War II. (According to Hart, the only surviving artwork is hung in Arnstadt’s Castle Museum.)

1772: Twelve twist-tied rats are discovered in Erfurt, Germany; the specimen is later illustrated by J. J. Bellerman in his 1820 book Ueber das Bisher Bezweifelte Dasein des Rattenkönigs, or On the Hitherto Doubted Existence of Rat Kings. (For those curious, the book does not sell very well.)

December 1774: Christian Kaiser, a miller’s assistant, finds 16 snarled rats in Lindenau, Germany, and drags them to an artist named Johan Adam Fassauer, requesting a painting. Instead, Fassauer begins exhibiting the rats to the public for a fee. When Kaiser realizes that the painter is profiting off his discovery, he demands for the specimen’s return. (According to Hart, “the end of the story is unknown,” but other reports suggest the dispute led to one of the strangest custody battles a courtroom has ever witnessed.)

1793: A Gordian knot of 10 rats appears in a stable in Wundersleben, Germany.

1793: In Brunswick, Germany, seven entangled rodents make a surprise visit to a local privy.

1810: Brunswick celebrates back-to-back rats! After days of interminable squeaking, a well-to-do citizen tears up his floorboards only to find a tangled jumble of seven rodents. “All of their tails had been joined together so firmly and so inextricably that they could not be pulled apart,” writes Hart.

December 1822: A thresher in Döllstädt finds two gobs of rats—one consisting of 28 rodents, the other 14—inside the main beam of a barn. “All 42 seemed to be very hungry, and squeaked continuously but looked perfectly healthy,” reported zoologist Alfred Brehm. “All were of equal and moreover of such considerable size that they must have been born during the last spring.” The rats are paraded through town before being thrown unceremoniously onto a dungheap.

Thuringia Rat King contains 32 rodents.
The 1828 rat king from Thuringia, which contains 32 rodents, is the largest specimen in the world.
Naturkundliches Museum Mauritianum Altenburg, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

May 1828: Doing spring cleaning, Miller Steinbruck of Thuringia, Germany, finds a scorched clump of 32 rodents in his chimney. The terrifying rat king is today held at the Mauritianum Museum in Altenburg, Germany.

May 1829: An artist gets creative with a coil of eight rats discovered in Flein, Germany. “The individuals constituting this king were not arranged in the usual circle but looked like a bunch of flowers with the tails representing the knotted stems,” Hart writes. Today it’s preserved at the Stuttgart Natural History Museum.

1837: A dirty dozen appears in Zaisenhausen, Germany, prompting the discoverer to call upon a pastor. The holy man gives the sample to a local museum director, but when the director dies, he brings any knowledge of the rat king's whereabouts to his grave.

1841: Half a dozen knotted rats appear in Bonn, Germany. They are preserved for more than a century at the University Zoological Institute, but it becomes one of many museum casualties during World War II.

March 1844: A smorgasbord of seven rats surfaces in the small Bavarian town of Leutershuasen, Germany.

1870: In Keula, Germany, a rat king of unknown number is discovered and preserved, but it, too, disappears during World War II.

February 1880: After hearing unusual squeaks from high up a wall, a postman in Düsseldorf, Germany uncovers a skein of eight rats, which is photographed and preserved, but (you guessed it!) is lost during World War II.

Illustration of a rat king from Picture Magazine
Illustration of a rat king from volume 6 of The Picture Magazine, 1895.
Public Domain

1883: In an attempt to determine if rat kings are a hoax, German zoologist Hermann Landois ties the tails of 10 dead brown rats together. According to Hart, the results must have been disappointing. “Anyone who ties up the tails of dead rats (I have tried it several times) will obtain something that in no way resembles the kings found in nature: the knots are too neat.” But Hart does not discount that there may be frauds out there: “[It was] lucrative to own a king, and so people began tying tails together. Kusthardt (1915) reports that many such sham kings were exhibited at fairs and similar gatherings.”

April 1883: After loud squeals emerge from underneath a merchant’s toilet in Lüneburg, Germany, a motley knot of eight rats is discovered. Like many others, it is purportedly preserved but lost during the Second World War.

1889: A young rat king numbering five or six turns up in Obermodern-Zutzendorf, Germany. Reports of the discovery make it to England, where the The Newcastle Weekly Courant spreads the myth that, like royalty, the rats were sustained by the charitable contributions of lowlier rodents: “The rats were in the very best conditions—conclusive that astonishingly good care had been bestowed upon them by their more fortunate rat brethren.”

Strasbourg rat king from 1894.
The 1894 Strasbourg rat king
Musées of Strasbourg, M. Bertola

April 1894: A frozen ratcicle containing 10 rodents—many of which are pocked with teeth marks and gnawed legs—is found under a hay-bale in Dellfeld, Germany. You can visit the specimen at the Strasbourg Zoological Museum.

November 1899: A ratpack of seven crosses the border and visits Courtalain, France. It’s currently kept at the Musee de Chateaudun, a two-hour train ride from Paris.

May 1905: Seven young rodents are reported in Hamburg, Germany, now preserved in the city’s Natural History Museum. (The next year, a lucky seven strikes again in le Vernet, France.)

January 1907: A potpourri of 10 black rats appears in Rudersdorf. It is preserved.

October 1914: An adolescent rat king is discovered (alive) in Moers, Germany. It is preserved (not so alive) and later disappears.

Courtalain rat king from 1899.
The 1899 Courtalain rat king, now preserved in the Musee de Chateaudun.

March 1918: The rat king takes a vacation to Bogor, Java! Not only is this weave of 10 rats one of the few reported outside of Central Europe, it’s the only report not to involve black rats.

1930s: In New Zealand, a cluster of eight contorted rats drops from the rafters of a shipping office. Clerks beat it generously with a pitchfork and then, also generously, donate it to the Otago Museum, where it now resides. (The tails, the museum discovered, were tangled with horsehair.)

October 1937: Hark! A farmer’s servant discovers nine gnarled rats in a starling’s nest in Büngern, Germany.

1940: In what’s believed to be the Lictenplatte district of Offenbach, Germany, a king of five young rats is found squirming in a pigsty.

June 1949: In Berlin, Germany, three separate rats are tossed into a bucket on the evening of June 2. The next morning, the three rats have mysteriously tangled into a knot. Herr Otto Janack, an official with the local rodent extermination department, disentangles the rodents and comes away thinking that it’s all a bad joke—or one of nature’s weird, twisted miracles.

1951: A rat king of four adults is discovered in Châlons-sur-Marne, France (now renamed Châlons-en-Champagne).

The Limburg rat king of 1955.
The Limburg rat king of 1955, now displayed at the Museum of Maastricht.

1955: The Natural History Museum of Maastricht picks up a crowd-pleasing specimen: a seven-strong rat king found in Limburg, Netherlands.

1961: According to a Russian-language journal article about hollow-dwelling birds, a rat king of unknown size appears in Lithuania.

February 1963: A Dutch farmer in Rucphen, Netherlands, hears a loud squeal and follows the noise to a pile of bean sticks in his barn. When he notices a rat, he kills it and attempts to pull it from the pile. It refuses to budge—until the farmer realizes that six more rodents are connected to the original rat. These, too, are exterminated and the specimen is later X-rayed.

1966: A man by the name of Wierts attempts to make his own rat king by gluing the tails of six live albino lab rats. When the animals attempted to wriggle free, their tails became entangled in a knot. Wierts then anesthetized the rats and removed the glue to see if they remained knotted like a pretzel ... and they did.

The Vendée rat king of 1986
The Vendée rat king of 1986, now held at the Natural History of Museum in Nantes, France.
© Patrick JEAN / Muséum de Nantes, France

1986: A roi-de-rats of nine turns up in Vendée, France. Today you can see it in the Natural History Museum in Nantes.

2005: In Saru, Estonia, a farmer discovers a cluster of 16 rats—nine of which are alive—in a shed, their tails tangled by frozen sand. It is taken to the Natural History Museum at the University of Tartu, where it is preserved in alcohol. (It’s reported that two other rat kings were discovered in Estonia in the 20th century, one of which contained 18 live rats [PDF]!)

The Saru, Estonia rat king of 2005
The Saru, Estonia rat king of 2005 at the Natural History Museum at the University of Tartu.
Permission of Andrei Miljutin

Texas’s Magnolia Hotel—a Reputed Paranormal Hotspot—Will Be Opening Its Doors to Overnight Guests

iStock/THEPALMER
iStock/THEPALMER

Those who view The Shining’s Overlook Hotel as a desirable vacation spot now have the chance to make their spooky dreams come true. The Magnolia Hotel—supposedly haunted by a total of 13 ghosts—will soon open its doors to overnight visitors.

Located in Seguin, Texas, the hotel’s history can be traced back to 1840, when Texas Ranger James Campbell first constructed a log cabin on the property. The cabin later expanded into a hotel, which saw some success in the mid-1800s and early 1900s. Unfortunately, the hotel was then abandoned for many years, and was almost lost to extreme disrepair. In an effort to save it, members of Preserve Texas placed the building on the organization's Most Endangered Historic Places list along with several other sites. It eventually captured the attention of current owners Jim Ghedi and Erin Wallace Ghedi, who bought the Magnolia Hotel in March 2013.

It didn’t take long for the Ghendis to realize something strange was going on. According to Country Living, the couple began experiencing supernatural events as soon as repairs commenced. Photos showed strange figures climbing out of mirrors; doors would be heard slamming by unknown forces; and shadowy outlines could be glimpsed hovering in doorways.

It’s no surprise the Magnolia Hotel is haunted given its gruesome history. Not too long after he built the original log cabin, James Campbell was reportedly killed by Native Americans during a trip to San Antonio. Three decades later, notorious Texan serial killer Wilhelm "William" Faust traveled to the nearby town of New Braunfels in order to kill his wife. He instead mistakenly butchered Emma Voeckler—the 12-year-old girl who was unfortunately sharing a room with his wife at the time—and fled to the Magnolia Hotel before his arrest. Some claim one of the ghosts is poor Emma, eternally bound to the area where her killer hid directly after her death.

The hotel’s website states that overnight reservations will open on August 12 on a first-come, first-served basis. Accommodations include fully restored suites consisting of two bedrooms, a full bath with a walk-in shower, and a non-cooking kitchen. Guests and non-guests alike can also partake in the hotel’s guided ghost tours, which the site warns are “not for the faint of heart.”

8 Facts About Ripley's Believe It or Not!

Kevin Thackwell, also known as Clothes Pin Man, shows his unique talent on Ripley''s Believe It or Not!
Kevin Thackwell, also known as Clothes Pin Man, shows his unique talent on Ripley''s Believe It or Not!
Getty Images

For more than a century, people have considered the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise synonymous with facts, figures, and people too bizarre to be true. But the brand—which was conceived by cartoonist Robert Ripley in 1918 and originally took the form of a newspaper strip before being adapted into other media—prided itself on presenting spectacular stories of the world’s hidden wonders that held up to scrutiny. At one point, 80 million people read Ripley’s strip, which was syndicated to 360 newspapers around the world. The franchise has since grown to include television series and specials, museums, books, and even aquariums.

To commemorate the new Ripley’s Believe It or Not! television series hosted by Bruce Campbell currently airing Sundays at 9 p.m. on the Travel Channel, we’ve rounded up some of the more intriguing trivia behind the original fun fact gatherers of the 20th century.

1. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! was originally titled Champs and Chumps.

Robert Ripley's art for his 'Champs and Chumps' cartoon from December 19, 1918 is pictured
Ripley's Believe It or Not!

From the time he was a child growing up in Santa Rosa, California, Robert Ripley—who was born 1890—wanted to be an artist. He contributed cartoons to his school newspaper and yearbook before making his first professional sale to Life magazine in 1908. The following year, he moved to San Francisco, where he secured a job as a sports cartoonist for local newspapers. Urged on by sports writers like Jack London (Call of the Wild), Ripley decided to head to New York and take a job at the New York Globe, where his sports cartoons received both local and national attention in syndication.

During one slow sports news day, Ripley decided to dash off an illustration detailing unusual human feats he had read about, including a man who had held his breath for over six minutes; he called it Champs and Chumps. He revisited the idea again in 1919 and once more in 1920 with a new name: Believe It or Not. The Globe also sent him on trips to the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp as well as around the world, the latter resulting in a strip he dubbed Ripley’s Rambles ‘Round the World. In 1926, he was working at the New York Evening Post when he decided to resurrect the strip. This time, it stuck around. Readers became fanatical about Ripley’s odd collection of arcane facts and both the syndicated strip and its author grew into worldwide sensations.

2. Most of Robert Ripley’s facts were discovered by one man in New York.

The cover to a 'Ripley's Believe It or Not!' book is pictured
Amazon

Although Ripley lived up to his reputation as a globetrotter, traveling everywhere from Tripoli to India to Africa, many of the facts presented in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! were not the result of his expeditions but of one man combing through books in the New York Public Library. In 1923, Ripley met Norbert Pearlroth while searching for someone who could read articles and journals in foreign languages. Eventually, Pearlroth—who was fluent in 14 languages—spent upwards of seven days a week at the library excavating details for Ripley to use in his strip or information he could take with him during a fact-finding mission. He was so relentless that library officials sometimes had to ask him to leave at closing time. Pearlroth worked for the Ripley’s brand as its sole researcher for an astounding 52 years before retiring in 1975. He died in 1983 at the age of 89.

3. Ripley discovered "the Star-Spangled Banner" wasn’t actually the national anthem.

Robert Ripley's art for a November 3, 1929  'Ripley's Believe It or Not!' cartoon depicting the origin of the 'Star-Spangled Banner' is pictured
Ripley's Believe It or Not!

Always invested in semantics, in 1929 Ripley discovered that "The Star-Spangled Banner” had never actually been formally adopted as the country’s national anthem. That fact had merely been assumed, never confirmed. The ensuing outrage led to 5 million people signing a petition that was forwarded to Congress, who finally recognized the song in an official capacity by introducing a bill President Herbert Hoover signed into law in 1931.

4. Ripley became one of the most successful cartoonists of his era.

Robert Ripley poses for a photo in front of his drawing board circa the late 1940s
Cartoonist Robert Ripley poses for a photo in front of his drawing board circa the late 1940s.
Ripley's Believe It or Not!

The wide appeal of Ripley’s work wasn’t lost on the media. Following the 1929 publication of a book that compiled both new and original strips, Ripley was inundated with offers. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst hired him for his King Features Syndicate label at a salary of $1200 plus profit-sharing, which amounted to over $100,000 a year. Radio shows, books, and lectures added to the total. Ripley was earning over $500,000 annually in the 1930s and at the height of the Great Depression. In 1936, a newspaper poll found that Ripley was more popular among Americans than actor James Cagney, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or aviator Charles Lindbergh.

5. Ripley was a rather unusual man.

Robert Ripley poses with two Balinese dancers
Robert Ripley poses for a photo with two Balinese dancers.
Ripley's Believe It or Not!

Befitting his curious nature, Ripley himself was a bit of an anomaly. While researching a 1940 profile of Ripley for The New Yorker, writer Geoffrey T. Hellman jotted down various observations in his notebook. Among them: Ripley was found of working in only his bathrobe and wearing his dead mother’s wedding ring; he owned a fish who could only swim backwards, a shrunken head from Tibet, and a whale penis; he could not drive; and he seemingly amassed a number of women from around the world to live with him in what might be described as a harem. At one point, Ripley’s housekeeper observed that of everything in Ripley’s Mamaroneck, New York mansion, “The most unusual thing in the house is Mr. Ripley.”

6. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz had his first published work in the Ripley’s strip.

Wall art featuring 'Peanuts' characters Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Linus are pictured
brian kong, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Before Charles Schulz found acclaim in newspaper pages for his Peanuts strip, he got his start in Ripley’s strip. In 1937, when Schulz was 15 years old, he submitted artwork featuring his dog, Spike, claiming that the canine could eat unappetizing fare like pins and tacks. The strip credited Schulz as “Sparky,” his nickname. Spike also bore a passing resemblance to another, more well-known pet: Charlie Brown’s pet Snoopy.

7. You can visit a number of Ripley’s Odditoriums across the globe.

Magician and escape artist Albert Cadabra performs at the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium in New York in 2013
Robin Marchant, Getty Images

In 1933, Ripley displayed some of his more sensational artifacts for crowds at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. Though the exhibit of human marvels—including a live demonstration of a man who could blow smoke out of his eyes and another who could turn his head 180 degrees—was temporary, a permanent location debuted in New York in 1939. Since then, a number of Ripley Odditoriums have opened in San Francisco, Ontario, and Baltimore. There are currently over 30 locations in 10 countries worldwide.

8. Ripley died a somewhat ironic death.

A bust of Robert Ripley sits on display at the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium in Grand Prairie, Texas
A bust of Robert Ripley sits on display at the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium in Grand Prairie, Texas.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Many people recognize the Ripley’s brand from a series of television shows, including versions hosted by Jack Palance, Dean Cain, and now Bruce Campbell. But Ripley himself was the host of the first iteration, which debuted in 1949 to great success. While taping his 13th show, the cartoonist suddenly fell over on his desk, dead of an apparent heart attack. The show’s topic? The history of the military funeral anthem “Taps.” Believe it or not.

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