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

The Real Case of Spontaneous Combustion That Inspired a Death in Dickens's Bleak House

iStock.com/GeorgiosArt
iStock.com/GeorgiosArt

In The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine, medical historian Thomas Morris presents a collection of bizarre but fascinating stories culled from the pages of old medical journals and other accounts. In this tale, he discusses the final moments of an aristocratic older women, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, whose demise would provide fodder for Charles Dickens over 100 years later.

 

Do human beings ever burst into flames? Two hundred years ago, many people believed that they could, especially if the victim was female, elderly, and a heavy drinker. Spontaneous human combustion became a fashionable topic in the early 19th century, after a number of sensational presumed cases were reported in the popular press. At a period when candles were ubiquitous and clothes often highly flammable, most were probably simple domestic fires in which the unfortunate victim’s subcutaneous fat acted as supplementary fuel. Nevertheless, the circumstances in which some were discovered—with the body almost totally incinerated, but nearby objects left untouched—led some to believe that these conflagrations must have another, more mysterious, cause. Numerous theories were put forward to explain the phenomenon: some supernatural, others scientific.

One of the true believers in spontaneous combustion was Charles Dickens, who even killed off Krook, the alcoholic rag dealer in Bleak House, by means of a fire that left nothing of the old man except an object looking like a “small charred and broken log of wood.” Dickens had read everything he could find on the subject and was convinced that its veracity had been proved. His description of the demise of Krook was based closely on that of an Italian aristocrat, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, who was consumed by a fireball in her bedroom. Her case was reported in 1731 by a clergyman called Giuseppe Bianchini, and subsequently translated by a famous Italian poet and Fellow of the Royal Society, Paolo Rolli:

"The Countess Cornelia Bandi, in the 62nd year of her age, was all day as well as she used to be; but at night was observed, when at supper, dull and heavy. She retired, was put to bed, where she passed three hours and more in familiar discourses with her maid, and in some prayers; at last falling asleep, the door was shut."

The following morning, the maid noticed that her employer had not appeared at the usual time and tried to rouse her by calling through the door. Not receiving any answer, she went outside and opened a window, through which she saw this scene of horror:

"Four feet distant from the bed there was a heap of ashes, two legs untouched from the foot to the knee with their stockings on; between them was the lady’s head; whose brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin, were burnt to ashes; amongst which were found three fingers blackened. All the rest was ashes, which had this particular quality, that they left in the hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking moisture."

Mysteriously, the furniture and linen were virtually untouched by the conflagration.

"The bed received no damage; the blankets and sheets were only raised on one side, as when a person rises up from it, or goes in; the whole furniture, as well as the bed, was spread over with moist and ash-coloured soot, which had penetrated the chest of drawers, even to foul the linen."

The soot had even coated the surfaces of a neighboring kitchen. A piece of bread covered in the foul substance was given to several dogs, all of which refused to eat it. Given that it probably consisted of the carbonized body fat of their owner, their reluctance to indulge is understandable.

"In the room above it was, moreover, taken notice that from the lower part of the windows trickled down a greasy, loathsome, yellowish liquor; and thereabout they smelt a stink, without knowing of what; and saw the soot fly around."

The floor was also covered in a “gluish moisture,” which could not be removed. Naturally, strenuous efforts were made to establish what had caused the blaze, and several of Italy’s best minds were put to the problem. Monsignor Bianchini (described as “Prebendary of Verona”) was convinced that the fire had not been started by the obvious culprits:

"Such an effect was not produced by the light of the oil lamp, or of any candles, because common fire, even in a pile, does not consume a body to such a degree; and would have besides spread it-self to the goods of the chamber, more combustible than a human body."

Bianchini also considered the possibility that the blaze might have been caused by a thunderbolt but noted that the characteristic signs of such an event, such as scorch marks on the walls and an acrid smell, were absent. What, then, did cause the inferno? The priest came to the conclusion that ignition had actually occurred inside the woman’s body:

"The fire was caused in the entrails of the body by inflamed effluvia of her blood, by juices and fermentations in the stomach, by the many combustible matters which are abundant in living bodies, for the uses of life; and finally by the fiery evaporations which exhale from the settlings of spirit of wine, brandies, and other hot liquors in the tunica villosa [inner lining] of the stomach, and other adipose or fat membranes."

Bianchini claims that such “fiery evaporations” become more flammable at night, when the body is at rest and the breathing becomes more regular. He also points out that “sparkles” are sometimes visible when certain types of cloth are rubbed against the hair (an effect caused by discharges of static electricity) and suggests that something similar might have ignited the “combustible matters” inside her abdomen.

"What wonder is there in the case of our old lady? Her dullness before going to bed was an effect of too much heat concentrated in her breast, which hindered the perspiration through the pores of her body; which is calculated to about 40 ounces per night. Her ashes, found at four feet distance from her bed, are a plain argument that she, by natural instinct, rose up to cool her heat, and perhaps was going to open a window."

Then, however, he lets slip what is probably the genuine cause of the fire:

"The old lady was used, when she felt herself indisposed, to bathe all her body with camphorated spirit of wine; and she did it perhaps that very night."

Camphorated spirits (a solution of camphor in alcohol) was often used to treat skin complaints, and as a tonic lotion. The fact that it is also highly flammable is, apparently, quite beside the point.

"This is not a circumstance of any moment; for the best opinion is that of the internal heat and fire; which, by having been kindled in the entrails, naturally tended upwards; finding the way easier, and the matter more unctuous and combustible, left the legs untouched. The thighs were too near the origin of the fire, and therefore were also burnt by it; which was certainly increased by the urine and excrements, a very combustible matter, as one may see by its phosphorus."

So it was the “internal heat and fire” that caused the countess’s demise. Only an incorrigible skeptic would point out that an old lady who was in the habit of bathing in inflammable liquids, before going to bed in a room lit by naked flames, was a walking fire hazard.

Book jacket for The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth
Dutton/Penguin Books

Excerpted from The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris. Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Morris. Published by arrangement with DUTTON, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Can You Pick Out the Weird Law That's Totally Real?

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER