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

Up in the Air: When 'Balloon Boy' Took Flight

John Moore, Getty Images
John Moore, Getty Images

It was like a Weekly World News cover come to life. On October 15, 2009, most of the major network and cable broadcasters interrupted their daytime programming to cover what appeared to be a silver flying saucer streaking through the air. Out of context, it was as though the world was getting its first sight of a genuine UFO.

Reading the scroll at the bottom, or listening to the somewhat frantic newscasters, provided an explanation: It was not alien craft but a homemade balloon that had inadvertently taken off from the backyard of a family home in Fort Collins, Colorado. That, of course, was not inherently newsworthy. What made this story must-see television was the fact that authorities believed a 6-year-old boy was somehow trapped inside.

As the helium-filled balloon careened through the air and toward Denver International Airport, millions of people watched and wondered if its passenger could survive the perilous trip. When the craft finally touched down after floating for some 60 miles, responders surrounded it, expecting the worst. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Had he already fallen out?

The brief saga that became known as the Balloon Boy incident was one of the biggest indictments of the burgeoning worlds of reality television and breathless 24/7 news coverage. It seemed to check off every box that observers associated with societal decline. There was the morbidity of a child speeding through the air without control; the unwavering gaze of news networks who cut away from reports on world affairs and even ignored their commercial breaks to obtain footage of an aircraft that measure around 20 feet wide and 5 feet high and resembled a bag of Jiffy Pop.

 

The boy in question was Falcon Heene, one of Richard and Mayumi Heene's three children. The couple had met in California and bonded over their mutual desire to get into the entertainment business. Richard dreamed of becoming a comedian; Mayumi played guitar. The couple married in 1997 and eventually relocated to Colorado; they got their first taste of Hollywood in 2008, when they made their first of two appearances on the reality series Wife Swap.

But Richard Heene wanted more. The avid tinkerer envisioned a show that followed his family around, while at the same time working on his new inventions—one of which was sitting in his backyard. It was essentially a Mylar balloon staked to the ground, which he would later describe as a very early prototype for a low-altitude commuter vehicle.

 sheriff's deputies seach a field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found October 15, 2009 southeast of Ft. Collins, Colorado
Sheriff's deputies search a Colorado field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found safe at home.
John Moore, Getty Images

It was this balloon, Bradford Heene told police in 2009, that his brother Falcon had climbed into just before it had taken flight. Earlier, Richard said, Falcon had been playing near the contraption and was scolded for potentially creating a dangerous situation. Now, Falcon was gone, the balloon was in the air, and Falcon's parents feared the worst. Mayumi called the authorities.

“My other son said that Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer,” Mayumi told the 911 dispatcher. “I can’t find him anywhere!”

As news cameras watched and the National Guard and U.S. Forest Service followed, the balloon reached an altitude of 7000 feet. Police made a painstaking search of the Heene household, looking for any sign of Falcon. After three passes, they determined it was possible he was inside the balloon.

Approximately one hour later, the balloon seemed to deflate. Authorities cleared the air space near Denver International Airport and greeted the craft as it landed, tethering it to the ground so no air current could hoist it back up and out of reach.

No one was inside the small cabin under the balloon, which left three possibilities: Falcon was hiding somewhere, he had run away ... or he had fallen out.

 

Not long after the craft had landed, a police officer at the Heene house decided to investigate an attic space above the garage. It had gone ignored because it didn’t seem possible Falcon could have reached the entrance on his own.

Yet there he was, hiding.

Elated, authorities explained to the media that they thought Falcon had untethered the balloon by accident and then hid because he knew his father would be upset with him.

Jim Alderden, the sheriff of Colorado's Larimer County, assured reporters that the Heenes had not done anything suspect. They demonstrated all the concern for their missing child that one would expect. Alderden stuck to that even after the Heenes were interviewed on CNN and Falcon appeared to slip up. When asked by Wolf Blitzer if he had heard his parents calling for him, the boy admitted that he had but was ignoring them “for a show.”

Though the Heenes seemed to scramble to cover up for their son's gaffe, Blitzer didn’t appear to register the comment at first. He came back around to it, though, insisting on clarification. Richard would later state that Falcon was referring to the news cameras who wanted to see where he had been hiding. That was the "show" he meant.

Alderden reiterated that he didn’t think the boy could remain still and quiet for five hours in an attic if he had been instructed to. But he admitted the CNN interview raised questions. After initially clearing the family of any wrongdoing, Alderden said he would sit down and speak to them again.

Within the week, Alderden was holding a press conference with an entirely different mood. He solemnly explained that the Heenes had perpetuated a hoax and speculated that they could be charged with up to three felonies, including conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Outlets had already tracked down an associate of Richard’s who detailed his reality series idea, with one episode devoted to the balloon.

 

Richard and Mayumi voluntarily turned themselves into authorities. They each pled guilty: Richard for attempting to influence a public servant and Mayumi for making a false report. In addition to paying $36,016 in restitution, Richard wound up with a 90-day jail sentence, 60 days of which was served on supervised work release. Mayumi got 20 days. Though they pled guilty, Richard maintained that he and his family had not perpetuated any kind of a hoax. In a 2010 video posted to YouTube, Richard said he only pled guilty because authorities were threatening to deport his wife.

Mayumi, meanwhile, reportedly told police it had all been an act (though critics of the prosecution argued that Mayumi's imperfect English made that confession open to interpretation). Mayumi later stated she had no firm understanding of the word "hoax."

Richard Heene and his wife, Mayumi Heene (R) are flanked by members of the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the alleged hoax of the couple claiming that their son, Falcon Heene was last month onboard a helium balloon, at the Larime
Richard and Mayumi Heene surrounded by the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the "Balloon Boy Hoax" on November 13, 2009.
Matt McClain, Getty Images

In addition to the fine and jail sentences, the judge also mandated that the family not seek to profit from the incident for a period of four years, which meant any potential for Richard to grab a reality show opportunity would be put on hold until long after the public had lost interest in the "Balloon Boy."

The Heenes moved to Florida in 2010, and soon after their three boys formed a heavy metal band—reputed to be the world’s youngest—dubbed the Heene Boyz. They’ve self-released several albums, and in 2014 even released a song called "Balloon Boy No Hoax."

Richard also peddles some of his inventions, including a wall-mounted back scratcher that allows users to alleviate itching by rubbing up against it. It’s called the Bear Scratch.

In October 2019, Robert Sanchez, a writer for 5280 magazine in Denver, profiled the Heenes and produced a smoking gun of sorts. Sanchez, who was allowed access to the Heene case file by Mayumi's defense attorney, discovered copies of Mayumi's notes about the events leading up to the flight. In one entry, she disclosed Richard had asked her about the possibility of letting the craft go off while Falcon remained in the basement, stirring up attention for the news networks. Later, when the saucer flew away, Richard was confused when Falcon wasn't downstairs. (He chose instead to hide in the attic.) That made the Heenes believe he might really be inside.

When confronted with the document, Mayumi told Sanchez she had made that story up in an attempt to "save" herself and her children, presumably from being separated in the ensuing legal struggle. In the Balloon Boy story, the saucer may have come crashing back to Earth, but the truth remains up in the air.

Invasive Snakehead Fish That Can Breathe on Land Is Roaming Georgia

Mohd Fazlin Mohd Effendy Ooi, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Mohd Fazlin Mohd Effendy Ooi, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

A fish recently found in Georgia has wildlife officials stirred up. In fact, they’re advising anyone who sees a northern snakehead to kill it on sight.

That death sentence might sound extreme, but there’s good reason for it. The northern snakehead, which can survive for brief periods on land and breathe air, is an invasive species in North America. With one specimen found in a privately owned pond in Gwinnett County, the state wants to take swift action to make certain the fish, which is native to East Asia, doesn’t continue to spread. Non-native species can upset local ecosystems by competing with native species for food and habitat.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division is advising people who encounter the snakehead—a long, splotchy-brown fish that can reach 3 feet in length—to kill it and freeze it, then report the catch to the agency's fisheries office.

Wildlife authorities believe snakeheads wind up in non-native areas as a result of the aquarium trade or food industry. A snakehead was recently caught in southwestern Pennsylvania. The species has been spotted in 14 states.

[h/t CNN]

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