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

Cleveland’s National Weather Service Issued an Unofficial 'Small Dog Advisory’ Due to High Winds

iStock.com/eve_eve01genesis
iStock.com/eve_eve01genesis

The National Weather Service in Cleveland is reminding people with mini dachshunds, Yorkshire terriers, and other little dog breeds to keep an eye on their pooches this windy winter. According to WTOL 11 News, an unofficial “small dog warning” was in effect in several parts of Ohio and Northwest Pennsylvania Wednesday, as two-legged and four-legged locals alike braced for gusts of up to 50 mph.

This is formally known as a Wind Advisory, and it’s issued when sustained winds reach between 31 and 39 mph, or when gusts reach speeds between 46 and 57 mph. Conditions like these can cause minor property damage as trees fall and untethered items get whipped around in the wind. The list of untethered items that can potentially blow away includes small dogs, too, according to a tweet from NWS Cleveland.

But can your dog really blow away in the wind and end up in Oz like Toto? There are some reports of this happening, but the conditions are typically a little more extreme than what Ohio is expecting right now. In 2009, a 6-pound Chihuahua named Tinker Bell was plucked up and carried away by 70 mph winds. There’s a happy ending, though: Her owners found her unharmed (partly thanks to a pet psychic, they claimed). More recently, a Yorkshire terrier named Toshka was blown away in Siberia during a snowstorm last year. The dog was later found frostbitten, but alive, 3 miles from home.

However, instances like these are rare, and the greater danger is that a flying object could injure your pooch. Plus, if they're outside without a leash, they can run away if they become frightened or break free if a fence in your yard blows over. To keep your pup safe during blustery weather, The Humane Society of Central Oregon recommends bringing them inside, leashing them when they need to go outside, and double-checking all gates and fences.

[h/t WTOL 11]

11 Bizarre Things Done in the Name of Love

iStock.com/Kemter
iStock.com/Kemter

Love. It can make you do crazy things, or so the saying goes. And there are plenty of recorded incidents of people doing really crazy things, purportedly in the name of amore, that back that cliché up. Here are 11 of them.

1. Fake your own death

Alexey Bykov must have wanted to be sure that his future bride would take the whole "'Til death do us part” thing seriously. In 2012, the Omsk, Russia native hired a team of filmmakers to help him fake his own death. Right in front of his girlfriend. As part of an elaborately choreographed wedding proposal. “We'd arranged to meet at a certain place but when I arrived there were mangled cars everywhere, ambulances, smoke, and carnage,” Irena Kolokov, his lucky gal pal, told the Daily Mail. "Then when I saw Alexey covered in blood lying in the road a paramedic told me he was dead and I just broke down in tears.” Wait for it ... surprise! Just when Irena thought all was lost, Alexey sprang into action and asked her to marry him. Perhaps most surprisingly, she said yes.

2. Cohabitate with a corpse

A corpse's foot with a toe tag at the morgue
iStock.com/nico_blue

“'Til death do us part” wasn't good enough for Carl Tanzler. In 1940, the radiologist was charged with “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization” when police discovered that he was in possession of the corpse of Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos, a young woman who had died of tuberculosis in 1931. (In case you don’t want to do the math, that’s a full nine years earlier.) Tanzler’s obsession with Hoyos began in 1930, when she was a patient at the United States Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida. Though there is no evidence that she reciprocated his feelings, Tanzler fought desperately to save Hoyos's life. Following her passing on October 25, 1931, Tanzler became a regular visitor to her above-ground mausoleum, which he had paid for and to which he had a private key. After two years of snuggling with the corpse, he removed her body and brought it home with him, which is where it remained until Tanzler’s arrest a full seven years later.

3. Rob a Waffle House

Forget breakfast in bed—Marquis Baldwin will bring you the entire Waffle House. Well, at least whatever’s in its cash register. In 2013, the then-22-year-old Pensacola resident was arrested on four counts of armed robbery and six counts of aggravated assault after he held up four businesses with a BB gun, three of them Waffle House restaurants. But the money Baldwin stole wasn’t being saved for a rainy day; he used it to pay off his girlfriend’s probation fees. Awww.

4. Register a URL

In the age of online dating, it only makes sense that a twenty-something would take to the Internet in order to connect with the girl of his dreams. In the case of former Vimeo employee Patrick Moberg, that meant registering a website—NYGirlOfMyDreams.com—in order to track down a cute brunette with fancy braided hair, rosy cheeks, and blue gym shorts with whom he locked eyes on a Brooklyn-bound 5 train in 2007. Within 48 hours, Moberg had found the young lady in question, Camille Hayton, and the two began dating. Two months later, the fairytale was over. "The situation was so intense that we bonded in a way that you could mistake for being more romantic than it was," Hayton said of their breakup. "But I wanted to give it a go, so I wouldn't later wonder, 'What if, what if?'"

5. Cry about it on YouTube

Not to be outdone with using the Web to get what (read: who) you want is Kelly Summers. In 2010, Summers decided to pay a surprise visit to the long-distance love of her life, Keith Tallis, only to meet his roommate: his longtime girlfriend. Shortly thereafter, Tallis paid Summers a visit to announce that he was now a single man, but then took off for home again 10 days later. Reeling from the betrayal, Summers set up The Froglet Diaries, which she described as a “self help video series," on YouTube to help deal with the breakup. It didn’t take long for her videos to gain some dedicated followers, Tallis among them. “I watched each video and I couldn’t believe the devastation I left behind,” Tallis told the Daily Mail on September 10, 2010 of his decision to reconcile with Summers. “I’d never seen such raw emotion, and it made me realize how much I loved her.” On October 7, 2010, Workshop Guardian reported that Tallis had once again returned to his ex-girlfriend.

6. Steal a moon rock

“The simple answer’s to say that I did it for love,” aspiring astronaut-turned-convict Thad Roberts told CBS News’s Mo Rocca when asked about his reasons for stealing a safe containing $21 million worth of moon rocks from NASA scientist Everett Gibson. “I did it because I wanted to be loved,” he continued. “I wanted someone to know that I'd literally cared about them that much. And to have the symbol there to remind them of it.” Unfortunately, the “someone” in question was not Roberts’s doting wife, but the 22-year-old intern who aided him in the heist, whom he had met just three weeks earlier. Ben Mezrich, author of Bringing Down the House and The Accidental Billionaires, wrote about Roberts in 2011 in his book Sex on the Moon.

7. Set your loved one's crotch ablaze

When Berlinda Dixon-Newbold wasn’t getting the attention she wanted from her boyfriend, Sheldon Gonzalez, she decided to take matters into her own hands … and set the crotch of his pants on fire while he slept. “You tend to, like, get upset when somebody [is] trying to harm the family jewels,” Gonzalez told Fort Lauderdale’s WFOR-TV of the 2010 incident. “I just felt the heat in my groin area and I just reacted and she was right over me.” Gonzalez was able to extinguish his pants before any serious injury occurred. Which is one way to ensure the end of a relationship.

8. Throw lye in your beloved's face

Getting involved with a married man is always a recipe for romantic complications. Which is a lesson Linda Riss learned the hard way. In 1959, the then-21-year-old began dating lawyer Burt Pugach, a married father of one. Riss knew about his occupation, but not about his family, and promptly dumped him. He allegedly retaliated by paying a few thugs to throw lye in her face, blinding her in one eye and causing permanent scarring. Pugach denied any involvement in the attack, but was convicted and served 14 years in jail for the crime, during which he regularly wrote to Riss. Upon his release in 1974, Pugach divorced his first wife and married Riss. Two years later, they co-wrote a book, aptly titled A Very Different Love Story. In 2007, filmmaker Dan Klores made a documentary about their life, Crazy Love. On January 22, 2013, Riss passed away at the age of 75—with Pugach by her side.

9. Escape from jail

One might describe California’s Santa Cruz County Jail as Craig Souza’s second home. In 2012, the then-34-year-old was being booked for his 22nd stint behind bars at this particular penal institution when he made a not-so-bold escape (he rang a door buzzer, and a guard let him out). His reason? He was worried how his wife might react to all the time he had been spending in the clink. “I want everyone to know that I did it for love,” Souza told local television station KSBW.

10. Go on a fecal rampage

We’ll keep this one short, as the phrase “fecal rampage” sort of says it all. But that’s exactly how police and witnesses described what went down in Staten Island in 2011 when aspiring rapper Rasheen “Illuminati” Harrison stripped naked and defecated in the elevator of his pregnant girlfriend’s building, then—errr, ummm—“decorated” her door before setting it on fire. His explanation? “She stole my cell phone. I had a yellow lighter. I set it on fire,” Harrison told police. Sounds reasonable.

11. Cut off your tattoo ... and mail it to him

Gloved hand holding a surgical scalpel
iStock.com/ra3rn

If Johnny Depp’s romantic history has taught us anything, it’s that getting your loved one’s name tattooed on your body is no way to ensure the relationship will last. While Depp’s solution was to simply morph “Winona” into “Wino,” 26-year-old Londoner Torz Reynolds came up with a more gruesome plan: take a scalpel to her own arm to remove the tattoo entirely. Reynolds then sealed it in a jar, wrapped it up nice and pretty, and mailed it to her ex. The worst part? The tattoo was big—it read “Chopper’s Bitch.” Next time she might want to consider dating an Ed.

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