When Queen Victoria Employed an Official Rat-Catcher

Wikimedia Commons // Rebecca O'Connell
Wikimedia Commons // Rebecca O'Connell

Victorian England was infested with rats. Rodents were in your basement, your sewers, your garden, your pantry, your parks, your pipes—and it was a huge problem. An untold number of rats crippled crops, spoiled food supplies, clogged drains, and, of course, had helped spread a plague that killed about 60 percent of Europe’s population. (Though gerbils may deserve some blame, too.)

Residents resorted to a handful of techniques to stop the critters. Farmers were known to catch rats and strap bells around their necks, or singe their fur, hoping a horde of jangly burnt rodents would scare fellow pests away. It didn’t. “Rats are everywhere about London,” said a man named Jack Black, “both in rich and poor places.”

Black would know. He was England’s royal rat-catcher.


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“Rat-catcher” may not be a job you see at Career Day anymore, but in Victorian England, it was a popular and sometimes lucrative career. According to author Barbara Tufty [PDF], a decent rat-catcher could earn “special privileges” if he caught at least 5000 rats a year, or about 13 rats a day. The job was so common that rodent-chasers in England established their own professional rat-catcher guilds. The occupation even inspired a popular folktale: The Pied Piper was a rat-catcher.

During the Victorian era, Jack Black was the king of the rat-catchers. The official “rat and mole destroyer to her Majesty,” Black got his start doing government work as a young man after he noticed London’s royal parks were spilling over with rats. (Literally: They had gnawed through the bridge drains.) His talent for catching rodents proved unmatchable, and he was eventually appointed by Queen Victoria to the post of supreme rat-catcher.

Black strolled around London with the swagger and audacity of royalty while maintaining the appearance of a court jester. He wore a homemade uniform of white leather pants, a scarlet waistcoat, a green topcoat, a gold band around his hat, and a sash emblazoned with metal rat-shaped medallions, which he had made by secretly melting down his wife’s saucepans.

Ever the showman, Black ambled around the city with a cart full of rats and peddled a homemade brew of varmint poison. After finding a crowd, he would set up a small stage, open a giant cage of rats, and reach inside. The rodents would jump onto his arms, scurry over his shoulders, and scamper from one hand to the next. The crowds oohed and ahhed—Black was rarely bitten. (Whenever a rat did sink its teeth in, Black treated his wound by visiting the local pub and having some “medicine,” a.k.a. stout—although if the bite was really bad, he would make sure to clean the wound.)

After luring a crowd, Black would begin hawking his poison to onlookers. “I challenge my composition, and sell the art of rat-destroying, against any chemical ray-destroyer in the world, for any sum,” he’d bark. “I don’t care what it is. Let anybody, either a medical or druggist manufacturer of composition, come and test with rats again me.”

After a pleasant afternoon selling rodenticide, Black would descend into London’s basements and sewers with a legion of ferrets and dogs to catch more rats. Black had trained the ferrets to sniff out vermin, while he trained the dogs to track down the ferrets in case they got lost or stuck in a sewer pipe, according to Lapham’s Quarterly.

Black tried using other animals to catch vermin. He trained a badger, two raccoons, and a monkey, but most of them couldn’t compete with dogs and ferrets. “I’ve learnt a monkey to kill rats,” he said, “but he wouldn’t do much, and only give them a good shaking when they bit him.”


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Black didn’t kill every rat he caught, though. He often kept them alive and bred them for sport.

Nineteenth-century Europeans have an unfortunate history of enjoying animal bloodsports: Monkey-baiting (Can a monkey armed with a stick fight a dog?); fox-tossing (Who can throw a fox highest in the air?); and goose-pulling (Can you decapitate a goose while riding a horse?) were just a few. During Black’s time, rat-baiting, in which dozens of rats are tossed in a pit with a dog, was one of the most popular pastimes in London taverns. The bloodsport was so beloved that the government taxed the rat-killing dogs. London’s premiere rat pit owner, Jimmy Shaw, bought 26,000 live rats each year from rat-catchers like Black.

But Black also bred rats for gentler reasons. He knew that some people wanted rodents as pets—and that some folks would pay handsomely for an equally handsome rat—so he began breeding “fancy” rats. Whenever he discovered a rat-of-a-different-color, he’d take it home for “ladies to keep in squirrel cages.”

Black was proud of his fancy rat-breeding skills. It’s rumored that he bred rats for the Queen and the author Beatrix Potter. He claimed that “I’ve bred the finest collection of pied rats which has ever been knowed [sic] in the world.” Which is probably true. The American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association says Black “can be credited as the originator of the first true domestic rats.”

But Jack Black’s legacy may dig even deeper: The first white lab rat—bred in Philadelphia—was descended from an albino rat that may have been bred by the rat catcher.

There’s no way to be certain, but as Robert Sullivan writes in his book Rats: Observations on the History & habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, “I like to think that all the great scientific achievements that have been made in the modern scientific era as a result of work with laboratory rats are ultimately the result of the work of Jack Black, rat catcher.”

You can read more about Jack Black in Robert Mayhew’s 1851 classic oral history of everyday Londoners, London Labour and the London Poor—the fun starts on page 11 [PDF].

7 Ways Victorian Fashion Could Kill You

An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.
An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.

While getting dressed in the morning can seem like a hassle (pajamas are so much more comfortable), few of us worry about our clothes leading to our death. That wasn’t the case during the Victorian era, when fashionable fabrics and accessories sometimes came at great price for both makers and wearers. In Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David, a professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, outlines the many toxic, flammable, and otherwise highly hazardous components of high style during the 19th century. Here are a few of the worst offenders.

1. Poisonous Dyes

A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Before the 1780s, green was a tricky color to create on clothes, and dressmakers depended on a combination of yellow and blue dyes to produce the hue. But in the late 1770s a Swedish/German chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a new green pigment by mixing potassium and white arsenic on a solution of copper vitriol. The pigment was dubbed Scheele’s Green, and later Paris Green, among other names, and it became a huge sensation, used to color walls, paintings, and fabrics as well as candles, candies, food wrappers, and even children’s toys. Not surprisingly, it also caused sores, scabs, and damaged tissue, as well as nausea, colic, diarrhea, and constant headaches.

Although fashionable women wore arsenic-dyed fabrics—even Queen Victoria was depicted in one—its health effects were worst among the textile and other workers who created the clothes and often labored in warm, arsenic-impregnated rooms day after day. (Some scholars have even theorized that Napoleon might have been poisoned by the arsenic-laced wallpaper hung in his St. Helena home.)

Arsenical dyes were also a popular addition to artificial flowers and leaves, which meant they were frequently pinned to clothes or fastened on heads. In the 1860s, a report commissioned by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association found that the average headdress contained enough arsenic to poison 20 people. The British Medical Journal wrote of the green-clad Victorian woman: “She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.” Despite repeated warnings in the press, and from doctors and scientists, the Victorians seemed in love with emerald green arsenic dyes; ironically, they acted like a reminder of the nature then swiftly being lost to industrialization, David says.

2. Pestilential Fabrics

Soldiers of the Victorian era (and earlier) were plagued by lice and other body parasites that carried deadly diseases such as typhus and trench fever. But soldiers weren’t the only victims of disease carried via fabric—even the wealthy sometimes wore clothing that was made or cleaned by the sick in sweatshops or tenements, and which spread disease as a result. According to David, the daughter of Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel died after her riding habit, given to her by her father as a gift, was finished in the house of a poor seamstress who had used it to cover her sick husband as he lay shivering with typhus-induced chills. Peel’s daughter contracted typhus after wearing the garment, and died on the eve of her wedding.

Women also worried about their skirts sweeping through the muck and excrement of city streets, where bacteria was rife, and some wore special skirt-fasteners to keep them up from the gunk. The poor, who often wore secondhand clothes, suffered from smallpox and other diseases spread by fabric that was recycled without being properly washed.

3. Flowing Skirts

Giant, ruffled, crinoline-supported skirts may have been fine for ladies of leisure, but they weren’t a great combination with industrial machinery. According to David, one mill in Lancashire posted a sign in 1860 forbidding the “present ugly fashion of HOOPS, or CRINOLINE, as it is called” as being “quite unfitted for the work of our Factories.” The warning was a wise one: In at least one printing office, a girl was caught by her crinoline and dragged under the mechanical printing press. The girl was reportedly “very slim” and escaped unharmed, but the foreman banned the skirts anyway. Long, large, or draped skirts were also an unfortunate combination with carriages and animals.

4. Flammable Fabrics

A woman with her crinoline on fire
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

The flowing white cotton so popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries had dangers to both maker and wearer: It was produced with often-brutal slave labor on plantations, and it was also more flammable than the heavy silks and wool favored by the wealthy in the previous centuries. One type of cotton lace was particularly problematic: In 1809 John Heathcoat patented a machine that made the first machine-woven silk and cotton pillow “lace” or bobbinet, now better known as tulle, which could catch fire in an instant. The tulle was frequently layered, to add volume and compensate for its sheerness, and stiffened with highly combustible starch. Ballerinas were particularly at risk: British ballerina Clara Webster died in 1844 when her dress caught fire at London’s Drury Lane theatre after her skirt came too close to sunken lights onstage.

But performers weren’t the only ones in peril: Even the average woman wearing the then-popular voluminous crinolines was at risk of setting herself ablaze. And the “flannelette” (plain cotton brushed to create a nap and resemble wool flannel) so popular for nightshirts and undergarments was particularly combustible if hit with a stray spark or the flame of a household candle. So many children burned in household accidents that one company came out with a specially treated flannelette called Non-Flam, advertised as being “strong’y recommended by Coroners.”

5. Arsenic-Ridden Taxidermy

Dead birds were a popular addition to ladies’ hats in the 19th century. According to David, “fashions in millinery killed millions of small songbirds and introduced dangers that may still make some historic women’s hats harmful to humans today.”

But it wasn’t the birds that were the problem—it was the arsenic used on them. Taxidermists of the day used arsenic-laced soaps and other products to preserve birds and other creatures. In some cases, entire birds—one or several—were mounted on hats. Some Victorian fashion commentators decried the practice, though not because of the arsenic involved. One Mrs. Haweis, a writer on dress and beauty, began an 1887 diatribe against “smashed birds” with the sentence: “A corpse is never a really pleasant ornament.”

6. Mercury

No upper-class man of the Victorian era was complete without his hat, but many of those hats were made with mercury. As David explains, “Although its noxious effects were known, it was the cheapest and most efficient way to turn stiff, low-grade fur from rabbits and hares into malleable felt.” Mercury gave animal fur its smooth, glossy, matted texture, but that velvety look came at a high cost—mercury is an extremely dangerous substance.

Mercury can rapidly enter the body through the skin or the air, and causes a range of horrible health effects. Hatters were known to suffer from convulsions, abdominal cramps, trembling, paralysis, reproductive problems, and more. (A chemistry professor studying toxic exposure at Dartmouth College, Karen Wetterhahn, died in 1996 after spilling just a few drops of a supertoxic type of mercury on her glove.) To make matters worse, hatters who drank while they worked (not an uncommon practice) only hastened mercury’s effects by hampering the liver’s ability to eliminate it. While scholars still debate whether Lewis Carroll’s “mad hatter” was meant to show the effects of mercury poisoning, his trembling limbs and wacky speech seem to fit the bill.

7. Lead

A Victorian facial cream containing lead
A Victorian facial cream containing lead
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Pallor was definitely in during the Victorian era, and a face spackled with lead white paint was long favored by fashionable women. Lead had been a popular ingredient in cosmetics for centuries, David writes, because it “made colors even and opaque and created a desirable ‘whiteness’ that bespoke both freedom from hard outdoor labor and racial purity.” One of the most popular lead-laced cosmetic products was called Laird’s Bloom of Youth; in 1869, one of the founders of the American Medical Association treated three young women who had been using the product and temporarily lost full use of their hands and wrists as a result. (The doctor described the condition as “lead palsy,” although today we call it wrist drop or radial nerve palsy, which can be caused by lead poisoning.) One of the women’s hands was said to be “wasted to a skeleton.”

This article was republished in 2019.

Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit Will Go Back on Display for Apollo 11's 50th Anniversary

Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Neil Armstrong made history when he became the first person to walk on the Moon 50 years ago. Space exploration has changed since then, but the white space suit with the American flag patch that Armstrong wore on that first walk is still what many people think of when they picture an astronaut. Now, after sitting in storage for a decade, that iconic suit is ready to go on display, according to Smithsonian.

NASA donated Neil Armstrong's suit to the Smithsonian shortly after the Apollo 11 mission. For about 30 years, it was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Then, in 2006, the museum moved the artifact to storage to minimize damage.

Even away from the exhibit halls, the suit was deteriorating, and the Smithsonian knew it would need to be better preserved if it was to be shown to the public again. In 2015, the institution launched its first-ever Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $700,000 for conservation efforts.

After a multi-year preservation project, the suit will finally return to the museum floor on July 16, 2019—the date that marks 50 years since Apollo 11 launched. This time around, the suit will be displayed on a structure that was custom built to support its interior, protecting it from the weight of gravity. Climate-controlled air will flow through the gear to recreate the stable environment of a storage unit.

Even if you can't make it to the National Air and Space Museum to see Armstrong's space suit in person, soon you'll be able to appreciate it from home in a whole new way. The museum used various scanning techniques to create an intricate 3D model of the artifact. Once the scans are reconfigured for home computers, the Smithsonian's digitization team plans to make an interactive version of the digital model freely available on its website.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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