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].

From Abe Lincoln Chia Pets to FDR Baseballs: 11 Products to Celebrate President’s Day

iStock.com/malerapaso
iStock.com/malerapaso

While President’s Day originated in 1885 as a holiday celebrating George Washington, it has now grown to recognize all 44-and-counting chief executives in U.S. history. If you’re feeling truly patriotic, check out these 11 incredible products inspired by some of the most distinguished leaders to hold America's highest office, and feel free to gift them to your favorite future politician.

1. George Washington’s Teeth Magnet

George Washington's illustrious hair may have been totally real, but his teeth certainly weren’t. In fact, Washington had only one real tooth left in his head when he was sworn in as president, and he wore several sets of dentures throughout his life (though none of them were made of wood, as the legend claims). Mount Vernon has one of the last surviving sets—made of human and cow teeth—in its collection, and fans can get a copy of the historic chompers in the form of a fridge magnet.

Buy it from George Washington’s Mount Vernon for $10.

2. John Adams Mouse Pad

A John Adams mousepad
MyHeritageWear, Amazon

Compared to the other Founding Fathers, John Adams doesn't get much love. There's reason to admire the pugnacious leader, though: He may have been the nation’s second-ever president, but he was second to none when it came to dishing out insults. If you’re looking for a subtle way to pay tribute to Adams, this mouse pad will do the trick. After all, who doesn't want a president at their side in the office?

Buy it on Amazon for $10.

3. Founding Fathers Gift Box

If you’re looking for other ways to honor the Founding Fathers, this commemorative gift box includes four hefty Old Fashioned tumblers bearing the likenesses of old-fashioned presidents James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Adams. The glasses—which are made in America—are the perfect way to toast the country's early leaders. They'd also be a great accessory for your next Drunk History marathon. (As would Fishs Eddy's many other politician-themed kitchenware products, for that matter.)

Buy it from Fishs Eddy for $22.

4. Abraham Lincoln Chia Pet

A Chia Pet Abraham Lincoln
Chia, Amazon

Honest Abe is known for a great many things: leading the United States through the Civil War, abolishing slavery, and—according to Hollywood—maybe being a vampire hunter. However, we rarely celebrate his very lush head of hair. (Though a few strands of it did sell for $25,000 in 2015.) This Chia Pet planter offers a way to spice up your kitchen while honoring the classic elegance of the 16th president's silhouette. The handmade statuette grows a full head of presidential chia-sprout hair in one to two weeks and includes quotes from President Lincoln transcribed on its sides.

Buy it on Amazon for $26.

5. Edmund Morris’s Theodore Roosevelt Trilogy

A set of three Edmund Morris books on Theodore Roosevelt
Random House, Amazon

This Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographical trilogy on Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt from Edmund Morris is a must-have for all the TR fans out there. Written over the course of more than 30 years, Morris's opus is considered essential reading for any Roosevelt scholar, and it's well worth the money. As The New York Times wrote in its review of the first volume in 1979, it's a “splendid, galloping narrative of the great galloper. The insights are keen. The pages turn quickly. There are few who will not get from it a more satisfying conception of the man almost everyone thinks he knows … It is one of those rare works that is both definitive for the period it covers and fascinating to read for sheer entertainment.”

Buy it on Amazon for $78.

6. FDR Collectible Baseball

Like many Americans, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had an intense love of baseball. He even argued that the national past time was an essential morale booster during World War II, ensuring that the league could continue playing throughout the war. He made eight Opening Day appearances during his presidency, and this collectible baseball is a perfect monument to one of them. The custom ball features a photograph of FDR throwing the ceremonial first pitch for the 1935 Opening Day game between the Washington Senators and Philadelphia Athletics at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.

Buy it from the National Archives store for $7.

7. "Dewey Defeats Truman" Ceramic Tile

The result of the 1948 presidential election between incumbent Democrat Harry S. Truman and Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey was, by all accounts, one of the greatest upsets in history. Nearly every analyst at the time got their predictions wrong, including the Chicago Daily Tribune (now just the Chicago Tribune), which led to the famous photograph that helped cement the election's legacy in American politics—and media history—forever. While history nerds would surely appreciate a copy of the actual newspaper, this option from the National Archives is a joyously clever alternative.

Buy it from the National Archives store for $7.50

8. JFK for President Mug

For political history buffs and design obsessives alike, this mug is a throwback to the campaign posters made by John F. Kennedy when he ran for president in 1960. The mug is emblazoned with JFK's own smiling mug as well as his 'Leadership for the 60's" slogan. (You can see one of the originals at the Library of Congress.)

Buy it from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum for $15.

9. Lyndon B. Johnson Bobblehead

A Lyndon Johnson bobblehead depicting the president holding a dog
Royal Bobbles, Amazon

Lyndon B. Johnson—who assumed the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963—is best known for his "Great Society" programs and his role in passing laws like the Civil Rights Act and Medicare. This bobblehead in his likeness from Royal Bobbles, however, represents another side of LBJ: his love for dogs. Johnson and his family were often photographed with their beloved beagles, Him and Her, as well as subsequent White House pets Freckles, Edgar, Blanco, and Yuki. (Royal Bobbles doesn't specify which dog this design is based on.) Standing over 8 inches tall, the bobblehead comes with a collector’s box to keep it pristine, because you'll want to display it prominently.

Buy it on Amazon for $26.

10. Presidential IQ Trivia Game

The 'Presidential IQ' card game on a table
Presidential IQ, Amazon

If you're like us, you love some good-old-fashioned trivia—and almost 250 years of presidential history has left us with a bevy of facts to mine for questions. Featuring 1200 questions across a number of categories, including famous quotes, foreign affairs, and geography, Presidential IQ is perfect for game night.

Buy it on Amazon for $25.

11. 1000-Piece U.S. Presidents Jigsaw Puzzle

A puzzle with all of the U.S. presidents surrounding a map of the United States
White Mountain Puzzles, Amazon

This puzzle by White Mountain illustrates the entire presidential timeline of the United States with portraits of each of the presidents and a map of notable historical sites relating to the former chief executives. In addition to stimulating your brain, it provides a great opportunity to plan your next presidential road trip.

Buy it on Amazon for $18.

11 Words You Might Not Realize Come From “Love”

iStock.com/PeopleImages
iStock.com/PeopleImages

1. BELIEVE

In Old English, believe was geliefan, which traces back to the Germanic galaubjan, where laub is the root for “dear” (so “believe” is “to hold dear”). Laub goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root for “love,” leubh.

2. FURLOUGH

We got furlough from the Dutch verlof, which traces back to the same Germanic laub root as in believe. It is also related to the sense of leave meaning "allowance" or "permission" (“get leave,” “go on leave”). The “leave” in a furlough is given with pleasure, or approval, which is how it connects back to love.

3. FRIDAY

Old English Frigedæg was named for Frigg, the Germanic goddess of love (and counterpart to the Roman Venus). According to the OED, frīg was also a noun for “strong feminine” love.

4. VENOM

Venom comes from the Latin venenum, which shares a root with the love goddess Venus, and originally referred to a love potion.

5. AMATEUR

The root of amateur is Latin amare, “to love.” An amateur practices a craft simply because they love it.

6. CHARITY

The Latin caritas, which ended up as charity in English, was a different kind of love than amor, implying high esteem and piety, rather than romance and passion. It was used to translate the Ancient Greek agape, the word used in the New Testament to express godly love.

7. PHILOSOPHY

Greek had another word for love, philia, that—in contrast to agape and eros (sexual love)—meant brotherly or friendly love. It’s used in many classical compounds to signify general fondness or predilection for things. Philosophy is the love of sophos, wisdom.

8. PHILANTHROPY

This one means love of anthropos, humanity.

9. PHILADELPHIA

You might know it as the “city of brotherly love,” but you might not know that the tagline is right there in the name. It’s love for adelphos, brother.

10. PHILIP

The name Philip comes from the compound phil- + hippos, love of horses.

11. ACIDOPHILUS

Have you been taking acidophilus probiotic supplements for digestive health? It’s made from acid-loving bacteria, i.e., bacteria that easily take up an acid dye for viewing under the microscope.

This list originally ran in 2015.

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