Weird fact about me: I think rats are adorable. I wanted a pet rat when I was a kid. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH imprinted on my psyche at an impressionable age. I’ve written about weird historical rat facts for this newsletter before.
And today, by God, I’m going to do it again, by introducing you to one particular Victorian weirdo who’s been haunting my thoughts for several weeks now:
Jack Black, History’s Fanciest Rat Man
No, not that Jack Black. Although if you think for a second I’m not going to pack this newsletter with Jack Black gifs, you clearly are unfamiliar with my process.
These days, rats are something people usually encounter casually. Like, when my girlfriend lived above a bagel shop that threw away bags full of stale bread once a week, I had loads of low-stakes encounters with rats. I threw a pizza box into the dumpster, they scattered, we all moved on with our lives.
But in Victorian London, rats were…less casual. Rats were still spreading significant amounts of literal plague as late as 1665, and because the Industrial Revolution was creating all kinds of rat-friendly things like sewers and garbage and urban basements and what have you, the rat population was booming.
This was, from the perspective of people who didn’t want to a) die of plague or b) find rat poop in their tea, a bad thing. And so, a certain subsection of London’s enterprising dirtbags took up a lucrative profession: rat-catcher.
Rat-catching had been around for centuries, and it had never been a very glamorous profession. Shakespeare uses it as an insult in Romeo and Juliet, and Shakespeare also called people “bull’s pizzles” as an insult, so as far as glory goes, rat-catching was about on par with being a cow penis.
But! One fancy man set out to change that! And that brings us, finally, to Jack Black.
Style, Lies, and a Fancy Sash
Born in roughly the 1820s, Jack Black was your classic professional bullshitter, so we don’t know much about him except the absolute wacky shit others wrote about him. But, as per my operating rules for this newsletter, I am choosing to believe all of it if it makes for a good story.
Black started his rat-catching career as early as 10, snatching up rats in London’s Regents’ Park with his bare hands, which I would not recommend, but OK.
What did he do with these rats after he caught them, you ask? I’m sure you know the answer isn’t pleasant. But did you know the answer is rat gladiators?
Yes, Black became London’s number-one supplier of rats for some kind of fucked-up Victorian game where you turned a dog loose in a pit with a bunch of rats and made bets about how many rats the dog would kill. Remember that next time you complain about how much time the youths today spend on TikTok.
It wasn’t all Victorian-Era Pokémon fights, though. Black also became a celebrity in London as the most effective rat-catcher for hire out there. Though he did sometimes still snatch up a rat with his bare hands, Black did most of his work with dogs and ferrets, who were notoriously good at it. He experimented with other rat-catching animals, which I learned from a passage from Lapham’s Quarterly that I’m going to quote in full because it kills me:
“Black did experiment in training other species at the art of rat-catching, including a monkey (‘didn’t do much, and only give [the rats] a good shaking’), a badger named Polly (‘difficult in training to get him to kill, though they’ll kill rabbits fast enough’) and two stowaway raccoons (‘they weren’t no good at that’).
What’s most delightful about Jack Black, though, is his rat-catching uniform. Now, I want to be clear: there was no uniform required for this profession. My man did this all on his own initiative. He chose to go around London hunting rats in white leather pants, a green coat, a scarlet waistcoat, and a big-ass sash with two iron rats that he cast himself dangling off of it, along with the letters VR (for “Victoria Regina,” also homemade). This man looks like if Templeton from Charlotte’s Web became a leprechaun and I am fully obsessed with it.
He also made the bold decision of wandering around London telling people he was Queen Victoria’s Royal Ratcatcher, which, by the way, he absolutely was not. This was not a real position a person could hold. But I respect him deeply for just going all-in and saying it loudly enough that people bought it.
In 1861, Black was interviewed by a journalist named Henry Mayhew, who perhaps understandably wanted to know what this guy’s deal was and why he was wearing a sash covered in cast-iron rats. This interview is where we get the information that raccoons “weren’t no good at that,” as well as this true showstopper of a quote:
“I’ve been bitten [by rats] nearly everywhere, even where I can’t name to you, sir.”
Mayhew also describes how Black performed in the public square with his rats for tips, describing the scene like this:
“[H]e had a kind of stage rigged up, on which were cages filled with rats, and pills, and poison packages … Here I saw him dip his hand into this cage of rats and take out as many as he could hold … he let them run up his arms like squirrels, and the people gathered round beheld them sitting on his shoulders cleaning their faces with their front-paws, or rising up on their hind legs like little kangaroos, and sniffing about his ears and cheeks.”
I have many many questions about this, and I doubt that this guy would have given me any answers.
Clearly, Jack Black was a wacko. But he was also an entrepreneur, and that is why he earns an entry in the Dirtbags Through the Ages annals. Because my man Jack was absolutely London’s first dealer of fancy rats.
Whenever he caught a rat that looked pretty or was a fun color, he’d breed them to support of his business of domesticated rats, which he kept in birdcages and sold to fancy Victorian ladies who were into that sort of thing. He even sold pet rats to Beatrix Potter, of Peter Rabbit fame.
Jack Black’s rats became more and more popular, until eventually a woman named Mary Douglass brought her pet rat to a mouse show, where it won first prize. (Yes, I was also today years old when I learned there are mouse shows.) Thus, the Rat Fancy, a professional rat show, was born. The formal National Society for Fancy Rats (NSFR) was established in the 1970s and is still going strong.
I cannot emphasize enough how much I want to be invited to a meeting of the National Society for Fancy Rats. If you know someone who knows someone, please let me know.
Anyway, thank you for your service, Jack Black, you wacky bastard.
Chicagoland! I’m going to be at the Beer Shop in Oak Park on June 15 at 7pm, where I’ll be in conversation with Caroline Woods about her new historical thriller, The Lunar Housewife! It’s a spectacular story set in 1950s New York that combines two of my very favorite things: CIA conspiracies and literary magazines. I’d love to see you there if you’re local and free!
I’m also running a paperback giveaway on Twitter this week if you’d like to share and/or enter.
Until then, be well, and please be very careful about what body parts you put in reach of rats,
"Yes, Black became London’s number-one supplier of rats for some kind of fucked-up Victorian game where you turned a dog loose in a pit with a bunch of rats and made bets about how many rats the dog would kill. Remember that next time you complain about how much time the youths today spend on TikTok." Thank you for this 😂
This was a great one. I love rats and had a pet rat named Fiona once. She was black-and-white and so sweet. But she got all these tumors and it was just so hard to keep up with the medical costs for that. Apparently that’s pretty common which calls into question all of the studies that have said that X substance causes tumors in rats￼. From what I could tell, it happens either way.￼