“I have pressed the first lever,” said O’Brien. “You understand the construction of this cage. The mask will fit over your head, leaving no exit. When I press this other lever, the door of the cage will slide up. These starving brutes will shoot out of it like bullets. Have you ever seen a rat leap through the air? They will leap on to your face and bore straight into it. Sometimes they attack the eyes first. Sometimes they burrow through the cheeks and devour the tongue.”
-1984, George Orwell-
In this, the second in the series of Things That Scare Us, inspired, in part by this recent ratzilla, we stare down the Rat. Scourge of the Sewers, these creatures can grow to immense size, are intelligent, cunning, and highly aggressive. They are nature’s little arsonists: dragging matches into walls and igniting them by gnawing. They’ve been implicated in gas explosions—they can chew through almost any kind of pipe. They have ugly little feet and nasty, scaly tails. Oh, and they carry Plague. [Although the latter theory is currently under new scrutiny.]
They have been a fixture in the horror pantheon since the heartless Bishop Hatto, who called the peasants “vermin” and burned many of them alive, was subsequently devoured by rats in his tower in the midst of the Rhine. Who could forget Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls?” or Willard, or even the thought of the Sherlockian case of “The Giant Rat of Sumatra,” although I’m partial to M.R. James’s more subtle “Rats.”
Let us get into the ghoulish, fear-defying spirit of the season with some gratuitously grewsome accounts of rats, their nasty habits, and their victims.
I will be quoting extensively from “Uncle James” Rodwell’s The Rat: Its History & Destructive Character, With Numerous Anecdotes, the rat-hater’s vade mecum. It contains everything you could possibly want to know about phosphoric poisons, traps, charms, and ferrets. Rodwell offers ungrudging respect to this formidable opponent, but still wants them exterminated. Here, he tells us of their dietary habits.
As to animal substances, rats will gloat over and devour anything, from a delicate chop of house-fed lamb, or babies’ fingers, down to a venison pasty, an old tortoise, or putrid carrion. But with respect to poultry and game of every description, nothing dead or alive, either on water or land, is safe from their rapacity. They will eat anything, from the delicate wing of a roast duckling, young partridge or pheasant, down to the scaly old leg of a centenarian swan. They will likewise consume all kinds of oils and fatty substances, from the purest olive oil to the refuse of whale’s blubber. Nor will they object to soaps, either yellow or mottled, tallow fresh or stale; nor are they very particular, in times of need, as to boots and shoes, or horses’ harness. They will also consume all kinds of tuberous or bulbous roots, from a prize tulip to a mangel-wurzel. I have read also of their getting into churchyards, and eating our departed friends in their graves, as well as infesting the dead-houses on the Continent, where the bodies of strangers or casual dead are taken, for the purpose of being owned and claimed by their friends; but frequently, in a single night, their faces and portions of their bodies have been so completely eaten away by rats, that all traces of identity were entirely obliterated. Thus it appears we are never secure, either dead or alive, from the liability of becoming food for rats….The Rat: Its History & Destructive Character, With Numerous Anecdotes, James Rodwell, (Uncle James.) 1858
RATS EATING HUMAN FLESH
Police Surgeon’s Office Turned into Charnel House.
Rats with an appetite for human flesh is the latest affliction of police headquarters. They have had a taste of fresh, rich blood and the question now is whether they will be satisfied with portions of the human body amputated by the police surgeons or whether like the man-eating tiger, they will insist on eating nothing but human flesh, and that of their own killing. At present they content themselves with fighting over the fragments of hands and feet thrown into the tub by the surgeon.
Strange noises have frequently been heard in the surgeon’s office of late, but it was only on Sunday night ta the origin of these noises was discovered. The cramped quarters of the department since the city hall burned compels the police surgeons to sleep in the small office alongside the operating table. Under this table is the tub where amputated portions of the day’s victims are thrown.
Sunday night Police Surgeon Davis was awakened by sounds as of a scuffle in the room. The lights were turned out, but the full moon shone in at the window, and by its light he saw three immense rats dragging a portion of a human hand from the tub out upon the floor and fighting over it. He leaped from bed and turned on the lights and the animals fled. Then he got a piece of bread and butter, coated it with arsenic, and laid it invitingly near the hole into which the rats had run. Human flesh was more to their liking and the bread went untasted.
Then the surgeon called in Satan, the immense black cat which is the department mascot. But Satan was superstitious or something, as he clawed and racketed around noisily instead of waiting for the rats to reappear, and finally had to be put out of the room.
The next move to rid the place of these man-eaters will be to poison a portion of a human hand and leave it at the top of the tub where they will get it. The place must be rid of them or the surgeon himself may be eaten in bed some night. Denver [CO] Post 24 June 1902: p. 12
But rats, of course, did not just relish dead human flesh. To focus on the aspects most frightening to humans, here are some lurid anecdotes from Rodwell about rat attacks on humans.
One evening, as a gentleman well known to the theatrical world was seated with his family at the supper-table, they were all at once dreadfully alarmed by the heart-rending and pitiable screeches of his infant daughter, who had been sleeping in the adjoining room. They instantly ran to ascertain the cause of her agonies. At first they saw no visible cause, but on slightly turning down the bedclothes they discovered, to their horror, that blood was streaming from one of her feet, and upon closer examination they found the joint of her great toe most dreadfully lacerated. Of course, medical assistance was immediately sent for, and in the interim their imaginations were strained to their utmost as to how or what could have been the cause of it. While thus pondering, they suddenly saw something moving backwards and forwards beneath the clothes, at the bottom of the bed. The first impulse of the father was, of course, to grasp at it outside the clothes, and squeeze it with all his might; this he did, and held it till it was dead. Then, upon throwing off the bedclothes, they beheld, to their loathing and disgust, an enormous sewer rat. When the medical gentleman arrived, and saw the injured foot, and also ascertained the cause, he resorted to such means as would purify the wound from all poisonous effects, by well cleansing, &c, which happily terminated in nothing more serious than her being crippled in that foot for some time, and wearing the scar as a remembrance. But its mother informed me, that there was no doubt, from the desperate wound inflicted, that had they not instantly run to the child’s rescue, the rat would soon have had her toe off, if nothing worse. This occurrence took place some time since. But now we come to others which have transpired within more recent periods, and of a more dreadful description.
A few years ago, the town of Dowlais was the scene of a most painful and revolting occurrence. Some of the poorer class of houses are infested, to a considerable degree, by rats. A poor working woman having occasion to go from home, put her infant child to bed. Upon her return, and opening the door of the apartment in which her infant lay, she saw three large rats jump from the bed, and, on looking in the direction of her child, she was terrified at perceiving that the bedclothes were stained with blood. She instantly removed the coverlet, when a shocking spectacle presented itself. The rats had mutilated the poor infant and destroyed its life, having eaten away the wall of the belly, and actually destroyed portions of the intestines.
I shall conclude this calendar of infant sufferings and mutilations with one case more, which took place in Dublin, and which is, if possible, more appalling than all the rest. From the testimony of the unhappy mother of the child, which was given on the coroner’s inquest, it appeared that she had committed it to the care of a woman; and it was whilst under this woman’s care that the infant received the injuries which caused its death. Her evidence was to the effect, that on the night in question she fed the child and placed her in the cradle to sleep. She was awoke in the night by the child screaming. Witness got up, and quieted the child, and she went to sleep again. In the morning, at seven o’clock, witness got up, and, on approaching the cradle, found the child and the clothes about her all over blood. On her lifting the clothes off the cradle, two huge rats jumped out, and ran under the bed. She immediately ran with it to the hospital. According to the evidence of the surgeon, the child, when brought into the hospital, was fast sinking from the loss of blood, and half the inside of the left hand was eaten away, and the right arm was frightfully gnawed, evidently by rats; the face was also torn. Despite of every care, the child sank, and expired that morning from the injuries she had received. The Rat: Its History & Destructive Character, With Numerous Anecdotes, James Rodwell, (Uncle James.) 1858
A HORRIBLE DEATH
Inquest on the Body of the Child Eaten by Rats.
Coroner Janney held an inquest yesterday in the case of the baby, five weeks old Rosanna C. Fritz, who was devoured by rats in the rear of No. 309 Brown Street, on Thursday morning, as described in yesterday’s Inquirer. The mother told the story of leaving her baby in the morning and finding it upon her return at noon disfigured in the manner already described. The facts given were substantially the same as those detailed in The Inquirer. Dr. Wittekamp testified to the death of the child. The entire nose and a portion of the face had been eaten away. The left arm was lacerated and bruised as if the helpless infant had tried to ward the rats away. The little one’s sufferings, the doctor added, had been allayed by an anodyne. [The mother had drugged it to make it sleep while she was away.] Witnesses also described how the neighborhood was infested with rats. Some of them, he said, were as large as kittens six months old. Mrs. Ringstole corroborated the testimony of the mother. She said the people there could see almost at any time rats running around on the roofs and spouts of the houses. Catharine Wurse, another neighbour, said that if it wasn’t for her cats, she would be devoured. Last winter when she had no cats, she found the rats dancing around when she came down in the morning.
The jury found that death resulted from haemorrhage, and, upon the suggestion of the Coroner, recommended that the Board of Health abate the nuisance. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 25 June 1881: p. 2
The inimitable Dr Beachcombing recently had a post on the question of “will rats attack healthy adults?” The comment about rats on board ships is one of the most frightening things I have ever read.
Rodwell gives a weird little anecdote that combines two very real Victorian fears: burial alive and rats, but, alas, the exact nature of the officer’s death cannot be determined.
A few years ago a friend of mine was in Dublin. There was a tradition current, to the effect that some time previously a British officer had come by his death in a most melancholy manner through rats. The account ran as follows. A bosom friend and brother officer of his had died of a fever, and he among others attended the funeral. When the ceremonies were over, and all the mourners had retired, he sought an opportunity of leaving the company, and went alone into the vault to pay a last tribute to his departed friend. Now whether, according to the custom of the country, he had partaken a little too freely of whisky, and therefore fallen asleep, or whether he was so completely absorbed in devotional supplications for the welfare of the soul departed, nothing has transpired to determine. But suffice it to say, that in the evening the gravedigger came, and never supposing for a moment that any one was there, closed up the entrance of the vault, and so fastened him in. On the following morning, upon the soldiers gathering, and the muster-roll being called, he was found absent, and being one of the most regular in his attendance, it caused an inquiry as to who had last seen him; but no one had set eyes on him since the evening before. This caused some uneasiness among his friends, since they knew of his devoted attachment to the deceased officer. They called at his lodgings, and ascertained that he had not been home all night. That caused a hue and cry, when the thought suggested itself to some of his friends to have the vault searched. The gravedigger was soon sought for and found. On opening the vault, there lay the missing officer a corpse, and so miserably gnawed and mangled by rats, that, but for his uniform, they could scarcely have identified him. But on further examination some dead rats were found, and were supposed to have been killed by random cuts with his sword in the dark, since that instrument is said to have been found by his side besmeared and clotted with blood and fur. Now whether he died from fright or exhaustion, or from both, or whether the rats in a body followed him up and killed him, will remain to all time a mystery. The Rat: Its History & Destructive Character, With Numerous Anecdotes, James Rodwell, (Uncle James.) 1858
FARMERS ATTACKED BY RATS
Rats are becoming troublesome in the southern part of Hubbard County, and as they are almost as large as muskrats (!!) they are very dangerous. Many farmers have been unable to raise chickens this year because of the rats, and the financial loss has been great. On the Rudesill farm, south of Akeley, the rats were so numerous that they have been fed on poisoned food, and scores have been killed. Joe Knute went into the grain shed to spread the poison, when he encountered a large horde of rats which immediately attacked him, and after fighting desperately for some time, he was compelled to cry for help. The shed was covered with blood, and over 100 rats were killed.
Another farther, Simeon Parks, found nearly fifty rats in a barrel trap in one night.
Some of the farmers are going to import some ferrets to drive out the rodents from the farm buildings. Duluth Evening Herald Salt Lake [UT] Telegram 8 October 1907: p. 5
Not only did rats attack humans, they could destroy buildings. In an article from 1902, it was said that “Rats are overrunning the White House. This is one of the reasons why a new executive mansion should be built. The present residence of the president is infested and undermined with the rodent pests. This has been the case for years, and the rats have increased in numbers until the question of getting rid of them has become serious.” [Bellevlle (IL) News Democrat 25 February 1902: p. 2] I mentioned in my post on the Fortean White House that very large rats invaded the kitchen with impunity, dragging away food as it was being prepared.
Aggressive sewer rats took on the town of Manchester, N.H.
RODENTS TAKE A TOWN
Buildings Undermined and Sidewalks Destroyed by Sewer Rats
From the Boston Globe
Manchester, N.H., is suffering from a plague of fierce rats, which are undermining its streets and sidewalks.
When the citizens have occasion to use the sidewalks of that busy New Hampshire town they watch the pavements closely, for they know not when the invading army of rats now in possession of the town will claim them for victims.
That the business section of the city, especially along Elm, Hanover and Manchester Streets, is being undermined by a vast army of big rats is admitted by many. The evidence, in the shape of great holes in the streets and shaky underpinning beneath the buildings, is too plain to be denied.
Within a week two bad cave-ins have taken place in the business section, both of which were caused by the rats. ..Down Manchester Street runs an 18-inch sewer drain pipe, laid in short lengths.
The rats started from this sewer, hundreds of them, as large around as a man’s arm, ate their way through the tough drain pipe and started tunneling their way apparently into the hotel…[they dug a hole ten feet deep under the street] They loosened one of the square blocks of granite with which the street is paved and it fell into the hole. A policeman saw the hole early in the evening and set a barrel and lighted a lantern over it.
The next morning a gang of street employees started to make repairs. At the first stroke of a pick the entire roof of the underground chamber fell in.
Some of the rats were in the chamber at the time, and many of them were killed. Some of the fiercest showed fight, but were soon disposed of by the workmen.
Twenty loads of gravel were required to restore the street to its former level after the sewer had been repaired….
Another cave-in occurred in front of the old post office building on Hanover Street, near Elm. The sidewalk was of tar and concrete and held together until one morning the milkmen were surprised to see that the entire sidewalk in front of the building had fallen to a depth of eight feet. The rats had broken through the sewer, excavated a passage underground to the sidewalk and there had made their chamber…
The building is used as a fancy grocery store, and the rats overran this, living upon the good things provided by the proprietor….
So grave has the plague become that the street department keeps a constant watch upon the district, as it is feared that the rats may grow bolder and undermine a trolley car or tear down a building. The underpinning of the post office building was so shaky that it had to be repaired, and it is feared that the rats have not confined their attentions to gravel and sewer pipe alone.
Street Commissioner Stearns thus describes the phenomenon of Manchester’s rat plague:
“The unusual high water in the river has driven the rats up into the sewers. They can no longer swarm along the river bank and they have migrated to the business section of the town which is near the river and where food is more abundant. I know that they were the cause of the two big cave-ins. They are sewer rats, big and strong, and worth two or three each of the common house or barn rats.
They are very bold, running along the gutters in broad daylight, and the workmen said that when they were repairing the breaks the rat sat in holes and watched them work…” Kansas City [MO] Star 8 August 1903: p. 8
The plague of rats did not end with the 19th century. Even today we hear of infants being attacked by rats and they were a horror of the trenches in the First World War.
“Rats, Rats, Rats.”
Rats? What did you ever read of the rats in the trenches? Next to gas, they still slide on their fat bellies through my dreams. Poe could have got new inspiration from their dirty hordes. Rats, rats, rats—I see them still, slinking from new meals on corpses, from Belgium to the Swiss Alps. Rats, rats, rats, tens of thousands of rats, crunching between battle lines, while the rapid-firing guns mow the trench edge—crunching their hellish feasts. Full fed, slipping and sliding down into the wet trenches, they swarm at night—and more than one poor wretch has had his face eaten off by them while he slept. – Romeo Houle Boston [MA] Herald 11 June 1916: p. 26
Houle was a barber of New Bedford, Mass. He served with a French Canadian regiment in the first army that Canada sent across the Atlantic and was one of the few survivors of his 500-man unit. He wrote an unusually gripping narrative of the horrors, including poison gas attacks. But it was the rats who seemed to bother him the most.
Have I been too rough on rats? And does anyone know who James Rodwell was? Answers to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com who was once bitten by a rat, but bears the species no lasting animosity unless they try it again.
See this link for a handy tip from Uncle James on how to get the rats to exterminate themselves.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.