I’ve been ill and not at my sparkling best, so let me share a handy how-to tip for those of you in Kent who have been photographed for the tabloids holding one of those “cat-sized” rats we hear so much about these days.
In speaking of the rat-catcher’s imaginary powers of bewitching rats, allow me to present the following anecdote.
A well-known rat-catcher of Mid-Lothian was, during the last long war with the French, caught by a press-gang, and taken on board one of the king’s ships. At first he feigned madness; but finding that would not do, he betook himself quietly to work. However, it appears that the ship was overrun with rats; and one day he happened to overhear the captain and one of his mates consulting together as to the best means of getting rid of them. “What’s all this about rats, when I’m on board,” said the rat-catcher. “You on board,” cried the captain, “and what can you do?” —” Do,” said he, ” why I can make them cut their own throats!” “The deuce you can!” exclaimed the captain; “then I’d like to see you do it!”
Away went our hero below, and got the blade of a razor; then rubbing it over with something out of a small bottle, came on deck, and stuck it upright in a plank; that done, he went down into the steward’s room, and poured some of the stuff on the soles of his shoes; then, after walking about the place, he came up to where the razor was, and there pulled off his shoes; then went and stood apart, where the captain and the rest were waiting to see the result. Presently the rats smelt the stuff below, and following it, made their way on deck to the razor, when the eagerness of those behind pushed the foremost against the blade, and cut them.. Like some of our friends here, the superstition of the captain overcame his judgment. He roared out to them to lower the boat instantly, and take that wizard on shore, for he wouldn’t sail with him. “Take him on shore directly, I say, or he’ll sink the ship.” And so the rat-catcher was set at liberty once more, to follow his old trade of rat-charming.
And now, you are doubtless anxious to know what was in the bottle. But, first, I must tell you, there are four kinds of witches commonly used for charming rats; namely, a red herring, some old rags, a small bottle of the oil of aniseed, and a calf’s tail. These are the witches, and the method of using them is simply thus:—If you prefer the red herring, all you have to do, is to tie it by the tail with a piece of string; but be careful to handle it as little as possible. Then, after dark, when all is quiet, just trail it on the ground round the barn or rick where the rats are, and then strike off, trailing it all the way to the place where you wish them to go, and there leave it; or, if you know the place where they drink, it is only necessary to trail it across their path to the place you would have them go, and that will have the same effect. The consequence is, when the rats come out to drink at the nearest pond, ditch, or river, they will catch the scent of the herring; off they will go, nosing it all the way like hounds; and when there, it is a hundred to one they do not go back, but quietly take up their abode where they are. This method of drawing them mostly proves successful; but either of the others I think better, which is, to fasten a string to the old rags or calf’s tail; then pour some of the oil of aniseed upon them, and trail them the same as the herring to the place where you wish the rats should go. The rags should be old ones that have been exposed to the air; but, in any case, you should handle them as little as possible, because, if the rats smell the odour of your hands, they will not go, but run away. In the third place, if you would like to follow the other plan, all you have to do is, to pour some of the oil of aniseed on the soles of your boots, and take very short steps as you pass over the ground, the same as in trailing; but, in that case, when you arrive at the place, you must take off your boots, and carry them for a distance, or else the rats will follow you to your own house.
Thus, you know the whole secret of bewitching rats…
The Rat: Its History & Destructive Character, With Numerous Anecdotes, James Rodwell, 1858 The rat-hater’s vade mecum. Everything you could possibly want to know about phosphoric poisons, traps, and ferrets.
I know that we live in a kindlier, gentler era where this could be considered animal abuse, but at the time this was written, rats were a menace to crops and property, as well as infants and invalids. I’ve written before about horrible deaths by rodent. Aniseed, one of the delightfully named “witches,” was also used to attract dogs and fish.
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.