The Rat History Chronicles #2
Chapter Two: Jack Black The Rat-Catcher
Hello, guys. I apologize for the wait. Sadly, my rat Gloria passed away last Tuesday night while I was sleeping, and I have not been in the mood to write a blog until now, so here we go. It’s time for another installment of The Rat History Chronicles, and this edition is dedicated to my sweet angel, Gloria.
This week I’d like to focus on a little known figure by the name of Jack Black. No, not the star of the hit 2003 film School of Rock. I’m talking about the godfather of rat breeding, the man who started it all. We’ll take a look at his notable achievements as well as the skeletons in his closet. Trust me; he has many, and their shaped like rats.
As the human population of Victorian London grew to unhealthy levels in the 1800’s, so did the population of street rats. These rats were seen only as vermin, for their value as friendly pets was not yet realized. It was then that Jack Black the Rat-Catcher burst onto the scene. He dressed flamboyantly, dawning white leather pants, a green coat, and a large rat-shaped belt buckle. He had a knack for theatrics and gained much notoriety as he rounded up the rats of London with ease. People thought of him as a hero. Black gained the attention of reporters by putting on shows where he would stick his hand into a cage full of rats and remain unbitten. Stunts such as this thrust him into the public spotlight, and by 1861 he had become the official rat-catcher to Queen Victoria.
Jack Black is major figure in rat-history because he was the first to breed fancy rats, the kind we cherish as pets today. His ability to train and breed rats into docile creatures was the primary catalyst for western society’s acceptance of rats as pets. The queen even kept royal rats that were given to her by Jack Black. Many in the upper class of England then hopped onto the trend of keeping pet rats, and Black was the top supplier (1). This all seems very positive and may lead one to ask, “what then are the skeletons in Jack Black’s closet?” These rats that Black caught didn’t all become pets. In fact, very few did. The majority were sold for rat baiting.
Rat baiting, which involves “placing captured rats in a pit or other enclosed area and then betting on how long it takes a dog to kill them,” was an immensely popular bloodsport in Jack Black’s time. One single rat baiting operation demanded thousands of rats, and Jack Black had no problem providing them (2). British writer James Wentworth Day wrote of his experience in the rat pits:
“This was a rather dirty, small place, in the middle of the Cambridge Circus, London. You went down a rotten wooden stair and entered a large, underground cellar, which was created by combining the cellars of two houses. The cellar was full of smoke, stench of rats, dogs, and dirty human beings as well. The stale smell of flat beer was almost overpowering. Gas lights illuminated the centre of the cellar, a ring enclosed by wood barriers similar to a small Roman circus arena, and wooden bleachers, arranged one over the other, rose stepwise above it nearly to the ceiling. This was the pit for dog fights, cockfights, and rat killing. A hundred rats were put in it; large wagers went back and forth on whose dog could kill the most rats within a minute. The dogs worked in exemplary fashion, a grip, a toss, and it was all over for the rat. With especially skillful dogs, two dead rats flew through the air at the same time …”(2).
What a nasty scene he portrays. How could the creator of pet rats have contributed to this evil rat genocide? Many that do know of Jack Black only think of him for his positive contributions to the rat world, but it is important to view the whole scope of Black’s life. We often view things as black or white, good or bad, but looking at the history of rats and Jack Black’s place in it has taught me to take a more nuanced perspective. Jack Black was both good and bad. He was human. I hope the story of Jack Black has taught you all to keep an open mind. I love you. Say “hi” to your rats for me.