The Other Jack Black and His Fancy Rat Friends - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Photo Taken In Germany, Neu-Ulm

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

More than any other human, this man turned rats from pests into friends.

By Joshua Eferighe

If Jack Black’s three-piece suit, top hat and rat-shaped medallions didn’t get your attention, his matted, uncombed hair, “honorary” sash bearing the queen’s initials and white leather pants certainly would. Or his ever-present cage of rats.

After finding a crowd, the self-styled Victorian royal court rat-catcher would then stuff his hand into the rat-filled cage. As the rodents scurried about his arms and along his shoulders — usually, though not always, without biting him — the crowd would come to see the rodents, normally an obvious threat to public health and safety, as a weird but pleasing attraction.

Black’s legacy lives on in the pet rats still kept in homes. With his rat-catching prowess — and nose for a new fuzzy fad — he’s individually responsible for the modern phenomenon of the pet rat.

At the time, there was enormous stigma against the animals. “Even nowadays there are people that don’t consider them pets, so I don’t even know if that’s gone away,” says Karen Robbins, founder of the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association.

oqfsidgm

Jack Black in his scarlet top coat, standing to the far left.

In the mid-19th century, rats were everywhere: basements, pantries, sewers, gardens. When they weren’t infesting your home, they were ruining your crops. When they weren’t damaging harvests, they were nipping at people’s ankles. The infestation was so intense because rats are so intelligent — more so, according to estimates, than squirrels, gophers or other rodents. When humans stopped hunting for food and started farming and harvesting, rats took notice and opted to feast off the spoils rather than fend for themselves. That, coupled with their high fertility rate, led to an overpopulation that demanded attention.

The influx of rats inevitably led to an industry to get rid of them, and rat-catching became an extremely lucrative occupation. Guilds of catchers were created, and for around 5,000 rats a year — about 13 rats a day — you were given “special privileges” by various municipalities, according to author Barbara Tufty in her 1963 science-newsletter article “Meet Mr. Rat.” However, a hero would soon emerge, and that hero was Jack Black.

Jack Black wasn’t just good at catching rats — he was obsessively good. He began as a child, as many did, since it was an era of child labor and lots of Victorian children preferred catching rats to cleaning chimneys or working in coal mines. But Jack was special, and soon made a name for himself; he had a government commission to catch rats before he hit his teens. Henry Mayhew, chronicler of street life in Victorian London, was so taken by Black that he profiled him in 1861. “He let [the rats] run up his arms like squirrels,” Mayhew wrote, “and the people gathered round beheld them sitting on his shoulders cleaning their faces with their front paws.”

As Mayhew described, there wasn’t a place Black wouldn’t go, chasing rats from private homes to public parks, even almost dying due to infected bites. “I’ve been bitten nearly everywhere, even where I can’t name to you, sir,” Black told the journalist. “I once had the teeth of a rat break in my finger. [It] was dreadful bad, and swole, and putrified, so that I had to have the broken bits pulled out with tweezers.” His efforts didn’t go unnoticed, and he was eventually contracted by Queen Victoria’s court.

Jack Black, was a rat-catcher and mole destroyer from Battersea.     Date: circa 1850s

Jack Black was a rat-catcher and mole destroyer from Battersea.

Source Alamy

Tides in public perception had begun to change in other ways. Rat-baiting, a popular London tavern pastime where dog owners would place their dogs in a pit of rats and bet on how many they could catch in a set amount of time, was a blood sport — but it was also the first step in the rodents purposefully being brought into close quarters with humans. The pastime eventually became so lucrative that the London government put a tax on rat-killing dogs.

But credit for the true domestication of the rat goes to Black. Obsessed with animals — he caught wild birds; employed ferrets, badgers and monkeys in his rat-catching tactics; and once claimed to have caught two raccoons. But he was especially talented in breeding rats. He took a particular liking to those of rare colors, like albino rats, and with softer, less menacing features. And when he discovered that some saw white rats as prized, or “fancy,” he capitalized on that, giving them as presents to women and selling them as pets to families.

As a child, author Beatrix Potter had a pet rat — and dedicated one of her books to it. Even the Queen herself once entertained a “singing mouse,” which was taken to the palace to amuse the Prince of Wales and the princesses and was popular in the Victorian papers at the time. Black’s specialized breeding also ended up having larger historical implications: The first white lab rat — bred in Philadelphia — was, according to legend, descended from an albino rat bred by the rat catcher. 

“He’s the one that actually saw the different colors when he was catching the wild rats and pursued it further rather than just provide them for rat bait,” Robbins says. “I think in the very beginning it was more a novelty thing to get a rat because it was a different color than a normal wild rat.”

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories