From “The Rats of London” at victoriangothic.org:
If you were a rat in mid-century London, [Jack Black] was your nemesis. “Moist as rabbits, and quite as nice,” was how he described the rats he cooked for his own consumption. Sewer rats, he insisted, were just as good as barn rats, if you gave them a few days’ chase before killing them.
Rat-catching was a regular profession among London’s poor, allowing one to leverage a childhood spent peeking under floorboards and playing with filthy animals into a full and rewarding career. Armed with quick dogs and well-trained ferrets, Black and his colleagues ’sterminated rats by the hundred, collecting their fees on a cash-only basis. It was a “peculiar and exciting” line of work, according to Ike Matthews, who wrote the book on rat-catching; one where you could be own boss and turn long sojourns into the country with your hunting animals into a remunerative business.
Like many a successful 19th-century entrepreneur, Black was one-part showman. Henry Mayhew wrote:
The first time I ever saw Mr. Black was in the streets of London, at the corner of Hartstreet, where he was exhibiting the rapid effects of his rat poison, by placing some of it in the mouth of a living animal. He had a cart then with rats painted on the panels, and at the tailboard, where he stood lecturing, he 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, a feat which generally caused an ‘oh!’ of wonder to escape from the crowd, especially when they observed that his hands were unbitten. Women more particularly shuddered when they beheld him place some half-dozen of the dusty-looking brutes within his shirt next his skin; and men swore the animals had been tamed, as 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.
But those who knew Mr. Black better, were well aware that the animals he took up in his hand were as wild as any of the rats in the sewers of London, and that the only mystery in the exhibition was that of a man having courage enough to undertake the work.
Rat bites, however, were par for the course in this line of work. Even Jack Black suffered through many hideous infections during the course of his career. He accounted for these by supposing that the rat itself was poisonous. There was, as of yet, no germ theory of disease. As such, medical attention was something of a crap shoot…
[Full Article at victoriangothic.org]
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