Jack Black painting in 1851. Photo: Perseus Digital Library.
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The famous ‘rat king’ of England


If the three-piece suit, the high-top hat do not draw attention to Jack Black, the mouse cage he always carries will do it.

By the mid-19th century, dirty sewers were everywhere in England: basements, kitchens, drains, gardens. They destroy houses, crops and sometimes even bite people.

Paintings of Jack Black in 1851. Photo: Perseus Digital Library.

Catching mice becomes a new profession in this country. According to a 1963 article by Barbara Tufty, rat hunters could be given many privileges by cities if they caught at least 5,000 mice a year, or about 13 mice a day.

In the Victorian period (1837 – 1901), Jack Black was the “rat king”. Black began to become a rat hunter for the city government after he found the royal parks in London filled with mice. Black promoted himself as the Queen’s rat hunter despite no appointment.

He liked to be noticed and often carried mouse cages on the street to sell homemade rat poison. When the crowds gathered to watch, he opened the big mouse pen and reached inside. The mice jumped on his arms and ran up to his shoulders while the audience marveled. Black rarely gets bitten by a rat, but almost dies from an infection.

“I challenge people to make rat poison more effective than me,” he said as he showed the drug’s effect on mice. “Whatever it is, just bring it here and experiment with the mice.”

After the afternoons of selling rat poison, Black went down to the basement and sewers in London, bringing weasels and dogs to hunt. Black has trained ferrets to sniff mice and train dogs to look for ferrets in case they get lost or stuck in a sewer. He tried to use other animals like badgers, bears and monkeys but most were not as effective as dogs and weasels.

However, Black did not kill all the mice he caught. He often let them live and propagate for sport. In the 19th century, violent animal-related sports were popular, including games for rats in enclosed spaces and dogs. Players bet how long the dog takes to kill rats. Jimmy Shaw, the sport’s “tycoon,” buys 26,000 mice a year from hunters like Black.

Black also breeds mice for a softer reason. He knows that some people want to keep nice mice as pets and they are willing to pay a lot of money. So when he discovers mice of different colors, especially albino, he will give them to girls or sell them to pet families.

Black is very proud of his breeding mouse skills. Rumor has it that he provided the mouse to the Queen and the famous writer Beatrix Potter. The American Mouse Association said Black could be considered the “creator of the first truly domesticated mice”.

The legacy of Black could be even more: The first experimental white mouse could be bred from Black’s albino mouse.

There is no way to confirm this information, but author Robert Sullivan wrote in a book published in 2004 that: “I think all the great scientific achievements made by lab rats are the result of public the work of mouse hunter Jack Black “.

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