Each great civilization is plagued by its own particular infestation—the point at which the balance between man and vermin shifts uncomfortably in the direction of the critters. Biblical Egypt had its plague of locusts, modern New York City is terrorized by bedbugs, and Victorian London had a serious rat problem. Rats scurried around the city chewing up food, clogging up drains, passing around diseases, and frightening ladies. The task of reining in the rodents fell to village farmers (desperate to save the gnawed legs of their livestock) and rat vigilantes who killed for commission or provided rats for popular dog and rat matches.
And then there was the rat’s most notorious enemy: Jack Black, Rat-Catcher to Her Majesty The Queen.
Black was an enterprising Dr. Doolittle meets the Pied Piper with an aptitude for animal breeding, catching, and killing, as well as an eye for business. He became a minor celebrity of Victorian London’s streets for his rat handling theatrics—he had a particular talent of sticking his hand in a cage of rats without getting bitten. His flamboyant costume of white leather pants, green coat and scarlet waistcoat with a rat belt-buckle (which he cast himself) caught the eye of Henry Mayhew, a journalist who profiled Black in his encyclopedic account of London street life, London Labour and the London Poor. Black appeared in the third volume of the series, published in 1861, by which time he had been appointed the official rat-catcher to Queen Victoria.
"Jack Black," from Henry Mayhew's London Labor and the London Poor, c. 1840
Mayhew’s portrait of Black depicts an experienced rat-catcher in his mid-40’s, with a black beard and eyebrows and a grey head of rough, uncombed hair. He chased down rats all over the city, in private homes and in public parks. He was fearless, and he bore the scars of his confidence across his body. Black nearly died three times from various bites, revealing to Mayhew: “I’ve been bitten nearly everywhere, even where I can’t name to you, sir.” His hands were especially branded by his nemesis’s ferocity. “I once had the teeth of a rat break in my finger,” he told Mayhew. “[It] was dreadful bad, and swole, and putrified, so that I had to have the broken bits pulled out with tweezers.”Continue reading » May 22, 2013
One can hardly visit the main page of any social networking site without being bombarded by the accomplishments of an adorable pet, but pride in one’s animal friends stretches far beyond the digital age.
At the end of the nineteenth century, John Strachey, editor of England’s oldest continuously publishing weekly magazine The Spectator, was bombarded with stories about the dogs of his subscribers. Between 1870 and 1895, The Spectator received so many letters regaling the editors with the ingenuity, loyalty, and human empathy of terriers, collies, and sheepdogs it became necessary to compile the best tales into a standalone volume, and so in 1895 the magazine released Dog Stories from the Spectator: Being Anecdotes Of The Intelligence, Reasoning Power, Affection And Sympathy Of Dogs, Selected From The Correspondence Columns Of The Spectator.
Here, we present four hopefully true tales of dogs who count and spend money, practice religion, atone for their misbehavior, and discriminate against chimney sweeps:
The dog I refer to was a little white fox-terrier, Prin by name, who lived at the Lion Hotel. He began by displaying a fancy for playing with coins, not unusual amongst terriers, and he advanced to a discovery that he could exchange the coins for biscuits. He learned that for a halfpenny he could get two biscuits, and for a penny three; and, having become able to distinguish between the two coins, it was found impossible to cheat him. If he had contributed a penny, he would not leave the bar till he had had his third biscuit; and if there was nobody to attend to his wants, he kept the coin in his mouth till he could be served. Indeed, it was this persistence which ultimately caused poor Prin’s death, for there is every reason to fear that he fell a victim to copper-poisoning.
-Lawson Tait, May 26, 1877
Well, in Shrewsbury a certain family had a dog of a religious turn of mind, who regularly attended the family prayers. When the bell rang for morning and evening prayer, the dog invariably accompanied the household into the room where prayers were said. Of course, each member of the family would kneel down, leaning upon a chair wand with the head bowed down, supported by the hands and arms. The dog would copy this example exactly. He would sit upon his hind-legs, and in that way copy the kneeling of the family. Then, in order to copy the arms resting on the chair and the head in the hands, the dog would put his forelegs on the chair and his head down between them. He would remain in this attitude until prayers were over, and then, when the family rose, he would also rise, and perhaps leave the room with some members of the household.
-Ludovicus, Oct. 26, 1893
A young fox-terrier, about eight months old, took a great fancy to a small brush, of Indian workmanship, lying on the drawing-room table. It had been punished more than once for jumping on the table and taking it. On one occasion, the little dog was left alone in the room accidentally. On my return, it jumped to greet me as usual, and I said, ‘Have you been a good little dog while you have been left alone?’ Immediately it put its tail between its legs and slunk off into an adjoining room, and brought back the little brush in its mouth from where it had hidden it. I was much struck with what appeared to me a remarkable instance of a dog possessing a conscience, and a few months afterwards, finding it again alone in the room, I asked the same question, while patting it. At once I saw it had been up to some mischief, for with the same look of shame it walked slowly to one of the windows, where it lay down, with its nose pointing to a letter bitten and torn into shreds. On a third occasion, it showed me where it had strewn a number of little tickets about the floor, for doing which it had been reproved previously. I cannot account for these facts, except by supposing the dog must have a conscince.
-Mrs. Hill, Feb.1, 1879
Your correspondent, W.H. O’Shea, has found several dogs “coulour-blind”. If black is a colour, I can give several instances in which a black retriever dog of mine was certainly not “colour-blind.” He had the greatest antipathy to sweeps and coalheavers, and would fly at them if not fastened up or carefully watched. He would even bark at a passing hearse! In all other respects, he was the best-tempered dog in the world, and I can only imagine that when very young he must have been ill-used by either a sweep o a coalheaver.
-C.R.T., Jan. 12, 1884
One of Us, by John Jeremiah Sullivan
"I can still hear people, guests and relatives, talking about how smart the dog was. “Smarter than some people I know!"
1946 / London
J.R. Ackerley Arranges a Marriage
"The dog had had a lonely and frustrated life hitherto; now she should have a full one."
2012 / New York City
Burkhard Bilger Patrols With the K-9 Unit
"A good dog is a natural supersoldier: strong yet acrobatic, fierce yet obedient. It can leap higher than most men and run twice as fast."
Ever wonder just how many books go into a single issue of Lapham's Quarterly? Follow along using this complete syllabus, which assembles all the fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and plays that produced this issue's readings. As always, we encourage you to read wider, deeper and at your leisure.
The Ancient World
The Zhuangzi, by Zhuangzi
Metamorphoses, by Ovid
Fables, by Aesop
Parallel Lives, by Plutarch
The Golden Ass, by Lucius Apuleius
The Georgics, by Virgil
On the Nature of Animals, by Aelian
The Medieval World: 480-1400
The Once and Future King, by T.H. White
Piers Plowman, by William Langland
The Book of Contemplation, by Usama ibn Munqidh
Yvain, Or, The Knight of the Lion, by Chrétien de Troyes
The Renaissance: 1400-1600
An Apology for Raymond Sebond, by Michel de Montaigne
The 18th Century
Natural History, Georges-Louis Leclerc
Travels to the Equinoctical Regions of Africa, by Alexander von Humboldt
An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, by Jeremy Bentham