Eaten by Rats? August 11, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback
***Dedicated to Chris C***
A short post to ask a very simple question: can rats kill homo sapiens? Of course, given the bubonic plague the answer is yes. But what about in a more simple and straightforward fashion. Can a big enough group of rats attack and overpower a weak enough human being or are we in the same kind of fantasy world as children being carried off by eagles? After all, we have an atavastic fear of rats. Orwell wrote a memorable rat scene in 1984. James Herbert made a small fortune arguing that rats could kill in his science fiction account, The Rats and seeing a rat does something, at least to Beach, which seems to trigger fight/flight instincts: they are loathsome animals and they look at humans without apparent concern as if to say ‘you are bigger and I’m cleverer’. This blogger entertains his children endlessly with stories about Ratty and Mrs Ratty who live in the garden and want to come and eat them (I know, I know…), stories that leave the children screaming for more. Anyway without trying to sully further the reputation of rats here’s a fascinating account from Dublin dating to 1822 (that is the happening not the account which dates to 1901 and that, in a nutshell, is the problem).
[t]ragic interest attached to the tablet to Sir Samuel Auchmuty, G.C.B., who died in 1822 while in command of forces in Ireland. It is said that at his funeral an officer lost his way in the crypt, was accidentally locked in, and was there devoured by rats, which probably swarmed from the great sewer which led from the cathedral to the Liffey. His skeleton is said to have been afterwards found still grasping his sword, and surrounded by the bones of numbers of rats which he had slain before being overcome.
A provisional and sensible analysis has been undertaken on a Dublin blog and is well worth a read. Beach just doesn’t believe this story though. He doesn’t believe that rats would overpower a man with a sword in his hand and he certainly doesn’t believe that the first record of said killing would come in 1901 (this date is uncertain by the way). He did though spend an interesting morning looking for references in various newspaper archives to men, women and children being eaten by rats. There are a few and, of course, all those he could find involved dead bodies being eaten not live bodies fighting. If any human being was devoured it was almost certainly because the man, woman and child in question was completely immobile. What about this case of a baby from 1907:
The child, it seems, was left in bed by its mother on Monday night whilst she went out. On her return at midnight she found the child dead with nearly the whole of the left side of its face, and part of its head eaten away, apparently by rats.
Note that it is not clear though whether the babe died of rat injuries or was already dead. Consider, instead, this story, not of a human but of a horse which does give some idea of the terrible destructive power of the little blighters, all supposing, of course, that it is true.
A knacker took an injured horse to the seashore near Kildysart on Saturday and returned on Sunday to kill it found that the animal had been completely eaten by rats. Nothing but the skeleton remained. The horse, apparently unable to move was eaten alive.
Any other thoughts on rat killers? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
17 Aug 2013: First of all, our favourite comment from this month by Dirk, because it will give you nightmares while communicating some basic facts: I read your post on rats with interest. I know more about rats than most, and I will share what I know. My knowledge comes from several years working as chief officer on a ship carrying humanitarian grain shipments from the gulf coast of the US to Africa. The grain comes on in bags, and the rats are already in the bags when they are loaded. The holds are filled with bags until not one more bag can fit, and the hatches are closed. There is no room in the holds to enter for inspection, so the next time the hatches are opened is 60 days later. It can be up to six months until the last bag is unloaded. The rats and mice breed without interruption for those six months. There is plenty of food, and enough water from condensation and rain, even though we seal the hatch covers with special tape. The real problems begin on the return voyage. Thousands of bags have split open, and the African cargo handlers have used the holds as a latrine. When we arrive back in the USA, we are inspected immediately, and the holds must be spotlessly clean. So those forty days are all about cleaning and catching rats. There are lots of spaces for them to hide. Hydraulic hatches between decks are the worst. I don’t want to waste too many words on the subject, but lets just say that an almost infinite number of rats can hide in the cubby holes. Once we have as much of the grain swept up as we can, the rats start getting hungry. They eat the mice first, then start going after each other. Much of my time on the return trip is about trapping rats. The deck crews spend each day vacuuming and sweeping in the dimly lit, un air-conditioned holds. We cannot use poison, because we carry foodstuffs. And the little bastards learn. They evolve over the course of the trip. I have to keep using different traps and different bait. The awful truth is that once the hunger level gets to a certain point, the rats will attack people. If I were to get startled and fall down a ladder or whatever, they would absolutely kill me. I am sure that in the past, many people have been devoured by rats. And some species can get to housecat-sized. They also breed so very fast. It can really be nightmarish. The only good thing is that the ship’s holds are separated from the living spaces by steel walls and waterproof doors, and there is no direct passage from one to the other. As someone who has been in a dark cargo hold with 10,000 full grown rats, I can assure you that they have the capability and intent to kill people. Apocryphal? I wonder… Here’s a nice little quote from Derelict London:”Far from there being any romance in the tales told of the rats, these vermin are really numerous and formidable in the sewers, and have been known, I am assured, to attack men when alone, and even sometimes when accompanied by others, with such fury that the people have escaped from them with difficulty. They are particularly ferocious and dangerous, if they be driven into some corner whence they cannot escape, when they will immediately fly at any one that opposes their progress.” (Victorian Sewer flusherman) Ever heard the phrase “cornered rat”? The last-ditch emergency response of a rat to any threat it can’t run away from is to go absolutely berserk, shrieking and snapping its teeth audibly while leaping 3 feet in the air. I know this because I’ve actually been in the position of I accidentally cornering a rat. This, by the way, was not when I was a small child – we are talking about an exceptionally large adult man here! This unfortunate incident occurred when my extremely dense tom-cat Eccles somehow managed to catch a rat – it probably ran round a corner and bumped into him – and was so pleased with himself that he assumed I’d enjoy being woken up at 4 am to celebrate his accomplishment. Unfortunately he’d completely forgotten to kill it. Being woken from a sound sleep to find yourself in a dark room with a frenzied rat leaping at you is not a great deal of fun, especially if you have no clothes on… Eccles was so unnerved by this turn of events that he ran away and hid, as did the other two cats after they’d had a quick look. In the end I had to beat it death with a big stick. It really was an terrifying display of ferocity from such a small animal, and it obviously would have bitten me as badly as it could if I’d given it a chance. Now, rats are social animals – apparently a typical colony may number several hundred (that statistic is for the black rat, Rattus norvegicus, and British encounters would usually be with the brown rat,Rattus rattus, as indeed mine was, but I assume they have similar lifestyles). Suppose you have 300 rats in a confined space, such as a sewer, and they’re all in a panic and rushing in the same direction – maybe there’s been a surge of water or whatever. If their escape route is blocked be a human being, they’re all going to leap at him in a mad frenzy, screaming and biting – he doesn’t have a chance! Of course, normal rat behavior is to flee from potential danger, no matter how many of them are present, so this would only be likely to happen if a large number of them ran straight into a sewer worker when they were already fleeing from something else, which would be a rare coincidence. But it could happen, and if it did, he wouldn’t stand a chance! PS – Other notable rat attack fiction: the movies Willard (1971), and its sequel Ben (1972). The latter is largely remembered nowadays for the eponymous ditty that accompanies its closing credits. Yes, even at the age of 14, Michael Jackson was writing love-songs about his tender feelings for a fictional male rodent who ate Ernest Borgnine. The warning signs were always there… Chris from Haunted Ohio Books meanwhile has documentary evidence. ‘You know, I really thought I would find more stories of people killed by rats, but you’re right, the most sensational stories are often that of a corpse found eaten by rats, often with ambiguity as to whether the rats caused the death. But here are a few stories where the victim has been gnawed and brought to the point of death by rats. Given the extent of the injuries, is it safe to assume that the victims died? WOMAN EATEN BY RATS While Lying Helpless on a Sick-Bed and Her Worthless Husband Too Lazy to Protect Her. Providence, R.I., February 10. One of the most horrible cases that the police of this city have ever known came before them on Friday night, when they were called by the residents of Webster Street to No. 61 on that thoroughfare. In a hovel at that number resides Julia Mahan, aged fifty-six years, and her husband, John, a man who, it is said, lived from his wife’s earnings for a long time. Mrs. Mahan was stricken with paralysis about four weeks ago and has been lying helpless ever since and deserted. The police, who went to Mrs. Mahan’s bedside, found that the place was infested with ravenous rats, and that they swarmed in the sick woman’s bed. Her nose and cheeks had been eaten away, and the jaw-bone was left bare. When the meager covering of the bed was raised a dozen rats came out from under it, and then it was found that the sick woman’s limbs had also been eaten. The flesh was gnawed from the thighs, and the woman had been for hours helpless to drive away the rodents. Captain Egan sent Mrs. Coughlin to care for the woman last night. This morning a lighted candle was left in the room, and in ten minutes it was carried off by the rats. Mrs. Mahan is dying. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 11 February 1889: p. 2 EATEN BY RATS Fate of Baby Twin Sisters in an Ohio City. Springfield, O., Feb. 6. Eizabeth Black, an orphan was found dead in her bed yesterday at the Logan County children’s home. She followed her little twin sister to the grave, the other having died a few days before. They were mere babies and were taken to the home from Kenton. Last week they were attacked by a swarm of rats in their miserable home and virtually eaten alive. The children suffered terribly Kalamazoo [MI] Gazette 7 February 1904: p. 1 A Child Devoured by Rats. We learn that about ten days since, a girl four months old, which had been left for a short time in a cellar kitchen, by its mother, who resided on Coal Lane, was attacked by a large rat, which so mangled one of the arms of the poor sufferer as eventually to cause its death. The child died on Wednesday last. [Pittsburg Chronicle] Rutland [VT] Herald 4 October 1842: p. 1 This seems to be the only unambiguous case where the rats truly did devour someone: Child Killed by Rats. In the Bellevue Hospital at New York, on Monday night, a poor Irish woman was admitted to the lying-in Ward. She gave birth to a babe, and so little attention was paid to the patient, that the infant was literally devoured by rats before morning, its suffering mother being too weak to drive them off the bed which they swarmed over. The baby’s feet and head were nearly separated from its body. The Daily Dispatch [Richmond, VA] 27 April 1860: p.1 And, as you have observed, it is the immobile and the young who are targeted by the rodents. The notion was obviously well-known enough to be a cliche–here it was joked about in court: EATEN BY RATS Chicago, April 22. “The defendants have been eaten by rats,” the district attorney declared in petitioning the court for a continuance in the case of the United States vs. 268 sacks of flour. Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times-Leader 22 April 1919: p. 10 And finally revenge! One of the celebrated restaurateurs of Paris has discovered the way to make a delicious dish with rats. He dresses them with champagne and spices. He cannot fulfill all the orders he receives. In short, the last chic is to eat rat. The market for these little beasts is held in front of the Hotel de Ville. The rats are shut up in a great cage, where the buyer selects his rat, which is then driven by the seller into a small cage, where it is alone. A bulldog is then brought, the cage is shaken, the rat rushes out and is seized by the dog, which gives it a squeeze and deposits the dead rat delicately at the feet of the purchaser. Cleveland [OH] Leader 30 December 1870: p. 2 Thanks Dirk, Count and Chris!