A Rat Problem in France in the Early 1800s

In 1828, there was a tremendous problem with rats in Montfaucon. The rat problem was located in an area that neighbored the villages of Pantin and Romainville and is today located in the eastern suburbs of Paris. Part of the problem was attributed to a slaughter-house located in the area owned by a man named Dussaussois. Authorities conducted discussions about moving the it because they thought that might eliminate or reduce the rat problem. However, residents in the immediate area argued against it. They believed moving the slaughter-house a great distance from Paris would result in dangerous consequences if the rats were suddenly deprived “of their accustomed sustenance.”[1]

Brown rat. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The slaughter-house killed approximately 35 horses a day, and, the rats fed on them. According to Dussaussois, the slaughter-house rats seemed to have a predilection for one particular part of the horse. They always began feeding by “devouring the eyes, drinking the liquid contained in them, and eating the fat at the bottom of the orbit.”[2] But it was not just the eyes they enjoyed. They also completely devoured the corpses and eagerly dined on discarded heaps of “muscular parts and intestines.”[3]

Nothing seemed to stop the rats from feeding and nothing seemed to control the rat problem. For instance, during severe frosts, after slaughtering the horses, workmen found it impossible to flay and cut up the horses because they quickly became frozen. But frozen corpses did not deter the rats from eating them. They penetrated the corpses — entering either through the death-wound (a knife plunged into the horse) or through the anus — and once inside the corpse they established themselves. They then devoured the flesh. So, when the corpses thawed, workmen discovered nothing but skin and bones, as the rats had eaten everything else.

Another problem was the “fetid emanations” that arose because of the rats. These fetid odors “not only render almost uninhabitable the neighbouring villages of Pantin and Romainville, but [also] infest[ed] the Boulevard du Temple; several of the streets in the Maraes, and extend[ed] … even to the gardens of the Tuileries.”[4] Supposedly, however, the horrid smell only reached the gardens of Tuileries when the air was calm, the skies cloudy, and the weather heavy. It was described as a horrid odor but, apparently, “the abominable and permanent stench … [exercised] … no injurious effects upon those employed [at the slaughter-house].”[5]

 Boulevard du Temple in 1838, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Boulevard du Temple in 1838. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Besides the horrid smell the rats produced, they were said to be unpleasant in other ways. One man reported that the rats possessed a “ferocity and voracity [that] surpasses anything that can be imagined.”[6] The following story proves the point. There was a man conducting experiments who purchased 12 rats. He placed them all in the same box and took them home. When he opened the box, he was shocked by what he found. Reputedly, there were “but three rats, the others having been devoured by the survivors, and nothing remained of them but their tails and bones.”[7]

The rats inhabiting the slaughter-house were also prolific. In fact, they quickly multiplied to take advantage of the readily available food supply. They also allegedly “marched in troops in search of water in the dusk of the evening, [lining up] … in single file stealing beside the walls that lined the road to their drinking-place.”[8] Female rats also birth babies several times a year and “they will produce twelve, fourteen, sixteen, and even as many as eighteen at a litter.”[9] This meant the rats quickly overran the immediate area.

Because of their sheer numbers, the rats undermined the safety of buildings in and around the slaughter-house. For instance, a small building attached to the slaughter-house had its foundation severely burrowed into by the rats. Their burrowing was so bad, it was thought the building might fall at any minute. This caused Dussaussois to go to extraordinary lengths to save it: He encased “the foundation with broken bottles [so they could not continue to eat away at it].”[10]

Besides the slaughter-house and its adjacent buildings, the rats also spread out into the adjoining fields. There they burrowed into the ground like rabbits. One person reported that “it is only necessary to turn up the earth with the foot to find nests.”[11] Moreover, a resident in the immediate area claimed the rats had excavated their neighborhood to such a degree “the ground shakes beneath your feet [wherever you walk].”[12]

Rat. Author’s collection.

Because of all the rat problems, Dussaussois decide to conduct an experiment to determine their numbers. He had part of his slaughter-house enclosed with walls and then bore several holes in the base of the walls to allow ingress and egress of the rats. Two or three horse carcasses were then placed in the walled enclosure with the holes stopped up. Later that same night, Dussaussois and several workmen quietly entered the enclosure with torches and clubs. Then according to the newspaper:

“[They] commenced a general massacre; it was not necessary to take any aim, for no matter how the blow was directed, it was sure to immolate a rat; and those who endeavored to escape by climbing up the walls were made to descend in double quick time, by applying a torch to their nether ends.”[13]

Over the next four days, Dussaussois’ experiment continued. The result was astonishing. “One night’s massacre amounted to 2,650, and the result of four hunts was 9,101 [dead rats].”[14] Dussaussois and his crew conducted the same experiment over the next month and reported that “in the space of a month, 16,050 rats [were killed].”[15] That number, Dussaussois maintained, was less than one twentieth of the area in which the dead bodies of the horses existed and where the rats fed. Thus, he concluded, it “is but natural to suppose [such areas] must equally attract [a similar number of] rats [thereby amounting to over 320,000 rats inhabiting the slaughter-house].”[16]

It is not known exactly what became of Dussaussois’ rat problem or if he permanently solved it. He might have decided to keep killing them with clubs. By the early 1800s, arsenic was a by-product of the smelting industry. It was a cheap, readily available poison, so maybe he resorted to it. It’s doubtful, however, that he decided to apply “A Capital Cure for Rats” based on a cheery child’s rhyme from the 1870s that I found in the Rambling Rhymes for Little Ones.

An old woman troubled with rats,

Who couldn’t depend upon cats — …

Had a fine large extinguisher made,

Then in her barn quietly laid; —

“I’ll catch all the tyrants,” she said.

At the very first sight of a rat,

She popped the extinguisher pat,

Which caught him as well as a cat.

And so she went on every day,

Till she frightened the rats all away.”[17]

 

A Capital Cure for Rats, Author's Collection

“A Capital Cure for Rats.” Author’s collection.

References:

  • [1] The Atlas. Or Literary, Historical and Commercial Reporter, Vol. 1, October 18, 1828, p. 36.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Wynter, Andrew, Curiosities of Civilization, 1860, p. 137.
  • [9] “A Chapter on Rats,” in Waterford Mail, 09 April 1834, p. 4.
  • [10] “Flaying Establishment at Montfaucon,” in Poor Man’s Guardian, 4 July 1835, p. 588.
  • [11] The Atlas. Or Literary, Historical and Commercial Reporter, Vol. 1, October 18, 1828, p. 36.
  • [12] “Flaying Establishment at Montfaucon,” p. 588.
  • [13] The Atlas. Or Literary, Historical and Commercial Reporter, p. 36.
  • [14] “A Chapter on Rats,” p. 4.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] The Atlas. Or Literary, Historical and Commercial Reporter, p. 36.
  • [17] Rambling Rhymes for Little Ones, 1870, p. 6.

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