Victorian electric traps for rats and cats were invented because people of the Victorian Era had all sorts of issues with rats and cats. For instance, on an island off Cornwall, known as Looe or St. George Island, one Victorian Era gentleman found rats overrunning the island. They were so bothersome that no matter how much effort people put into exterminating them, they reappeared. He stated that it was “not how to kill the rats, but how to annihilate them so effectually as to place the reappearance of even one of them altogether out of the question.”
Humorist and author Mark Twain had a different way of looking at rats. In his novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, two young boys, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, opened up a rat hole and then proceeded to capture fifteen rats they described as the “bulliest.” After putting them in a cage they stuck them under Aunt Sally’s bed, only to have someone else open the cage out of curiosity and allow the rats to escape. Of course, both boys got the hickory switch from Aunt Sally, who also ordered them to catch the varmints, which they spent two hours doing.
Although Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer might have been seeking out rats, there were plenty of Victorians who didn’t want to deal with the pests. That was particularly true for people living in the country. For instance, one country gentleman wrote about his rat issues in 1891:
“What a veritable problem these rats are to those who lead a country life! … These wretches, as evening approaches, sally forth from their hiding-places … In winter they enter the outhouse and too often manage to munch the combs and devour whatever wax they can reach. Poison is sometimes tried, but poison is double-edge and may kill the wrong party.”
To solve the rat problems in Victorian times, there were several suggestions other than poison. One suggestion involved placing broken glass in strategic spots because it was uncomfortable for the rats to traverse over and if they licked their paws they ingested it, killing them. That was a solution that was used for a rat infestation in the eastern suburbs of Paris in Monfaucon in 1828. Another solution was to pour petroleum over the rats because it smelled bad and would supposedly encourage them to flee. Lastly, there was an idea to use Stockholm tar in areas the varmints frequented.
Stockholm tar did not dry and stuck to their coats, so rats tended to leave the area to escape the tar. However, the Queanbeyan Age decided that glass, petroleum, and Stockholm tar were not as effective as Victorian electric traps. They provided the following information as to why:
“The discovery that the wires of the electric light form the most efficient of all rat-traps was made accidentally. The electrical light suddenly went out one night in a private house, and, on examination, it was found that a rat had touched the two wires in the cellar, and thus closed a circuit with his unsuspecting paws. The rat was killed instantaneously by the electric current, and his body remained, with one paw uplifted, in precisely the attitude in which death overtook the unfortunate animal. The hint thus furnished has been used by Professor Smith, and is the basis of his electric rat and mouse annihilator.
Instead of an elaborate Trap, which rats and mice of any intelligence refuse to enter, the Professor uses wires. On all sides of the cellar, and a height of two inches from the ground, is placed a small wooden trough sprinkled with cheese, while on each side of the trough run the electric wires which furnish light to the rest of the house. The mice and rats are naturally attracted by the cheese, and in endeavouring to reach it touch the two wires and are instantaneously killed.
This admirable invention will clear a house of rats and mice in a single night, and in some places where it has been tried no less than three gross of assorted rodents have been found the next morning standing in hungry attitudes over the fatal trough. It is obvious that this admirable invention will entirely superseded the old-fashioned traps, and that its universal adoption will lead to the total extermination of rats and mice.”
Besides Victorian electric traps to exterminate rats, people of the nineteenth century sometimes wanted to rid themselves of cats. That was because cats often ran loose in cities. At times, the number of loose cats could be overwhelming. City dwellers often complained about them and requested that something done to control their numbers. To assist with the urban cat problem, Victorian electric traps for cats were devised. Of these traps the following is provided nearly verbatim:
“Professor Robinson, in his electric cat specific, has made yet another application of the electric light wires. As is well-known, the urban cab inhabits the back fences of city lots. Very few cats are found on the roofs of city houses, doubtless for the reason that the roofs are flat, and hence are destitute of a ridge-pole on which the cat can sit and obtain an uninterrupted view of the neighbourhood. Sitting on the edge of the fence, the cat can watch the approach of enemies with or without bootjacks, and can take proper measures for avoiding them. So strictly confined are city cats to back fences, that could we capture every one that mounts a fence we should soon render the city cat as extinct as the dodo.
The electric cat specific is a system of electric wires running along the tops of back fences. Like the wires of the burglar discourager, they are harmless in the daytime when the current is cut off, but are eminently deadly at night when the current is turned on. The midnight cat mounts the back fence only to be stricken with instantaneous death. She utters no moan, and her attitude is so natural that it creates no suspicion in the mind of other cats. In fact, the more thickly the top of any given back fence becomes crowded with dead cats, the more anxious other cats become to join the crowd and take part in what the imagine to be a great feline gala concert.
The electric cat specific was recently tried in connection with the back fence. The current was turned on at 11 o’clock at night, and at seven the next morning 231 cats were found dead on the top of the fence, while some more had fallen to the ground. The demonstrative efficiency of Professor Robinson’s great invention will ensure its rapid and general adoption, and thus electricity will once more have conferred a signal blessing upon the human race.”
-  Black, Adam and Charles Black, Black’s Guide to the Duchy of Cornwall, 1871, p. 289.
-  British Bee Journal, Volume 19, 1891, p. 270.
-  An Electric “Rat Trap,” in Queanbeyan Age, 5 June 1883, pg. 4.
-  Tid-bits from All the Most Interesting Books, Periodicals and Contributors in the World, Volume 4, 1883, p. 221.