Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A brief history of the least glamorous occupational holiday.
What, you forgot to send your exterminator a card?
Yes, today is Rat Catcher's Day, a holiday established to commemorate the legend of the Pied Piper, who was asked by the German town of Hamelin in 1376 (or 1284, depending what version you read) to take care of their rat problem. After he drove the vermin away by playing his pipe, Hamelin failed to pay him, so as punishment, he lured the town's children away as well, never to return after that July 22.
That's according to the popular Robert Browning (a British poet) version of the story, published in 1842, likely obtaining the day and year from the first English-written account of the tale, written by Richard Rowland Verstegan in 1605.
Hamelin, however, celebrates the holiday on June 26, a date also used by the Brothers Grimm version of the story (as well as the year of 1284). But actual rat catchers prefer to acknowledge the July date instead. Michael Boyer, who has held the official position as the Pied Piper of Hamelin since 1994, told National Geographic in a 2004 interview that the July 22 date "seems to be chosen by exterminators as their own special holiday just [like] secretary's day."
The job of pest control operators or pest technicians, as they prefer to be called these days, is not nearly as easy as playing a tune on one's pipe, even after centuries of innovation. Catching (or killing) rats is still largely accomplished with traps or bait. In the 19th and early 20th century, though, animals were often employed as well.
English rat catcher Ike Matthews wrote a tell-all account of his impressive career catching vermin in his 1898 book, Full Revelations of a Professional Rat-Catcher. In it, Matthews discloses his pro tips:
On using the mongoose:
I think that the mongoose is not half so sly or sharp as a good cat, and a mongoose, moreover, has to be taught how to kill a Rat (just the same as a dog). I am fortunate in having actually seen a mongoose and a Rat put alive in a tub together, and the mongoose would not even look at the Rat. And I maintain that the mongoose cannot compare with the ferret anytime, for the simple reason that a small ferret can get anywhere that a Rat can, whilst the mongoose must wait until the Rat comes out to feed. For instance, if a board of a floor be left up for a mongoose to get under the floor, it can only get into one of the joists; but a ferret can follow a Rat wherever it goes. Then again, the Rats can smell a mongoose even more strongly than they can smell a cat. So these facts prevent my recommending a mongoose on any account.
WHEN WORKING FERRETS FOR RAT-CATCHING always work them unmuzzled. Make as little noise as possible, as Rats are very bad to bolt sometimes. Never grab at the ferret as it leaves the hole, nor tempt it out of the hole with a dead Rat. The best way is to let the ferret come out of its own choice, and then pick it up very quietly, for if you grab at it, it is likely to become what we call a “stopper;” and never on any account force a ferret to go into a hole.
In fact, as we see from these images below from Bain News Service, the use of ferrets by rat catchers remained popular in 1920s America:
Fast forward to the 21st century and the job is still far from easy. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Behram Harda, Mumbai pest control department employee (and former Bollywood dancer), claims to have caught 3,000,000 million rats in his 30-plus year career. As the video shows (avoid watching it if don't want to see rats being killed), Mumbai's rat catchers are armed with only a flashlight and a stick, striking whatever rats they see at night. Harda then delivers the night's catch to a plague institute for research:
In the interview, Harda sounds quite proud of his work, a public service that helps his city avoid a potential health crisis. As for Manchester's Matthews, he seemed quite satisfied with his work as well:
I don’t think the Rat-catcher’s life is one of the worst if he looks well after his business, for he has a few advantages over other occupations. In the first place, he is his own master, and need only doff his coat when he chooses, there being for him no such summons to work as a factory bell. And if he fancies a day’s outing in the country he can always take his dog and ferrets with him, and make a day’s pleasure into a remunerative business...
So a big thank you and a big happy Rat Catcher's day to all the pest control operators out there. We're thankful for what you do, and just as thankful we don't have to.