Owning rats, or as some say, being owned by rats, is a journey. For me it began with being intensely rat-phobic to where I am now, rat-obsessed (ok, i admit it).


Letter to a Rat

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I found this awhile back on the Virginia Folklore Society website and thought it was pretty delightful. Certainly a more charming approach to wild rodent control than a glue trap.

note: picture is from McGuffey's Eclectic Primer

Communicating With Critters

"In a conversation with an aged mountaineer the subject somehow turned to the destructive nature of rats and the great loss that can be attributed to those rodents. He said, "Nowadays they have chemicals and traps that can help eliminate them, but in earlier times, around our neighborhood, we used special words we called 'giving away the rats'."1

He explained that the procedure required finding a blacksnake which was then killed but kept intact. The snake was then buried near the rat infested house with its head pointed in the direction where the rats should go--a specific residence had to be selected, not a stand of woods, mountain or other uninhabited place. The informant noted, "We done it here, and after awhile people on the farm down the road complained they was being overrun!"

In the same neighborhood, which borders Highland and Rockingham Counties in Virginia and Pendleton County in West Virginia, other elderly residents told of similar practices with minor variants. Some claimed the snake must be buried after sunset or before sunrise, others said special words as part of the process, and still others carried the blacksnake around the homestead three times before burial in its special position.2

As unusual as this practice may appear, it reminded me of an experience recounted by Cornelius Weygandt, Professor of Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, who bought a farm in New England a half century ago and in preparing the place for his summer occupancy found an old letter addressed to rats which asked them to leave the basement of the home.3 Weygandt considered it unique; nevertheless it was a practice known in widely separated places in America and in Virginia too.

One such letter was dated October 31, 1888 in Maine, and addressed to "Mssrs. Rats and Co." The opening paragraph reads: "Having taken quite a deep interest in your welfare in regard to your winter quarters, I thought I would drop you a few lines..." The writer then offered persuasive reasons why the rats should leave, citing the cold winter months, the lack of food, and the planned remodeling of the interior of the home. He told the rats that they would be uncomfortable and perhaps destitute. The writer then recommended an alternative consisting of a specific address of a neighbor to which they could go, adding that "...you will find a splendid cellar well filled with vegetations...a barn with a good supply of grain, where you can live snug and happy." The letter ends with a mild threat, "Shall do you no harm if you heed my advice."

A similar letter written in New Hampshire in 1845 was much less friendly and more demanding (perhaps this was a second or third letter of a sequence), "I have borne with you till my patience is gone...depart from this place with all speed!...Begone, or you are ruined!" The consequences of staying were emphatic, "We are preparing water to drown you; fire to roast you; cats to catch you; and clubs to maul you." Yet the writer offered the rats an alternative by suggesting they "...quit here and go to Ike Nutes!"

In 1882 an elderly Maryland farmer near Cockneyville wrote such a letter which he read aloud to the rats which infested his home. He read it at night in the belief they were perhaps more active and receptive at that time. His occult activities became widely known when his children used the letter as evidence against him in court seeking a legal declaration of his incompetence.

In recent years two specimens of similar letters were made available to this writer. One used in Rockingham County was written on a single sheet and "delivered" to the rodents through a hole in a baseboard of the homestead near rural Tenth Legion. The other was similar in structure and theme and was merely placed in the cellar near food supplies that rats had been eating, on a farm located in western Shenandoah County.

A lifetime resident of the region offered instructions for the procedure, "lf you find rats or mice in your house write them a cordial note saying how bad the facilities are and suggest they leave. Put the note where they will see it. If this doesn't work, write another letter and say it's the second notice and be firm but cool. If this doesn't work, write a third notice but be mean and tell them to "get the hell out!" Warn them you'll use poisons and traps--they'll be gone in just a few days after that!"4

In seeking to reduce the loss of grain caused by rats, John George Hohman's pow-wow booklet (1819) included a method used by many Pennsylvania Germans. This was in a sense a harvest ritual in which the first three sheaves of grain were presented to the rats with an announcement, "Rats these sheaves I give to you, in order that you may not destroy any of my wheat."5. The rest of the harvest was then stored in the barn. This practice assumes the logical and reasonable nature of the rodent. "


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