No. 643
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
February 29, 2024

Rat Pit.

September 12, 2011
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Via Newspapers.comPhantom stagecoaches are always fun (especially when they generate manic headlines.)  The “San Bernardino News,” December 7, 1914:Have you seen the phantom coach that dashes madly, silently, down the steep, rugged mountain trail near Pilot Rock? It is a weird story, this. It deals with the apparently supernatural. Possibly it isn't that at all, maybe it is simply some
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Strange Company - 2/28/2024
`
HE DUEL IN ELLEN'S HONOR. Soapy Smith’s grandmotherOn Wednesday, August 9, 1820, an argument between 17-year-old, James Bowe Boisseau (1802-1820) and Robert C. Adams (unknown-1820) vying for the attention of 18-year-old Ellen Stimpson Peniston (1802-1860), took a terrible turn. The happy party in her honor took a tragic turn when the competition for Ellen’s affections ended in a deadly duel,
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 1/10/2024
There’s nothing wrong with the MTA’s usual subway signage: the directions are clear, the design is simple. But when a contemporary sign happens to be stuck underneath original signage made with decorative tile and an unusual typeface—as it is inside the Sixth Avenue F and M station at 14th Street—the old-school sign wins hands-down. Subway.org […]
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Ephemeral New York - 2/26/2024
An article I recently wrote for the British online magazine, New Politic, is now available online. The article, “The Criminal Origins of the United States of America,” is about British convict transportation to America, which took place between the years 1718 and 1775, and is the subject of my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: […]
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Early American Crime - 12/17/2021
 Alice Hoyle last saw her sister, Lillie, the night of September 1, 1887, in the room they shared in Webster, Massachusetts. Lillie left to use the outhouse, and Alice fell asleep. Lillie never returned. The next morning, Alice went out, thinking Lillie had already left for work. That is the story Alice told the police— as the investigation progressed, she would change it several times.Read
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Murder By Gaslight - 2/24/2024
Included in yesterday’s trip to Fall River was a stop at Miss Lizzie’s Coffee shop and a visit to the cellar to see the scene of the tragic demise of the second Mrs. Lawdwick Borden and two of the three little children in 1848. I have been writing about this sad tale since 2010 and had made a previous trip to the cellar some years ago but was unable to get to the spot where the incident occured to get a clear photograph.  The tale of Eliza Borden is a very sad, but not uncommon story of post partum depression with a heartrending end. You feel this as you stand in the dark space behind the chimney where Eliza ended her life with a straight razor after dropping 6 month old Holder and his 3 year old sister Eliza Ann into the cellar cistern. Over the years I have found other similar cases, often involving wells and cisterns, and drownings of children followed by suicides of the mothers. These photos show the chimney, cistern pipe, back wall, dirt and brick floor, original floorboards forming the cellar ceiling and what appears to be an original door. To be in the place where this happened is a sobering experience. My thanks to Joe Pereira for allowing us to see and record the place where this sad occurrence unfolded in 1848. R.I.P. Holder, Eliza and Eliza Ann Borden. Visit our Articles section above for more on this story. The coffee shop has won its suit to retain its name and has plans to expand into the shop next door and extend its menu in the near future.
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 2/12/2024
Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately … Continue reading
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Executed Today - 11/13/2020
A Newspaper Man’s Plight | Interior of a Pullman Parlour Car.

Rat Pit.

Rat Pit

A rat pit is one of those under-ground novelties occasionally seen in Boston by gaslight.

From Police records and recollections, or, Boston by daylight and gaslight for two hundred and forty years, by Edward Savage, 1873:

The pit consists of a board crib of octagon form in the center of the cellar, about eight feet in diameter ad three and one half feet high, tightly secured at the sides. On three sides of the cellar are rows of board seats, rising one above the other, for the accommodation of spectators. On the other side, stands the proprietor and his assistant and an empty flour barrel, only it is half full of live rats, which are kept in their prison-house by a wire netting over the top of the cask. The amphitheatre is lighted with oil lamps or candles, with a potato, a turnip, or an empty bottle for a candlestick. Spectators are admitted at twenty-five cents a head, and take their seats, when preparations for the evening’s entertainment commence. The proprietor carefully lifts the edge of the wire netting over the rat barrel, and with an instrument looking much like a pair of curling tongs, he begins fishing out his game, rat by rat, depositing each carefully inside the pit until the requisite number are pitted. The assistant has brought in the dog, Flora, a favorite ratter, which he is obliged to hold fast by the nape of the neck, so eager is she for the fray. Then commences the betting, which runs high or low according t the amount of funds in the hands of the sports

“A dollar. She kills twenty rats in twelve seconds!” “I take that!” “Half a dollar on the rats!” “Don’t put in them small rats!” “Two dollars on Flora in fifteen seconds!” “Done at fourteen!”  “No you don’t!” “Don’t put in all your big rats at once!” “Five dollars on the rats in ten seconds!” (no takers.)

The betting all seems to be well understood, but it would puzzle an outsider to tell whether there were really any genuine bets or not.

The bets having been arranged, time is called, and Flora is dropped into the ring. Flora evidently understands that her credit is at stake; but the growling and champing, and squealing, and scratching is soon over, and the twenty rats lie lifeless at the feet of the bloodthirsty Flora, when time  is again called, and the bets decided, and all hands go up and liquor. This exhibition is repeated several times, with different dogs, and lasts as long as the live rats hold out.


Source:

Savage, Edward. Police records and recollections, or, Boston by daylight and gaslight for two hundred and forty years. Boston: J.P. Dale, 1873.