Monday 27 September 2010

Incendiary Mice

It's rodent day, apparently, on the Cat's Meat Shop, courtesy of the Leisure Hour from 1860.

Did you know that mid-Victorian mice, like their modern counterparts with a fondness for electric cables, were a fire hazard? (can anyone forget the classic BBC headline - sometimes I really admire their copywriters - Mice Suspected in Deadly Cat Fire?)

But surely they did not manage to nibble through gas-pipes? No, it's marginally more plausible, but only just ..

Mice . . . are usually considered as being merely mischievous nuisances, whose sole descrtructive propensities are directed against candle-ends, cheese, and corn, nibbling through skirting-board, cupboards and boxes, and other trivial predations. We shall find, however, by a further investigation of facts, that mice, powerless as they may seem to be of producing evil on a large scale, may nevertheless cause a large and destructive loss of property, and even of life. . . . .
    A fire is discovered: how did it originate? What the green fat of the turtle is to the alderman . . . such is phosphorus to the mouse - a decided luxury, an epicurean morceau. Advantage of this well-known partiality is taken by the commonly used vermin poison, now extensivelyy sold under the name of "vermin-destroying paste," the basis and active principle of which is phosphorus. This is self-evident from its smell, its being luminous in the dark, the manner in which it burns, and the phosphoric acid produced by its combustion. A thin layer of this, spread upon bread-and-butter, and put in the neighbourhood of its holes, will lure the unsuspecting mouse from his ordinary cheese or candle diet to the poisoned and invariably fatal bait. We have watched its effects: at first it appears to act as a narcotic, or stupifying agent; the mouse walks and stumbles about, unheeding the presence of man; it seems intoxicated. Death, however, soon follows; and upon examining their bodies a few minutes afterwards, evidence of extensive inflammation of the bowels is to be found. . . .     
    Some few years ago, a fire originated in a cupboard, very mysteriously. Satisfactory and conclusive evidence was given at the time, that no lighted candle or fire had been in the room for months. The shelves of the cupboard, the floor, and the ceiling of the room underneath were burnt, when, fortunately discovery took place, and the ravages of the flames were stopped. . . . . All that was found were the remains of a lucifer match-box, and the ends of a few burnt matches. Evidence of the existence of numbers of mice was apparent, from the great quantity of the droppings of these little animals.
    It is hardly necessary to state that the power of ready ignition possessed by lucifers is derived, amongst other things, principally from phosphorus. In all probability, the mice endeavoured to get at the contents of thge box, attracted by the smell of the phosphorus; the friction caused by their continued nibbling was sufficient to ignite the matches; the box, the shelf, the floor would follow; and hence the catastrophe.
    This explanation appears to us to be more credible than that of wilful incendiarism, or spontaneous combustion ...

The phenomenon of spontaneous combustion solved, perhaps? Crime writers fond of the locked-room mystery, take note.


  1. At the risk of looking like a bit of a stalker I just had to comment again. Why is this so much more interesting than anything in magazines in the 21st C? Or is this the Victorian equivalent of 'my father ate my guinea pig' courtesy of Take a Break?

    Perhaps this explains the mystery of Krook's death in Bleak House? Although it would be a shame to explain away such brilliant description with a mouse and a box of matches....

  2. I think, in fairness, I should note that I am cherry-picking interesting articles from The Leisure Hour, and getting about no more than half a dozen a year ... but glad you're enjoying it!