“Black was an enterprising Dr. Doolittle meets the Pied Piper with an aptitude for animal breeding, catching, and killing, as well as an eye for business. He became a minor celebrity of Victorian London’s streets for his rat handling theatrics—he had a particular talent of sticking his hand in a cage of rats without getting bitten. His flamboyant costume of white leather pants, green coat and scarlet waistcoat with a rat belt-buckle (which he cast himself) caught the eye of Henry Mayhew, a journalist who profiled Black in his encyclopedic account of London street life, London Labour and the London Poor. Black appeared in the third volume of the series, published in 1861, by which time he had been appointed the official rat-catcher to Queen Victoria.
“Jack Black,” from Henry Mayhew’s London Labor and the London Poor, c. 1840
Mayhew’s portrait of Black depicts an experienced rat-catcher in his mid-40’s, with a black beard and eyebrows and a grey head of rough, uncombed hair. He chased down rats all over the city, in private homes and in public parks. He was fearless, and he bore the scars of his confidence across his body. Black nearly died three times from various bites, revealing to Mayhew: “I’ve been bitten nearly everywhere, even where I can’t name to you, sir.” His hands were especially branded by his nemesis’s ferocity. “I once had the teeth of a rat break in my finger,” he told Mayhew. “[It] was dreadful bad, and swole, and putrified, so that I had to have the broken bits pulled out with tweezers.””