Sewer Rats: Case Studies from the University of Chicago
[Departments of Life Sciences and Forensic Studies]
By Duane Hewitt
Copyright 2016 Duane Hewitt. All Rights Reserved.
The first report concerning the sewer rats – of Chicago, no less – was filed by a graduate student of the University of Chicago in that same year; 1987. It was noted that the particular “exposé – as opposed to a dissertation” – as the Director of Life Sciences called it, was nothing short of “fantastical assumptions and poorly documented scientific data and intellectual strata that presented itself as actual findings.” That particular student received a mark of 5 on the stanine system (a grading system founded on a base of 9). Nonetheless, there may have been some merit to that particular student’s report.
The report was filed as an assignment by then student Charles Wentworth, a third year biology student who was hardly anything out of the ordinary, at least by first appearances. Mr. Wentworth, a 23-year old student who went on to complete a Master’s degree and ultimately, a Ph.D. (which had been awarded for his doctoral thesis “Forthcoming contagious diseases of various mammalian species in the Northwestern United States,”) did in fact become engaged to, and ultimately did marry, Professor Hollering’s daughter. (That would be the daughter of the professor who initially assigned a barely passing grade to Mr. Wentworth’s third year assignment). The marriage – and the wedding party – was strange to say the least. Professor Hollering, it can be noted, at first despised the young Charles who clearly had designs on his daughter upon meeting her at closed university affair. That particular event involved a drunk string quartet that performed two of Beethoven’s string quartets “masterfully while still in a drunken stupor” to the dismay of the university’s Registrar, who, once he had realized that interest in the university’s music program (and the following year’s enrollment) had gone straight up, had become quite delighted. But this particular article is about various species of rats – and is not intended to be in reference to those of the human sort.
Anyway, an ongoing series of exposés of rats, as written by Charles Wentworth, did finally give some credence to the saying, a rat of every kind.
Rats – and this is written for the average reader who may not know, should there be such an entity – are generally categorized as small to medium sized long-tailed rodents of the superfamily “Muroidea.” Most significant in the species is Rattus rattus, the black rat. Following this mysterious and compelling fellow is Rattus norvegicus, the brown rat. If none of this seems of particular interest and you feel your interest waning, then, dear reader please read on…
In taking a moment to digress ever so minimally, none of this was meant as a biological treatise on the history of rats. For this reason, this particular writing will continue to move forward but, to cover a few salient points, yes, rats are a reservedly intelligent mammal that are larger and far more lethal than mice. Rats have been responsible for the spread of disease (see footnotes concerning the black and bubonic plagues, plus innumerable examples of rat infestations). As well, further reading is recommended concerning accounts of attacks on animal and humans alike, including decimating and devouring to the bone anything that might be viewed as a food source or a threat. Nevertheless, rats must have their place, N’est-ce pas vrai?
It may help to cover a few details about rats: The majority of rat species are nocturnal. Much of their life is spent foraging and breeding. They do run in packs and, depending on the species, most packs are led by the dominant male, whereas other packs may have several dominant males or females. Rats have long been known to spread disease but they do also attack and kill insects, small rodents, and even reptiles for food. In some parts of the world, and in major cities, rats have been known to attack people. Rats are omnivores but have a preference for meat when it’s available – and this particular detail is significant to the rest of the university’s report.
The case studies filed with the University of Chicago were all based on a series of reports that sprung up seemingly overnight (actually, these events were decades in the making) concerning a few unknown species of rats that had found their way out of the city sewers while on pilgrimage for better food sources. Those rat packs did indeed find what they were looking for.
The suspected species was the Brown Rat (Rattus Norvegicus), which has managed to populate much of the entire earth due to its resilience and adaptability. But this species was later dismissed as being responsible for the attacks when a new, urban-bred species was discovered in and around New York City and Chicago at roughly the same time somewhere around the late 60s to the time the reports were filed in the mid-80s.
The first formally reported incident involved three young people who were staggering home half-drunk early one Sunday morning through Central Park. Having come from a drinking bash held (illegally) in the park sometime after midnight Saturday July 18th, the three were said to have “been swarmed by a pack of what might easily have been close to 1,000 rats.” The report claimed that it was essentially “an attack” that took place. All three victims, in their early 20s, had been bitten repeatedly and viciously, as if “the rats were famished with an unnatural hunger” as one victim later reported. Each of the victims also later stated that they were grateful to have escaped with their lives – an unusual declaration given that these particular statements were made several days later and none of the victims (at that time) were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But there is something even far stranger and deeply disturbing…
Each recounted the incident with similar memories of the event. And this is what is especially disquieting, because the “attack” as the papers had called it, was accompanied with what the victims claimed were “desperate, savage screams” coming from the pack, as if the animals “were mad with hunger.” One of the victims, the only woman in the trio, stated that the rats shrieked as if “they were burning with hunger – and all the while tore into us, as if to devour the three of us alive.”
Although the event made local headlines, something even more troubling followed just weeks later in New York that put a shiver down the spine of every New Yorker. The presumed insanity and mental imbalance of your average New Yorker notwithstanding, this particular matter occurred late the evening of August 5th along Route 6 at the Cypress Avenue subway stop, which is located near to the East River. Apparently, hundreds of “large, voracious black rats” had run up along with subway platform and entered one of the subway cars at approximately 5:42 p.m. Here again, reports of the rats making horrifying, loud pitched screeches were reported by more than the 25 people who survived the attack. Most had multiple bites with gnashes and bruises from trying to protect themselves from the attack. One witness claimed over 1,000 rats. Another put the estimate at more than double that amount. Shortly after the attack, amidst the hollering and screams of the panicked and terrified passengers, the rats apparently fled out of the car, only to disappear down the dank subway corridor.
As indicated, it wasn’t only New York that was experiencing the attacks. Chicago, with its waterways and large metropolitan area, had also been experiencing attacks on people. But one story in particular, had an interesting variance compared to the other stories.
Previously, all reported attacks on people had been done by a rat pack of what is estimated to be about 1,000 rats. Although disturbing, it may not surprise naturalists, biologists, or exterminators since packs can become quite large when sourcing for food. But two separate Chicago attacks were carried out by no more than one or two dozen rats – and the methodology of the attacks, and of their efficiency, is dumbfounding.
On the early morning of August 18th, a young single mother by the name of Natalie Meyer had gathered her two young children, Beatrice and Brendan, ages nine and 11 respectively, on a journey to their aunt’s on the other side of town, which was to include a trip to the city’s famed aquarium along the waterfront. The trip was never completed.
Like something out of a Jack London tale of wolf attacks, the unsuspecting family-of-three were aggressively set upon by what each initially thought were “small, ferocious black dogs or badgers.” But Ms. Portman later estimated there had been no more than, at best, two dozen of the vermin. And yet, the attack was carried out with the planning of an almost wolf-like cunning, with rat after rat, attacking, biting and tearing, and then darting away as the next wave of attacks took place – and all this, to a horrific array of snarls and squeals, the likes of which Ms. Meyer had never before heard. Ms. Meyer was absolutely terrified. Her two children were beyond hysterics.
The brave young lady fought back – first with a handbag, and then with a piece of wood, likely from a broken old rocking chair that she found there at the side of the road. Wave upon wave, the rats executed their strategy – aiming to wear out the three victims before moving in to tear them to shreds and devour them alive. Then, as if by a miracle, two police officers came to the rescue. Shouts and hollers went off along with gunfire. At first, the two officers fired into the air. Then they aimed and shot at the rats, killing five in the process. The Meyer family was saved.
Another equally frightening episode occurred in the South Side of Chicago one gray September morning on or around the 8th of that month. This incident was barely reported by the papers, possibly because it involved two of the more notorious gangs of the area. Apparently, three thugs of what will be referred to here as “Gang A” were wholly consumed by several thousand rats in one of the ghetto strongholds. “Gang B” might have thought it a form of street-administered justice until 20 of that gangs’ members were set upon by the same dark, brutal force. Their over-expostulated movements, artificially forced bravado, and available weapons did little to protect all members of the gang. Two deaths ensued. Three others were so horribly bitten that they suffered permanent disfigurement. None of the full details were reported by the press. Perhaps it was “business as usual” as far as the press and the police were concerned for that part of Chicago.
The Chicago reports continued. Other attacks of varying degrees of seriousness did take place. The Mayor’s office expressed outrage and declared a plan of action. Whatever that “plan of action” was, it never materialized. Then, sometime about the fall of the following year, roughly around November of 1989, the University of Chicago is reported to have terminated a “specially financed program dedicated to the warehousing and genetic manipulation of dangerous urban-dwelling organisms.” The actual meaning of this nebulous statement was never explained. However, that same month, a number of graduate students had been released by the University for “overstepping bounds of proper scientific protocols and application of the university’s resources in regards to life sciences and the management of dangerous species.”
No other details were disclosed – nor were any explanations for the reports ever offered by the school. Certain of the university’s research labs in biology and environmental sciences were redesigned and even relocated.
One reporter with the Sun Times, who was determined to find out what had transpired at the university, went missing just before the New Year. An unconfirmed police report had apparently claimed located “tissue samples with indications of rat bites” of Marlon B. Jennings. Mr. Jennings is said to have found an administrative trail of records, which included special program funding for both the NYU in New York and the University of Chicago. Mr. Jennings never reported for work again. Further investigative work is required.
Copyright 2016 Duane Hewitt. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. No part of this work may be copied or transmitted by any means whatsoever without the prior written approval of the author. Duane Hewitt asserts his rights as the author to this work and its plot, themes and characters, under International Copyright and Intellectual Property Laws.