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In the 1960s, One Man Took Washington D.C.’s Rat Problem Into His Own Hands, Literally

And challenged the city’s race and wealth divide in the process

(Lars Bjørkevoll/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
smithsonian.com

Like any urban metropolis, Washington, D.C. has always had some sizable rats and mice. But, in the 1960s, rats were becoming a serious problem in some parts of the city. And in 1964, Northeast D.C. resident and activist Julius Hobson took a unique strategy to manage the rat population in his backyard, writes Benjamin Shaw for WETA’s history blog, Boundary Stones.

Frustrated with the local government’s lack of action, Hobson began capturing rats in the streets. He reportedly strapped the cages to his station wagon and dropped them off in Georgetown — home to politicians and businessmen. At the time (and to some degree still today), the neighborhoods of Northwest D.C., like Georgetown, were almost exclusively white and wealthy, while working class African Americans inhabited the rest of the city.

Hobson was vocal about his rat toting threats and demanded city action on the rat problem. Shaw explains:  

Since he was, as a piece in The Washingtonian put it, ‘[a]ware that a DC problem usually is not a problem until it is a white problem,’ he decided to go ahead and make it a white problem.

… He claimed to have a “rat farm” somewhere in the city, where he and his associates had “chicken coops” full of rats, and they vowed to release them all unless the government implemented rat extermination programs that would range outside of rich and white neighborhoods.

The press caught wind of Hobson’s antics. Rumors flew that he released the rodents by the hundreds in Georgetown alleys and planned to do the same on the steps of the White House if it came to it.

While the tactics might seem a bit over the top, they weren’t out of the ordinary for Hobson. He specialized in hoaxes and grand threats. In reality, Hobson caught maybe a dozen rats and ultimately disposed of the vermin in the Potomac River, the Washington Post’s Cynthia Gorley wrote when he died in 1977.

Nevertheless, Shaw points out, Hobson got results. The city set up rat control programs for the Northeast and Southeast neighborhoods. It seems nothing spurs political action like the threat of rodents of unusual size.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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