Thursday, June 15, 2017

Unintended consequences

Every now and again I stumble on a single piece of writing that captures many of my likes and dislikes.  And makes me laugh out loud as well.  Such a piece appeared in an electronic newsletter I receive called Atlas Obscura.  You can probably tell from its name that the publication dals with weird and wonderful stories from around the world.  The one I am going to recount appeared on June 6. 

So, read on for . . . . .

(Drum roll)


The French (and how I love their quirkiness) were determined to recreate France in all parts of the world where they had a significant presence.  Hence beautiful boulevards in cities around the world and French being the primary language in many of its ex-colonies.

At the turn of the previous century, a lot of Southeast Asia was controlled by France under the name French Indochina.  It was a good place to send bureaucrats who had failed at home.

In 1897, Paul Doumer arrived in Hanoi as Governor General of French Indochina–his reward for failing, as minister of finance, to introduce an income tax system.  To be fair, as Michael so often says, he was a well-educated man who had otherwise been successful.

Paul Doumer
Needless to say, he immediately set about transforming Hanoi into a city with modern French amenities.  What better symbol of French progress and sophistication could there be than an efficient sewerage system.  So he built 15 kilometres of underground pipes to service the toilets of the gracious villas that overlooked tree-lined boulevards. Even the areas inhabited by locals had sewers, albeit not of the same standard.

Map of Hanoi shortly after Doumer left

Downtown Hanoi - early Twentieth Century

Hanoi city hall - early Twentieth Century
One of the first unintended consequences of these trappings of French civilisation was the appearance of rats, which found the dark, predator-free pipes to be ideal breeding places.  These were not the useful pouch rats that helped eliminate landmines in Africa, described by Michael (Hero rats) and Annamaria (Victor, the hero rat, Chapter 1 and Victor, the hero rat, Chapter 2).  No, these were the type of rats that, when sighted, make people jump on tables.  The type of rat that carries the bubonic plague.

A rat
When these rats started popping up in the ritzy sections of Hanoi looking for food, Doumer took immediate action.  He hired locals to go into the tunnels to hunt the rats.  (Nice job!)  They were to be paid for each rat killed.

The results were astonishing. 

In the last week of April, 1902, 7,985 rats were killed.  As the hunters gained experience, so the head count rose.  By the end of May, over 4,000 rats were being killed every day.  In fact, on May 30th, 15,041 rats met their demise.  (Don’t you just love colonial bureaucratic record keeping?)

In June, the daily count topped 10,000, and on June 21, 20,112 rats met their maker.

Modern-day researcher, Michael Vann, wrote a paper on this glorious episode in French history, describing how the hunters went about their daily chore:
“One had to enter the dark and cramped sewer system, make one’s way through human waste in various forms of decay, and hunt down a relatively fierce wild animal which could be carrying fleas with the bubonic plague or other contagious diseases. This is not even to mention the probable existence of numerous other dangerous animals, such as snakes, spiders, and other creatures, that make this author’s skin crawl with anxiety.”
 Clearly the rats were breeding faster than the hunters were killing, so Daumer came up with a plan B.  Any citizen could go down into the sewers and hunt rats.  They would be paid for each tail brought out.  Certainly it was easier and less revolting for the bureaucrats to count tails rather than corpses.

I’m sure you can see unintended consequences 2 and 3!

Initially, French ingenuity seemed to be working–tails poured in.  However, it wasn’t long before the champagne-sipping les dames et les messieurs of Hanoi started seeing tailless rats running around their garbage.  (Who said creativity is dead?)

Furthermore, soon thereafter, health officials found several pop-up farms on the outskirts of Hanoi–farms dedicated to raising rats for their tails. (Entrepreneurship at its best!)

Eventually, the French administration gave up and decided people and rats would have to co-exist.

Two footnotes:

1. In 1906, over 250 people died from the bubonic plague in Hanoi. So the concern about the dangers of having the rats running around was well-founded.

2.  Doumer returned to France and was lauded as the most effective Governor-General of Indo-China.  He went on to become president of France.

President Doumer 

 Vive la France!


Murder Is Everywhere
Author Recognitions and Events


June 16-18
Deadly Ink Conference
Hilton Garden Inn
Rockaway, New Jersey


Murder in Saint Germain, Aimée Leduc’s next investigation, launched June 6.


Wednesday, June 28 at 18:00 Athens time
Book Presentation at 
Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum
Kalisperi 12, Acropolis



  1. Stan, Thanks to you and our stellar blogmates, MIE functions as my Atlas Obscura. "..werid and wonderful stories from around the world" INDEED! And this post is a perfect example.

  2. One must wonder whether the 1906 deaths from the plague were possibly exacerbated by the earlier encouragement of people to climb into sewers and cut tails from tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of rats...

    Speaking of the spread of French culture, and on a lighter note, we spent a pleasant evening yesterday in the company of Cara Black at Powell's in Beaverton, Oregon, and had a wonderful time. No rats were spotted.

  3. I am on the side of the rats, it was the fleas that did the damage in the first place was it not. They should have paid them to remove the tails from the fleas, which would have been a tad more interesting... And anyway, at least it has given you a tale to tell.... ( thought I'd better make that pun as EvKa and Jeff were off duty )

  4. well Jeff has had yet another birthday so that might explain it.........