I swear this is a true story. I was in a quiet room above a busy pub in Dublin, when a man told this tale to me in hushed tones.
In 1887, a passenger ship, the SS Devonia, set sail from Ireland on its way to America. The famine was over, but Ireland was still terribly poor, and many sought their fortunes in the New World. One such man was Jack, last name unknown. Jack was a tall, handsome fellow, and as quick witted as all his island's people, but he had a dark look, like moors on a moonless night, that kept people from being too friendly with him.
Jack came aboard with almost no luggage. Just one chest, kept safe with a heavy steel lock, and a key Jack kept around his neck at all times. Now, on those ships, the poor slept 8 to a room, or more, and there wasn't much chance for privacy. And dark, moorish eyes or not, the Irish are a curious people and asked him about his chest. "What is so valuable that you need to keep it behind a lock like that?" they asked.
"A suit," Jack replied. When they stared, bewildered, he explained. It was a suit of the finest worsted wool, perfectly tailored for Jack. It was the kind of suit that none of his fellow passengers had ever owned, nor seen on anyone except rich English gentlemen. "How did you get such a fine suit," they asked. Jack would not say. But what he did tell them was that when he got to America, he was going to put on his suit, find himself a rich woman, and make her his wife. They started to laugh, but there was something about Jack's eyes that told you never to laugh in his face. And besides, who knows? With the suit of a gentleman, the charm of an Irishman, and the possibilities of America, who was to say what was possible and what wasn't?
Now, right off the bat, that passage was cursed. A storm blew in while they were still in the Irish Sea, halfway through St. George's Channel, and they were stuck for days waiting it out on the sea. While the sailors ran about on deck trying to keep them afloat, the passengers had nothing to do except sit in the lamplight and wait and talk. Eventually, the curiosity was too much for one of them, and he said, "Jack, I don't believe any suit could be as fine as to pass you off as a gentleman!" Jack said this was the finest suit they'd ever seen. "Well, *I* haven't seen it," said the man, getting a chuckle from the rest. Jack stood up so quickly it scared them all, and the fell quiet.
"Fine," he said softly. He pulled the key from around his neck, and put it in the lock. With a squeal the lock opened, and with a creeeeeek, the chest opened. Everybody leaned forward. In the chest was...
... a chewed up tangle of thread and scraps of fabric. And one big rat-hole chewed through the back corner of the chest. And in the bulkhead behind the chest, a mousehole.
Jack was furious. A cold, still fury came over him, and everybody stepped back. Jack opened his only other possession, his knapsack, and from a velvet lined box, took out his straight razor. A work of art it was. It gleamed like quicksilver, and you could tell just by looking at it that it could cut a hair lengthwise. He opened it, almost lovingly, and set it down in front of the bulkhead. And then Jack began to sing.
For you see, back in the day, there was a kind of man you would call if you had problems with rats. A rhymer. He would chant and sing in the old language, and the rats would come to him, and he could lead them away... or he could make them die. Shakespeare himself mentions it in "As You Like It," when Rosalind says, "I was never so berhymed, that I was an Irish rat." And the poet Ben Jonson said, "Rhyme them to death, as they do Irish rats, in drumming tunes."
Jack was an Irish Rhymer.
As Jack began to sing and chant, the storm outside grew quiet. The ship stilled. Everyone in the room backed up as far as they could, but couldn't get themselves to leave. As Jack rhymed, a rat emerged from the hole. It perched up, looked at Jack, and then bowed, placing it's nose against Jack's razor, as if in homage. And then it scurried off. Jack continued his song. A few minutes later, another rat emerged. It sat up, looked at Jack, and bowed till its nose touched the razor, and then scurried off.
On and on it went. Rat after rat emerged from the hole and bowed to Jack and his razor before scurrying away. Other passengers were drawn into the room to see what the weird chanting was. Then the crew began to come in, until it seemed every soul on the ship was crowded into that room, and spilling into the hallway, watching the rats bow to Jack and his razor.
Finally, the captain pushed his way through the crowds. But even he fell under the spell of Jack's song and watched the parade of rats.
And finally the rats stopped coming. But Jack continued to sing. Long minutes he chanted and sang and rhymed in the old language. Until finally, out from the hole, came a gray, old, fat and huge rat. The biggest rat anyone had ever seen, with the most evil, most intelligent eyes. And everyone knew right then, that this was the rat that had eaten Jack's fine suit.
Jack continued to sing, and the rat glared at him, black hatred in those eyes. And then the rat sat up, leaned forward and placed its neck upon Jack's razor. And slowly, oh so slowly, drew its neck across the blade, until its blood ran from its veins over the blade, and then its head fell from its body.
Jack stopped his rhyming.
Everyone was silent for a long minute. Finally, the captain said, "I don't know who you are. But at the next port, I want you off my ship." Jack said nothing.
Two days later, the Devonia pulled into London, and Jack got off the ship, taking his straight razor and his empty chest with him.
No one ever heard from Jack the Rhymer after that. Although, it was the very next year that another Jack - and his razor - began making news in Whitechapel. But I'm sure that's another story.