The question unasked and the unwritten answer – or why it’s not a good idea to send a dead rat through the mail

Alberta takes its rat free reputation seriously, as recently shown by the immediate action taken after the discovery of two rat colonies in southern Alberta. And no wonder, according to an Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development information sheet on Rat Control in Alberta, a single breeding pair of rats have the potential to produce 15,000 offspring in a year!

That’s why in 1928, when two rats were seen in Edmonton escaping from a railway car full of lumber, it was front page news in the Edmonton Journal. The article reports that Mayor A.U.G. Bury was offering a reward of $5 each. It has a memorable quote, presumably from Commissioner David Mitchell who said, “Bring ‘em to the city hall, dead or alive, and receive the reward offered.”

A coworker at the City of Edmonton Archives’ recently showed me a series of letters about this event from the Archives’ collection. The letters are hilarious on the surface and, looking a bit deeper, really interesting with an unwritten conversation in the background.

JournalArticle_reRat_RG11_Series7_Sub-series7.3_File70.jpg

Newspaper clipping from the Edmonton Journal (note: copyright belongs to the Edmonton Journal, this article is reproduced for informational purposes and with the permission of the Edmonton Journal)

As it’s a clipping, some things are missing, including the complete date. So I looked it up on microfilm, below is a more complete version. I think the juxtaposition of the images of the two men on either side of the headline is a funny coincidence, or maybe it was an inside joke?

Front page of the November 1, 1928 edition of the Edmonton Journal reproduced from the Archives’ microfilm collection.

Front page of the November 1, 1928 edition of the Edmonton Journal reproduced from the Archives’ microfilm collection.

The newspaper clipping was attached to the letter below from Johnny and John Stonehocker of Lavoy, Alberta. As an aside, you can see the outline of the clipped article as a sort of shadow in the letter. Newsprint is highly acidic and the acid from the newsletter has affected the paper.

Letter to the Mayor and Commissioners of Edmonton, from the City of Edmonton Archives’ RG-11 Commissioners fonds.

Letter to the Mayor and Commissioners of Edmonton, from the City of Edmonton Archives’ RG-11 Commissioners fonds.

Here’s a transcription:

Lavoy, Alberta
November 9, 1928 

Health
08624

Dear Sirs;

            In the Edmonton Journal edited on November 1 I noticed that two large gray rats had escaped from a lumber car in Edmonton and that a reward of “Five Dollars” was offered for their capture. The gray rat which I am sending to you was found on the railway track at Lavoy. It had evidently fallen off of the train and been killed.

                                                                               Yours sincerely,                 
                                                                                                            Johnny Stonehocker

This rat was picked up on the C.N.R. tracks by my son 14 yrs. old Just fresh as you can see, no doubt it is one of the rats got back on a car & sent here I have lived here for over 25 years & this is the first rat I have ever seen or heard of in this Dist.

John Stonehocker

The word Health and the number 08624 scrawled across the letter in dark ink is the City’s records management of the time; the letter was classified as relating to the subject health and the number is a tracking number given to correspondence in order of receipt.

I think it’s interesting (and a bit sad) that John felt the need to elaborate his son’s story and yet neither of them actually come out and ask for the $5 reward. I’m not sure why, maybe they were being polite? Was it poor taste to talk about money? Or, maybe they knew it was a long shot and couldn’t quite bring themselves to openly ask? They do make it plain that they believe that this is one of Edmonton’s pair that “got back on a car.”

I thought this letter was pretty funny, but it gets better. Here is a copy of the Mayor’s reply:

Copy of a letter written by the Mayor of Edmonton, from the City of Edmonton Archives’ RG-11 Commissioners fonds

The poor man, returning to the office after an illness to find this waiting for him! Interestingly, the Mayor makes no mention of the reward, just the statement: “We have not yet heard anything about the two rats that escaped here but are hoping that they are both dead.” Beneath the polite chit-chat is the question from the Stonehockers: this is one of your rats and we’re sending it to city hall (dead) so, can we claim the reward? And the Mayor’s reply: nothing doing, this isn’t one of our rats so we won’t be paying out a reward.

After my co-worker showed me these letters we decided that, although it’s a bit gruesome, it would be fun to write a blog post about them and see what else I could find out about the people and places involved using the records at the City of Edmonton Archives.

We have many records created by Mayor Bury and Commissioner Mitchell. The Mayor’s full name is Ambrose Upton Gledstanes Bury (my new favorite name found in the Archives).  Bury, a judge, was an alderman from 1922-1925 and Mayor from 1927-1929. He was also the MP for Edmonton-East for 1925-1926 and from 1930-1935.

EA-10-1510 Ambrose Upton Gledstanes Bury ca. 1928. This photograph was used as Mayor Bury’s official portrait for 1928 and 1929.

EA-10-1510 Ambrose Upton Gledstanes Bury ca. 1928. This photograph was used as Mayor Bury’s official portrait for 1928 and 1929.

David Mitchell was appointed as a City Commissioner in 1924, a position he held until 1937 when, according to an article in his clippings file, he was forced to step down due to ill-health. The article named him the ‘watch dog’ of Edmonton’s civic affairs, likely due to his financial background. He served as an audit clerk, assistant comptroller and then comptroller for the City before becoming a Commissioner.  He was also a cricket player; the Archives has several photographs of him posed with the teams he played with.

EA-267-188k David Mitchell ca. 1928

EA-267-188k David Mitchell ca. 1928

I wasn’t able to find anything on the Stonehockers but we have a bit on where they were from; we have a series of clippings files on rural areas and there is one for Lavoy. There are a few articles on people and businesses in the area. The book, Place Names of Alberta Volume III: Central Alberta, told me where it is (east south-east of Vegreville) and that it was named in 1906 after an early settler in the area, Joseph Lavoy. Prior to 1906 it was known by the name of its post office, Dinwoodie, after the first postmaster. We don’t have a clippings file for Joseph Lavoy but we do have one for Walter Dinwoodie (of University of Alberta fame) who was the grandson of the postmaster.

I wondered how much a $5 reward meant in 1928. I had a feeling it was fairly significant as it was enough to motivate the Stonehocker’s to send a rat through the mail (I also wonder how much it cost in postage).

I’m not up for calculating how much $5 in 1928 would be worth in today’s dollars but I am able to find out a bit about how much it could buy at the time; by using the same newspaper that announced the reward. There were all kinds of sales being advertised by stores like the Hudson’s Bay Company, Woodward’s, James Ramsay Ltd and Johnstone Walker’s Daily Store News (Edmonton’s Own Oldest Store). The Liggett Owl Drug Co. Ltd had a one cent sale on that week too.

For $5 you could buy:

list.jpg

You could also use the $5 as a deposit on an electric washing machine. Or you could get an end table with a birch and walnut finish for $3.60 or a wall plaque featuring a “good print of some well-known art subject” for $1.75, $3.00 or $4.00. Men’s suits were on sale for $29.95 and ladies’ wool jersey dresses for $7.95. A shoulder roast of pork cost .21c a pound; you could buy over 23 pounds! I think it’s fair to say that $5 was a significant sum in 1928.

Finally, in the course of researching this post, I found that rats hit the front page of the newspaper again in 1950, this time in the Edmonton Bulletin.  At the Archives’ we have microfilmed copies of the Bulletin as well as the photographs of Eric Bland, long time photographer for the Bulletin. Bland’s image below was front page and centre on the March 7, 1950 Bulletin. The majority of Bland’s photographs are available in the City of Edmonton Archives’ online catalogue.

EA-600-4011 Caretaker Ralph Abraham holds dead rat killed at CNR Colonization Building on March 7, 1950.

EA-600-4011 Caretaker Ralph Abraham holds dead rat killed at CNR Colonization Building on March 7, 1950.

 

Sources:
City of Edmonton Archives Clippings files
EA-10 NAPOTA
EA-267
EA-600 Edmonton Bulletin fonds
Edmonton Journal – City of Edmonton Archives microfilm collection
Place Names of Alberta Volume III: Central Alberta
RG-11 Commissioners fonds, Series 7, Subseries 7.3, File 70

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About the Author
Elizabeth Walker
Elizabeth has a Masters of Archival Studies from UBC and she’s been the City’s digital archivist since September 2010. She’s passionate about outreach and increasing engagement between the Archives and the community.
1 Comment
  1. Sylvia MacKinnon
    5 years ago

    I googled headlines from 1928 Edmonton Journal, to see what was happening in Edmonton about the time my father arrived here from Scotland. He had talked about “riding the rails”, (hopping onto boxcars for means of travel to his new home). Now I realize that he may have had others creatures riding with him other than men.

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