Posted: 12:00 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012

THINGS TO DO

Tales of New Boston and its rat catcher

‘I’m probably the ugliest person there, with my rotten teeth and ragged clothes’

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Tales of New Boston and its rat catcher photo
Catch the rat catcher at the Fair at New Boston this weekend. Contributed photo

By Melissa Dabe

Contributing Writer

SPRINGFIELD —

If you want to know what life was like in the early 1800s, then visit the Fair at New Boston this weekend — and look up Silas Moore while you’re there. Silas, portrayed by Springfield resident Bill Smith, is the fair’s rat catcher.

“Conditions were not very sanitary back then,” said Smith, “so rat catcher was a real occupation. One of the most famous was Jack Black, who was the rat catcher for Queen Victoria in the 19th century.”

Smith, a retired teacher, travels all over the country participating in re-enactments. In fact, his Silas Moore character is the official rat catcher for President George Washington at Mount Vernon during the Colonial Market and Fair. “At Mount Vernon, there are many international travelers, and I’ve heard ‘that’s a rat!’ in probably every language,” Smith said.

When chatting with Smith, it’s almost like speaking to someone with a split personality because he goes in and out of the Silas Moore character so quickly and easily. For example, when asked if he has a real rat, Silas Moore responded, “Oh yes, I have a pet rat. His name is Wilson. I named him Wilson because Mr. Wilson ran away with my wife.”

Smith/Moore is full of stories. He has been bitten by the rats he catches. “The worst bite I had was when I stuck my hand in a rat hole and it ran up my shirt and bit me in the armpit. The doctor made me drink mercury to cure it, and I was delirious for one month.” On his failed marriage: “I’m a professional man and I’m available. My wife left me for Mr. Wilson, and she took our 13 children. So I need a young wife with a strong back because I have 50 acres of land she needs to clear. It would help if she can cook.

And there’s the one about the plague: “I usually catch about 20 to 30 rats a day on a farm. At a penny each, that’s pretty good. The best ever day I had was 75 rats – that was during the yellow jack fever plague.”

He’s a convincing actor. “Once when I was in South Carolina for colonial day, there was a group of seventh-grade girls who noticed my socks didn’t match, and they thought I was being trendy. I had to assure them that I was just so poor that I couldn’t afford matching socks. Well, I must have convinced them, because they all chipped in and bought me a new pair.”

Smith admits that he enjoys the character. “I love it. I end up tired at the end of the day, but I have a great time. Seeing people have fun is rewarding, and I’m educating while I’m entertaining. I have great fun with kids. Kids follow me around like I’m the Pied Piper. I’m probably the ugliest person there, with my rotten teeth and ragged, dirty clothes, but they love me. I especially like telling the kids about the superstitions of the day, like ‘don’t bathe – it’s dangerous. I knew a man who took a bath and he died the next day.’ ”


HOW TO GO

What: The Fair at New Boston

Where: George Rogers Clark Park, Springfield

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 1-2; rain or shine

Cost: $8 for adults, $3 for ages 6-11, age 5 and under free. Military active duty is $5 with ID. Cash only. No pets. Parking is free.

More info: (937) 882-9216, www.fairatnewboston.org

 
 

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