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COLUMN: You dirty rat! When police used rodents as target practice

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Those of us who grew up watching James Cagney gangster movies can still hear the expression, “You dirty rat,” in Cagney’s distinctive voice.

In the interests of movie trivia accuracy, the expression was, more precisely, “You dirty, yellow-bellied rat!” and it was hurled with invective by Cagney at someone hiding behind a door in the 1932 film, “Taxi,” starring Cagney and Loretta Young.

In the early 1950s, that hugely popular film still aired on television. So the movie’s famous line could have come to mind when Sarnia police officers of the day looked down their revolver barrels at rodents infiltrating their workplace.

While researching my soon-to-be-published history of policing in Sarnia, I had an opportunity to interview long-retired Inspector George Merwin. George was the only living police retiree who could recall a period in the 1950s when the Sarnia police station was housed in the old Waterworks Building on Sarnia Bay.

Erected in 1875 to serve as the town’s first waterworks, the two-storey structure is long gone but was located on the riverfront, at the foot of George Street, on the south side. The police station had been located in the basement of City Hall on Christina Street, but when it was torn down, police were forced into the decrepit building from December 1953 to March of 1955.

The structure was known for having moisture-laden and sagging wooden floors and dark, drab offices. Oh – and it had one other problem.

I don’t know what it’s like now, but back in the day big river rats were common, not only along the shoreline but occasionally on downtown streets. More than a few met a well-deserved end by venturing into the lair of Sarnia’s Finest.

“I heard that you guys were shooting rats inside the station,” I posed to Inspector Merwin. “Well,” he replied diplomatically, “I never did it, but I heard that some of the guys did.”

Who could blame them? The mean-spirited rodents could be as nasty as Jimmy Cagney when cornered, and were known to leap to the attack when threatened. Like Cagney himself, I’m no fan of rats.

So it was probably a relief to Sarnia’s 53-man police force when it moved to a brand-new, three-storey headquarters on the east side of South Front Street.

Just another hazards of police work in Old Sarnia.

Phil Egan is editor-in-chief of the Sarnia Historical Society. Got an interesting tale? Contact him at [email protected]

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