Issue # 6
July 2005 Page # 3

A Better Mousetrap

Through this series of articles I hope to make more readily accessible the primary documentation for various & sundry methods of trapping both animals and birds as described by Leaonard Mascall in his "A book on Engines and traps to take Polecats, buzards, rattes, etc.," as printed in 1590. I was able to download photos of pages of an original copy at

Regarding the book itself, it is accompanied by many fine sketches and numbers 24 pages of Middle English script of the Sussex dialect. The first 20 pages describe various traps and the last 4 pages describe various baits and poisons with a few traps thrown in.

Mascall was a well regarded horticulturist of the day and, by necessity, would have been in frequent contact with the game wardens of the various estates. One of the jobs of the estate’s warden would have been the elimination of undesirable animals and it is from these men that he drew the knowledge for this small book. He doubtless took his drawings from examples he had seen himself, though we don’t know that for sure.

With the exception of 1 trap and its variations, all the traps require a carpenter rather than a blacksmith to make. This would make them ideal for the colonists considering their shortage of iron or steel and their plentitude of wood. For the most part, any metal used in these traps is in the form of nails or spikes for holding and killing and a few pins. I imagine most of these engines in the colonies would have been put together with pegs rather than metal pins, but that is supposition on my part.

My interpretation of the Middle English language is highly suspect so a huge debt of gratitude is owed Lottie from for providing many difficult translations. I have translated any quotes to modern English for ease of reading. The diagrams are fairly self explanatory and units are given in standard English measurements.

That being said, lets look at some of these designs.

1. The Polecat Hutch.
This is very similar to the rabbit box most of us are doubtless familiar with. A central stick acts as a bait holder and catch and a hook at its top holds the weight of the 2 doors to the openings at either end of the box. The twist here is that the box has a box attached at each end angled up about 33 degrees which is where the doors are. The intent is for the whole thing to be buried, with only the central stick and doors able to move. The rabbit presumably enters either end of the underground warren and knocks the bait stick, unbalancing the hook and allowing the doors at either end to fall, trapping the rabbit.

2.A latch trap for the water rat (muskrat)
This trap is made from a plank with a hole in the center large enough for the muskrat to go through. It is placed over the hole to the rats den and set. The idea is that, upon exiting the den the rat will have to step through the hole and onto the trigger, releasing the weighted pivot arm to fall onto its back and push it into the spikes in the bottom of the hole. It is suggested to place this during the day, while the rat is in the den, so that it will be trapped when it makes its exit for food in the evening.

Deadfall for polecats
3. Deadfall for polecats
This trap is made from a plank half a hundred pounds with a hole in the center of the upper end. The trigger is significantly more complicated than the figure 4.

4. The latch or Fox trap
This is another latch trap for placing across a culvert or hedge hole where a fox or other animal can be expected to pass. The animal passes between the upper, weighted, arm and the lower trigger arm. The upper arm is 2” wide at the lower end and tapers upward from there. Something would have to be placed to discourage the animal from going over or around the trap.

The latch, or foxtrap

The dog latch

5. The dog latch
Another variation of the latch trap for use on the side of a bank or hill. This one is baited. It is then staked through the bottom to the hill.

6. Latch or brake trap
Another variation. This is made with 4 large planks, ¾ of a yard or less as ye shall think good. One version of this can be made to sit still in the earth, or as I take it, to be permanently emplaced. The other is portable, but requires the upper boards to be heavier. All 4 boards are pinned at one end with the 2 middle boards being the heavier risers and slightly rebated inside the outer 2 base boards. A bridge is tied to the pin at the rear of the trap and has 4 holes in its other end. The end with holes rests on a cross pin. An upright pin, placed in one of the holes, supports the risers. A string, tied from the end of the upright pin that is beneath the bridge to the cross pin which rests on 2 forked sticks in the ground, holds the bridge in tension, preventing the bridge from moving downward and thus releasing the risers to fall. When the animal steps on the bridge it forces the tied string off the end of the pin, releasing the tension. At least I think so.

For clarity’s sake, here is Lottie’s literal translation: The latch Trap. This engine is called a latch or brake trap, it is made with four thick boards or pieces of timber, in length three quarters of a yard or less, you may make them as you shall think good, either to fit still in the earth, or often to be removed. But if you make them to [be] removed, then must the upper fallers (the two bits of timber designed to come downwards) must lie within the two nether (lower) boards, a long bridge, which must be tied at the nether end of the catch with a string , and that bridge has four holes at the other end, for a pin (made from one normally see timber building construction using joint and pin methods) therein to bear and hold up the two fallers (upper). Which pin is put into one of those holes of the said bridge, and the other end of the pin, stays under the great square pin that is between the fallers, and a string is tied to that pin, is tied above to a trouchin, which trouchin lies on two forked stakes set in the ground, as you may see by example by the (nether) lower part of the trap . Also the lower parts are rebated (cut away) on the outside and made edgewise upward and hedged on both sides as you may see. And to fall toward the hedge is best.

I look forward to examining more of this book and setting forth my thoughts. Thus far we have looked at 6 of 46 separate items within this small pamphlet. As you can see, this is a rich resource for those wishing to add something unique to their persona with only minimal wood working abilities.
Yours in continuing education.
CPT Michael Kay (Talking Bear / yo-na-wo-ni)
FOB Caldwell, Iraq