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The Back-Stabbing Cultural History of the Rat

Judas might be the most famous snitch of all time, but he wasn’t the first

Okay, so Judas wasn’t the first snitch in history, but he certainly is the most notable to ever live. I mean, Jesus Christ, the guy ratted out Jesus Christ! It’s no wonder he’s the most famous rat ever. 

He didn’t invent snitching, though — I’m sure back in caveman times there was some opportunistic neanderthal who gave away his cave-buddy’s location to a saber tooth tiger so that he didn’t get eaten himself, and I’m sure some asshole ancient Egyptians occasionally snitched on their buddies who slacked off on Pyramid duty. Unfortunately — and sometimes fortunately — snitching is just part of human nature: If selling out someone’s friends benefits their own self-interest, they may indeed snitch. 

Take the aforementioned Judas. Without quoting chapter and verse, the CliffsNotes of Judas’ snitchery go like this: Judas was Jesus’ buddy, a disciple, and at the Last Supper with Jesus and the other disciples, Jesus predicted that someone there would betray him. After dinner, Judas ran to the Roman authorities, who wanted Jesus for religious fanaticism. The Romans gave Judas 30 silver coins in exchange for him telling them where Jesus would be tomorrow. The next day, Judas lead the Romans to Jesus, Jesus was arrested and — spoiler alert for a 2,000-year-old story — later crucified (don’t worry, he got better). 

What makes Judas the perfect snitch is that he so neatly fits the mold for virtually all snitches: A weak-willed asshole who was part of an organization but then — because of pure self-interest — rats out his buddy/boss to some higher authority. After that, though accounts of Judas’ death vary, it’s pretty much agreed that he regretted his actions and hung himself. It’s how most rat stories go — they rat out their buddies because they’ll profit from it, or because they’ve run out of other options, and then their life royally sucks afterwards.

Almost 500 years before Judas, there was a pretty famous — but certainly not as famous — snitch by the name of Ephialtes of Trachis. Preceding the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., Ephialtes ratted out the Spartans (his people) to the Persian army in the hopes of a reward by the Persians. As a result, the 300 Spartan soldiers led by King Leonidas were slaughtered in battle. If this sounds familiar to you, it may be because it was the plot of that bastion of historical accuracy, 300.  

In the movie, Ephialtes of Trachis is portrayed as a hunchback mutant creature, but in real life he was just a shepherd who thought he could benefit by selling out his people. As it turned out, once the Persians won, Ephialtes received no reward at all and fled to another town, where he was killed a few years later for an unrelated incident. Again, the same basic pattern.

Many of America’s homegrown snitches turned out the same way, starting with the country’s first rat, Benedict Arnold. Arnold was originally a patriotic war hero to the American revolutionaries, but after feeling unappreciated and getting encouragement from his wife to stick with the British, Arnold switched sides for a sum of 10,000 pounds, giving up West Point to the British. Instead of getting the respect he felt he deserved, however, the British also felt he was a dishonorable douche, so Arnold toiled away with bad business ventures for the rest of his days in England.

Snitching isn’t always quite as clear cut as the disgraceful cases of Judas, Ephialtes and Benedict Arnold, though. Being labeled a snitch can be more a matter of perspective — i.e., one person’s snitch may be another’s whistleblower, and perhaps even a hero. During the Civil War, for example, a number of slaves worked as informants for the North, and while not being a slave anymore is of course in anyone’s own self-interest, they were also risking their lives in the service of their fellow slaves and their country. To a slaveholding Confederate scumbag, however, they were straight-up snitches.

Much of the same talk is going on right now in regards to the Trump whistleblower. To those out there who recognize Trump as a danger to the country, the whistleblower has performed an act of heroism by exposing Trump’s actions in bullying Ukraine into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden. But for supreme douches and Trump lackeys like Geraldo Rivera, Trump is seen as surrounded by “snitches and rats” — referring not only to the whistleblower, but the people who informed the whistleblower about the details of the Ukraine call.

The same can be said of John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House council who eventually turned on Nixon during Watergate. To many, Dean is lauded as a hero for calling the Watergate cover-up a “cancer on the presidency” and cooperating with the Senate looking into the matter, but to Nixon, Dean was just a dirty rat who abandoned him.

It’s this sense of abandoning your pals that’s really at the center of people finding snitches so offensive. In fact, the use of the word “rat” in this context explicitly refers to abandonment, as it was born out of the belief that rats abandon a ship that’s about to sink. (Which, in fairness, is something pretty much anyone with a bit of common sense would do. Did anyone really want to listen to violin music as the Titanic sank? No. They wanted to get the fuck off the boat.)

As for the word “snitch,” the origins of that are a little less clear. Before its present meaning, snitch meant to steal, much the same as snatch, but it was also the criminal underworld’s slang term for the nose. Since the nose is often associated with intruding into someone else’s business, it’s not so different, even if it seems more strongly linked to spying. 

Speaking of which, is a spy not also a rat? Well, in some cases, yeah, maybe. But generally, a spy is employed by one group to infiltrate another, unlike a genuine rat, who starts life as part of a group, then abandons it. Of course, one can be a spy and a rat — just ask Aldrich Ames, the CIA agent who became a double agent for the Russians. He was a spy for Russia, but he was a rat to us Americans. 

Ames is just part of a long lineage of American snitchery, though. In the 1930s, the infamous criminal John Dillinger was snitched on by a brothel madam who was friends with Dillinger’s girlfriend. During World War II, pilot Martin James Monti was an American pilot turned Nazi radio host. After World War II, with paranoia and the “Red Scare” at an all-time high, rats swarmed out of the sewers, especially in show business: With the formation of the House Un-American Activities Committee by the House of Representatives, much of Hollywood came under scrutiny for left-leaning views, particularly any affiliation — however tenuous — with communism. The committee put a great deal of pressure on members of Hollywood to out their commie friends and many obliged — some with regret, but some with true zeal. 

One of the most notable was Elia Kazan, who was a director of classic films like On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. Kazan outed eight actors as members of the communist party, of which he’d also been affiliated. These actors and others ended up on the famed “Blacklist,” losing their jobs and unable to get hired for more work. Kazan wasn’t the only one, however — other famous Hollywood faces would also “name names,” including Warner Bros. founder Jack Warner, Walt Disney and future president Ronald Reagan.

During the 1960s, another kind of rat began to emerge in a more prominent sense: the mafia informant. Scott M. Deitche, author of organized crime book Garden State Gangland: The Rise of the Mob in New Jersey, explains that while rats certainly existed before the 1960s, the idea of a “mafia rat,” as it’s known today, came to be recognized more broadly in the 1960s, starting with Joe Valachi. “Joe Valachi is the first kind of ‘celebrity rat’ for the mafia. He came out in the early 1960s, which is when the mafia was really big, pop-culturally, and people started recognizing the mafia for what they were,” Deitche says. 

Valachi was a member of the Genovese crime family and had been involved in organized crime since the 1920s, which is when the structure of the mafia began to form. In the early 1960s, Valachi was on the hook for the murder of a fellow prisoner, as he was serving time for drug trafficking. Instead of getting the death penalty, Valachi testified to the Senate in the hopes of getting a life sentence. His testimony would be a monumental moment in organized crime, as it would be the first time that the mafia was publicly acknowledged by one of its own members. Until that point, much of the public didn’t know about the existence of the mob, although it was something of an open secret in some Italian-American communities. Even FBI head J. Edgar Hoover famously denied the mob’s existence, despite having investigated it for years. 

Deitche adds, “Valachi popularized the term ‘La Cosa Nostra,’ and he outlined the structure of the mafia in the U.S. and how the families were broken down.” Valachi began to cooperate because the guy he killed in prison was believed to have been sent by the boss of the Genovese family in order to kill Valachi. While he would claim that he was testifying out of altruism, in reality, Valachi had run out of options: Facing a death sentence, abandoned by his “family” and with a price on his head, he decided to rat. Whether he got the comeuppance that typically befalls a rat, though, is hard to say — he lived another eight years in prison before dying of a heart attack at age 66.

Of course, the most famous mob rat ever was probably Henry Hill, whose story was portrayed fairly accurately in Goodfellas. In the movie, Hill was played by Ray Liotta, who grows increasingly paranoid after getting hooked on drugs and becoming convinced his own mafia family is out to get him, eventually deciding to beat them to it by ratting on them.

In the mafia, snitching is a violation of the code of “omerta,” born back in Sicily and carried over to the U.S. The idea that one wouldn’t rat on one’s own people — be it other Italians or other members of the mafia — was sacred, and to violate that was the ultimate betrayal. “It’s usually a death sentence,” Deitche says. Such was the case for Whitey Bulger, who inspired Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed. Bulger was a rat for the FBI who essentially worked out a deal where, if he snitched on other criminals, the FBI would leave his own activities alone. “It was a pretty unique situation,” Deitche says, though Bulger wasn’t the only boss-turned-rat, as the same would be true of Joe Massino, the boss of the Bonnano crime family who eventually turned in 2004, and Anthony Casso, an underboss of the Lucchese crime family who turned in 1993.

Deitche says that in the past few decades — especially in the 1990s — you started to see more and more mafia men turn into snitches. He explains that the RICO Act — which passed in 1970 and gave harsh sentences to members of a criminal conspiracy — played a part in this, as “suddenly, for shaking a guy down for a $100,000 loan, you’d now be facing 10, 15, 20 years in prison.” Additionally, the demographics in the mob began to change. Less and less was the mafia composed of people who grew up in rough-and-tough urban streets — instead, suburban mobsters began to appear, who were cut from a different cloth, making snitching less unthinkable than it used to be. “While this might sound like hyper-masculine bullshit to say, the simplest way to put it was that they weren’t as ‘tough,’” Deitche says.

While the code of omerta was being abandoned by much of the mob in the early- to mid-1990s, it was gathering steam in prisons, best summarized by the saying “snitches get stitches.” This phrase was followed up by the even more hyperbolic, “snitches get stitches and wind up in ditches,” which, if you think about it, makes no sense — if someone’s dead in a ditch, why would you bother stitching them up?

A similar code would be born a decade later on the streets of Philadelphia and Baltimore. While shirts that read “Stop Snitchin’” began to appear in the City of Brotherly Love back in 2002, the phrase became popularized by a Baltimore native named Ronnie Thomas Jr., also known as “Skinny Suge.” Thomas made a series of videos called “Stop Snitching!” encouraging witness intimidation for anyone who ratted out drug dealers and the like to police. Much like the code of omerta, “Stop Snitchin’” became the accepted code of silence, particularly for black urban youth.

But of course, nothing can ever truly stop snitching, so even as the hip-hop community preached the oath, rapper Lil Cease was busy snitching on Lil Kim for committing perjury and producer Jimmy Henchman began to name names after an arrest for drug trafficking. A more recent high-profile case involved rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine snitching on members of the Nine Trey Gangsters, an offshoot of the Bloods. Predictably, he’s been disowned by much of the hip-hop community in light of his snitchery. 

Still, he recently refused witness protection as he fears he won’t be able to revive his career under their watch, essentially parroting Henry Hill’s memorably pathetic lament at the end of Goodfellas: “The hardest thing for me was leaving the life. We had it all just for the asking. Today everything is different. There’s no action. I have to wait around like everyone else.” 

And to some, that’s the worst possible fate after becoming a rat — worse than a prison beating like Whitey Bulger or a hanging like Judas, it’s the sad, lonely journey of obscurity that’s the true punishment for a snitch.