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  • Bread and Drowning October 8, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    bread river

    People drown, almost by definition, in large bodies of water: very few people end their lives in baths or ponds or puddles. This means that there is the problem of how to find any missing bodies. Our ancestor pragmatically used magic to find these lost bodies and it is interesting just how late the magic was used. Here are a couple of nineteenth-century examples from the UK. Any other examples gratefully received.  Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    A few days since a gentleman, while walking through the beautiful village of Farley, near this city, (celebrated for its antiquity and the longevity of its inhabitants) was surprised at the loud beating of a drum, near the brook. On asking a villager the reason for such a proceeding, he was informed that a farmer’s carter had recently been drowned in the brook, and that, not finding the body by dragging, they were now beating a drum, expecting to see the body rise when the drum came to the spot where the deceased lay. The gentleman expressed his surprise at their superstition, on which the villager assured him that the body would certainly make its appearance. On returning that way in the afternoon, he was anxious to learn the result of the experiment, when he was informed that the body had not risen as expected. The ignorant people, however, told him that they had another nostrum which could not fail, and which they were about to put in practice, as follows. A half-quatern loaf was to be put into the place where the deceased fell in, and during it [sic] course down the brook, on reaching the spot where the body lay, the loaf was expected to turn round gracefully three times and then go down. The result of this last experiment, however, the gentleman was unable to ascertain.

    Here’s another without drums.

    A child fell into a stream of water, and was carried down to the river Wyre, and was drowned; the body was not easily found, when a man was actually guilty of the stupidity of providing himself with some pends of quick-silver, one of which he stuck into a loaf, which he next threw into the river, in the firm belief that it would make a successful voyage of discovery to the exact place where the body was detained, and that on reaching it, the loaf, like the diving rod, would give unerring indications of the immediate presence of the body. Well, the load commenced its floating excursion, and by and by the neophyte of the black art fancied that he perceived signs of the successful working of his feat of conjuration, and forthwith made a laborious search for the lost one, for which he got his labour for his pains. But his faith was not to be shook by one failure in the efficacy of the juggle, and he subsequently experimented with other ‘penny pens’ and loaves, but we need scarcely say with the same sort of luck, for the body was not found until Sunday morning last, and was then discovered by an old man who had supplied himself with a sensible sort of assistant in the shape of a boat hook, far away from the place where the charmed loaf had manifested its mysterious oscillations.

    Writing this remember when an acquaintance drowned and they body didn’t turn up. Often think of his parents. If anyone stumbles on this through google my heart goes out to you.

    9 Oct 2013: Wade, Chris S, Tom G, Leif and Nathaniel all write in describing Twain’s writing on finding drowned bodies, something allegedly based on an incident in Sam Clemen’s youth: there is a good straight dope piece on this. First from Tom Sawyer: They sprang to their feet and hurried to the shore toward the town. They parted the bushes on the bank and peered out over the water.The little steam ferry-boat was about a mile below the village, drifting with the current. Her broad deck seemed crowded with people. There were a great many skiffs rowing about or floating with the stream in the neighborhood of the ferryboat, but the boys could not determine what the men in them were doing. Presently a great jet of white smoke burst from the ferryboat’s side, and as it expanded and rose in a lazy cloud, that same dull throb of sound was borne to the listeners again. ‘I know now!’ exclaimed Tom; ‘somebody’s drownded!’ ‘That’s it!’ said Huck; ‘they done that last summer, when Bill Turner got drownded; they shoot a cannon over the water, and that makes him come up to the top. Yes, and they take loaves of bread and put quicksilver in ’em and set ’em afloat, and wherever there’s anybody that’s drownded, they’ll float right there and stop.’ ‘Yes, I’ve heard about that,’ said Joe. ‘I wonder what makes the bread do that.’ ‘Oh, it ain’t the bread, so much,’ said Tom; ‘I reckon it’s mostly what they say over it before they start it out.’ ‘But they don’t say anything over it,’ said Huck. ‘I’ve seen ’em and they don’t.’ ‘Well, that’s funny,’ said Tom. ‘But maybe they say it to themselves. Of course they do. Anybody might know that.’ The other boys agreed that there was reason in what Tom said, because an ignorant lump of bread, uninstructed by an incantation, could not be expected to act very intelligently when set upon an errand of such gravity.’ Next from Huck Finn: So I set there and watched the cannon-smoke and listened to the boom. The river was a mile wide there, and it always looks pretty on a summer morning—so I was having a good enough time seeing them hunt for my remainders if I only had a bite to eat. Well, then I happened to think how they always put quicksilver in loaves of bread and float them off, because they always go right to the drownded carcass and stop there. So, says I, I’ll keep a lookout, and if any of them’s floating around after me I’ll give them a show. I changed to the Illinois edge of the island to see what luck I could have, and I warn’t disappointed. A big double loaf come along, and I most got it with a long stick, but my foot slipped and she floated out further. Of course I was where the current set in the closest to the shore—I knowed enough for that. But by and by along comes another one, and this time I won. I took out the plug and shook out the little dab of quicksilver, and set my teeth in. It was “baker’s bread”—what the quality eat; none of your low-down corn-pone. Chris adds: ‘Large booming noises to raise sunken corpses also figures into Edgar Allen Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.’ Thanks to Wade, Chris, Tom, Leif and Nathaniel!

    17 Oct 2013. Borky makes an obvious point but one that simply hadn’t occurred to me: Beach this usin’ y’loaf business sounds on the face of it as I think the guy writin’ actually says like complete black magic but is it possible once upon a time there was actually science behind the practise ie was the fact the bread was dense but absorbent [unlike Mother’s Pride or Sunblest] thought to make it a good makeshift substitute for a body giving a reasonable simulation therefore of the general route the body would most likely’ve taken under current *ha!* river conditions as well as suggestinh where the river was most becalmed and therefore where the body would’ve had a greater chance of sinking plus even if sight of the bread was lost there’d be a good chance noisy river birds eating it would’ve facilitated visual recovery? Thanks Borky!

    23 Nov 2013 Karen sends in this that has to be relevant: Ecclesiastes: “Cast your bread upon the water, and you will find it after many days.” Our forbears were, in the main, deeply involved/instructed with Bible-based religion: church was mandatory for quite a while, and socially-mandated thereafter until at least the 1970’s. Whether or not folks fully understood the intended meaning (do we?) I think this verse very likely had something to do with the faith of country people, especially for finding persons/things lost in a river. Thanks Karen for the breakthrough!