Old Wives' Tales
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Legend: Imbibers drink the liquor from a barrel used to preserve a dead body.
The why of this legend goes a bit beyond the expected "person unknowingly ingests yucky foodstuff" theme, which carries the implied message that it is always better to look before leaping (or in this case, peek before quaffing). Folklorist Jan Brunvand states:
Surely there is a strain of poetic justice in almost all of these stories, since regularly the contaminated alcohol is either drunk by someone who more or less deserves his fate, or else the corpse is that of someone who outranked the drinkers. Thus, gentiles (according to the story) eat the hated Jew; common sailors drink the admiral's brandy; Americans party on the defeated English general's wine, and those who have merely bought into the lordly manor drink up the rum left there by its past rightful owner.Supplementing that idea is the oldest tale of this ilk, a gem from eight hundred years ago that features tomb despoilers who feed themselves their
The Arab historian Abd el Latif wrote in the thirteenth century of a group of treasure hunters who found an ancient sealed jar of honey while exploring the tombs beneath the Egyptian pyramids. They settled down to a delicious lunch, dipping their bread into the jar, until one of the diners pulled out a human hair. A quick investigation revealed the preserved body of a child curled up at the bottom of the jar. The historian credits the story to "an Egyptian worthy of belief." If he had checked further, we suspect he would have encountered the familiar chain of friends of friends of friends.That theme continues to imbue the legend to this day, as this more modern telling about "clever" workmen shows:
As a lad, a foaf [friend of a friend] spent some 18 months helping toUnlike a closely-related legend about workers who fall into vats and whose unnoticed, decomposing bodies go on to form part of a potable or foodstuff sent on to consumers, "casked corpse" tales lack modern analogues and do not reflect current societal concerns. The explanation for these legends lies in a combination of hazily-remembered facts about famous bodies shipped in liquor, embellished with a bit of old-fashioned storytelling about sailors determined to have their daily tot or homeowners who make "fortuitous" finds. Yet before the storytelling can be added to the mix, there has to be a foundation of fact to build upon.
Afterwards the lady paid them handsomely, and said: "Of course, the best thing was that we were able to use the whisky for something useful instead of throwing it out. My husband died some years ago in Australia, and that whisky was used to pickle his body when it was brought home for burial."
In the days before refrigeration and embalming, folks who died far away were sometimes transported home preserved as best they could be in a barrel of alcohol. (Embalming as we know it came into being at the time of the American Civil War, when the efforts of mortician Thomas Holmes, the first American to develop and use embalming fluid, resulted in the preserved bodies of fallen soldiers being returned to their families for burial. Prior to Holmes, all one could do was pack a body in ice and hold the funeral as soon as possible.)
The most famous instance of preservation by immersion in alcohol was the casking of the remains of Lord Nelson in the ship's brandy stores after his death during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. That much is
According to baseless hearsay, when the barrel was opened in England, it was considerably less than full. (In reality, Nelson arrived fairly topped up.) This gave rise to the story that sailors aboard the Victory had been unwilling to let a little thing like a decomposing dead Admiral get between them and their daily swigging and thus had been siphoning off generous helpings, eventually draining the funerary cask dry. Thanks to this bit of lore, the British Navy has come to use the term "tapping the Admiral" for getting an unauthorized drink of rum via a surreptitious straw.
Nelson wasn't the only famous Brit whose remains were casked in booze to get them home. When Prince Henry of Battenberg died from malaria on a British expeditionary force to West Africa in 1895, his body was transported back to England for a royal burial in an improvised tank made from biscuit tins and filled with navy rum.
The remains of less-famous personages have also been transported in this manner. In 1857, Nancy Martin of Wilmington, North Carolina, was on a year-long cruise with her father and brother when she died at sea. The menfolk put her body into a large cask after first tying it to a chair and nailing the chair to the bottom of the barrel to prevent her from floating or sloshing. Whiskey, rum, and wine were poured in, then the barrel was sealed and stored belowdecks. Upon return to dry land, Nancy was buried, still in her booze-filled cask, in Oakdale Cemetery. (Captain Martin was also to lose his son on this same voyage; four months later the lad was swept overboard during a midnight squall.)
It doesn't take all that much by way of fertile imagination to build on any of these true-life caskings — all one needs to make a good tale is to toss at it some thirsty sailors or a handful of parvenues who've inherited the manor but not the manners. That someone's remains could be stored in liquor is enough to set such tales in motion; from there it's but a hop and a skip to the certainty that someone somewhere must have stumbled upon seemingly lucky find only to afterwards discover he'd been "tapping the admiral."
Barbara "will you have a pint or a half Nelson?" Mikkelson
Sightings: In 2006 Reuters news service reported that a Hungarian magazine had published a version of this story:
Hungarian builders who drank their way to the bottom of a huge barrel of rum while renovating a house got a nasty surprise when a pickled corpse tumbled out of the empty barrel, a police magazine website reported.Reuters withdrew the story a few days later:
According to online magazine www.zsaru.hu, workers in Szeged in the south of Hungary tried to move the barrel after they had drained it, only to find it was surprisingly heavy and were shocked when the body of a naked man fell out.
The website said that the body of the man had been shipped back from Jamaica 20 years ago by his wife in the barrel of rum in order to avoid the cost and paperwork of an official return.
According to the website, workers said the rum in the 300-litre barrel had a "special taste" so they even decanted a few bottles of the liquor to take home.
The wife has since died and the man was buried in a proper grave.
ADVISORY: Hungary rum barrel story withdrawnLast updated: 9 May 2006
The Budapest story headlined "Hungary workers get shock at bottom of rum barrel" issued on
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