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Vat a Way to Go!
Legend: Brewery employees discover the body of a worker in a vat of beer.
Cheap bulk wine is imported from Algeria in tank ships, either arriving in Marseilles or by barge direct to Paris. The story always involves the slow draining of the tank into a bottling line, the departure of the bottles, and then the discovery at the bottom of the tank, too late to recall the bottles, of the dead Algerian. In one version the Algerian has a knife in his back; in another he has been strangled or hanged and still has the rope around his neck.
The closest approach to an Australian version of the overseas tales I have heard was a tale that went around bars in North Queensland in the fifties about a bloke who fell into the huge molasses tank at a sugar-mill once and how he wasn't missed for a couple of days, and that the only way they ever found out what had happened was that one of his boots eventually got jammed in the valve in the bottom of the tank. They used to say he was perfectly preserved, even after two years in the molasses, so they just hosed him down and fitted him into a coffin.
[Collected on the Internet, 2001]
For years now, I've heard the recurring story of a brewery worker who fell into a large vat of beer and drowned. As the story goes, the beer was bottled and distributed and the body of the dead worker wasn't found until the vat was being cleaned. A variation on this story is the brewery was forced to recall hundreds of flats of beer - some of which had already been sold and drank.
Origins: During the winter of 1966-67, the Lone Star Brewery in San Antonio was plagued by this rumor
when a story about a decomposing worker found in one of its vats hit the grapevine. One especially gruesome rendition described the deceased as a murder victim who had had his hands cut off so he couldn't swim or escape. Of course there was no such dead man, yet this small fact did little to slow the pace of the story or to undermine the certainty of those who swore they'd heard about it on the radio.
What substance the unnoticed worker falls into varies: beer, wine, soft drinks (especially Coca-Cola), molasses, tomato juice, and various prepared sauces have all been mentioned, as has a paper pulper which was churning used girlie magazines into cardboard for cereal boxes.
Common completing explanations given about this legend state that these bodies aren't found until it's too late to do anything about retrieving the finished product (because it has already been shipped), or that it would cost too much to ditch the run. Thus the adulterated product is knowingly allowed to reach consumers.
- In another version of the legend, the decomposing body of a worker is found in a town's water tower years after he went missing.
- A non-human version features snakes who supposedly fall into wine vats and whose decomposing remains are not discovered until long after the wine is bottled and sold.
- Although tales from all branches of the legend usually conclude with the consumers either caught at the moment of just realizing what they've been ingesting or becoming ill over it, some end with their dying of a dread illness brought on by contact with whatever the corpse had been stewing in.
Lone Star was far from the first firm to have been deviled by a contamination whisper of the 'putrifying body' nature. In 1934 the Chesterfield cigarette company was dealt a particularly telling blow by a rumor (likely started by a competitor) that a leper had been working in that factory, therefore all Chesterfield smokers risked handling cigarettes that had been through his diseased hands.
Our particular legend is quite an old one, though, as this excerpt from a 1906 novel shows:
As for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting — sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham's Pure Leaf Lard!
Manufacturing versions of the "ingestible contaminated by a dead body" legend are easy to dismiss because no verifiable instances of stewed workers have made it into the news. True, on rare occasions folks have died from falling into a foodstuff or potable that was being prepared, but they have always been fished out promptly. (One such case was the 1952 demise of San Francisco brewery worker John Reid. He had fallen into a vat of barley while it was being emptied and suffocated before rescuers could dig him out.) The "unnoticed deceased worker" is a figment of lore, not of
The one class of "liquid contaminated by a dead body" stories that has anything to it centers on water tanks and city reservoirs. It has occasionally been true that bodies (human and animal) have been found in these containers. The remains of four-year-old Kali Poulton was one such find — the toddler had been killed in 1994 and her body hidden for two years in a water tank in a Northern Telecommunications building in Rochester, NY.
We tell "deceased worker" tales for a couple of reasons. They speak to our ongoing mistrust of food and beverage companies ("Should we really count on them to be all that careful about what goes into whatever they're preparing?") and to our fear of ending up an unnoticed death ("In our overly-mechanized and impersonal society, I could have a terrible accident and nobody would even know, much less be motivated to come to my rescue"). Both are powerful deeply-internalized themes which cause us to at least somewhat believe stories of this nature (especially when they are passed along to us by folks we trust) and to further spread them ourselves.
A closely related legend, one which also features decomposing corpses polluting a potable, is the venerable Bier Barrel. In it, folks who have been celebrating through libation their good fortune in happening upon a full barrel of excellent rum in the cellar of the house they just bought go on to discover once the cask is empty and they cut it open to make planters of it that there had been a dead body moldering away in there all along.
Barbara "roll out the barrels!" Mikkelson
Last updated: 3 February 2007
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