Mark Twain peppered The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (published 1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) with references to intriguing superstitions and folk beliefs that could be found in 19th-century America. From throwing a pinch of salt over one’s shoulder to dispel bad luck, to folkloric ways to locate bodies submerged in a river, Mark Twain preserved a wide range of customs and beliefs in his classic novels. It is that latter example—of superstitions involving the finding of bodies submerged in water—that will be briefly featured here.
Early on in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, chapter eight to be precise, the novel’s protagonist, Huck, decides to fake his own death in a desperate bid to escape from the custody of his violently abusive father. After staging a convincing murder scene, Huck Finn hid in the vegetation on the banks of the Mississippi River and waited for the town to discover his suspicious disappearance. As Huck had planned, the town quickly assumed that he had been killed and dumped into the river. Search parties were formed, and the runaway boy eerily watched as his friends and neighbors patrolled the river in search of his body.
According to Mark Twain’s plot, the search party was using three tactics to scan the river, and only one of their methods was not superstitious. The first, most basic, and least superstitious of their tactics was simple eyesight—the act of scanning the water with their eyes for a sign of a body in the water or on the riverbank. They were not very thorough with this method, however, for they did not manage to spot Huck Finn hiding in the vegetation, even though Huck was keeping a close eye on them.
When their eyes failed to do the job, the search party called in the help of superstition and folklore. As Huck described in the novel, “’Boom!’ I see the white smoke squirt out of the ferryboat’s side. You see, they was firing cannon over the water, trying to make my carcass come to the top” (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, chapter 8). The passage references a folk belief that the percussion and shock of a canon could somehow compel a submerged body to float to the surface. This, as one might suspect, did not produce results for the search party, so they moved on to their next folkloric tactic—quicksilver bread boats.
According to Mark Twain’s narrative, there was a folk belief that if a section of a loaf of bread was hollowed out and filled with the poisonous metal, mercury, then the loaf would somehow become a corpse-locating machine that was sure to float to where the body could be found. In the book, Huck Finn was able to predict that the searchers would use this method, commenting, “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” (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, chapter 8). This method, although ineffective in reality, ironically did its job in Mark Twain’s novel, for one of the loaves did find its way to Huck, albeit his body was still alive.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped photograph of a Ferry across the Mississippi at Fort Snelling, photographed by John P. Doremus (c. 1827 – 1890), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Getty Museum).
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (originally published c. 1884). Reprinted by Bantam Dell / Random House, 2003.