Sailor’s Formalin: Bodies in Bourbon, Whiskey, and Rum

Featured image: Color label for qt. bottle. “Old National Whiskey,” a Louisville, KY whiskey sold by “Henry Coby, Colo. City, Colo.” Pre-1920. Via Peachridge Glass.

This week, I am headed to a city filled with spirits, both of the ghost and alcoholic varieties, and also several iconic cemeteries. (Perhaps you can guess where it is I’m going – expect a blog post when I return!) So I found it fitting this week to blog about a few folks who couldn’t get enough of their liquor, and who chose, in their post-mortem lives, to have their bodies bobbing in the stuff.

A sort of rogue formalin, if you will.

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An advertisement for a Joseph P. Geddes’ 1923 undertaking and embalming company in New Orleans. Mr. Geddes’ establishment was quite notable, as he was one of the most well-known funeral directors in New Orleans, having taken over his father’s undertaking business. The Geddes family was one of the most respected families in New Orleans African American business circles and many Geddes family members became involved in the funeral industry. Image via NYPL Digital Collections.

Victorians had to be creative with preservation of bodies. Until the Civil War, when ‘modern’ embalming was born, “honey, salt, alcohol, and arsenic” were all used to keep a corpse lifelike (Woodyard). Alcohol became the standard nautical treatment. Throughout history, it was common for the dead at sea to be preserved in a barrel of alcohol, most likely in whatever was available in large quantities, though rum was the preferred distilling potion of choice.

A New Orleans Tale

General Edward Pakenham, the man who led the British in the battle in New Orleans in the War of 1812, had his corpse plunged into a cask of rum before it set sail on the return to England. Upon arrival in his home country, however, the cask fell victim to some sort of mistaken identity and was sent back to Charleston, where it was stocked in a liquor store – and soldiers, unknowingly, drank from its spigot (Woodyard). It was only after all the rum was gone and the cask was opened that the General’s body was found inside.

Topping off the Brandy

Perhaps the most famous tale of liquored up bodies is Admiral Horatio Nelson’s, of the British Royal Navy. After his death, he was preserved in brandy by the ship’s surgeon, who was Irish, and who received much criticism from his shipmates for not choosing rum, the sailor’s formalin, instead (Leggett). Some mythical accounts say the barrel had to be topped off because sailors kept drinking the brandy, while others maintain that due to the corpse’s natural absorption of the alcohol, more had to be added.

Kentucky Bourbon and Corpses 

Preservation in spirits isn’t just reserved for sailors. If you’re from Kentucky and you’re not preserved in Kentucky Bourbon when you die, you might need to amend your death plans now. In the late nineteenth century, a Kentucky man by the name of Charles Bramlett ordered to have his body plunged into bourbon upon his death. It was not the bourbon that made his death so spectacular, however, but how both corpse and alcohol was contained: in a blue limestone sarcophagus, which must have weighed a ton (Woodyard).

The Pickled Corpse

It is not unusual for us to find a worm in Tequila, but we might be a bit surprised in today’s modern times if we found a finger or toe in our fifth of liquor, much less a body in a cask. In a story that occurred about ten years ago, and one that was reported by reputable news outlets such as NBC but that still can’t quite be substantiated, a group of Hungarian workers who were renovating a house were horrified to find the naked body of a man in the barrel of rum they were imbibing from. It turned out to be that the man’s wife had him preserved that way, to avoid the cost of ‘official’ shipping procedures.

While I hope you do not come across any ‘parts’ in your drink, perhaps you will take a pause when sipping from tonight’s Old Fashioned or Mojito and think on how alcohol has not only helped the living get through the thing called life, but has made for the best smelling – and tasting –  embalming fluid.

Sources:

Ingham, John N. and Lynne B. Feldman. African-American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary. London: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Leggett, Ben. “Admiral Nelson preserved in brandy” from The Drinking Cup: 2012.

Pickled Corpse Tumbles Out of Rum Barrel

Woodyard, Chris. The Victorian Book of the Dead. Ohio: Kestrel Publications, 2014.

 

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