An antiquated custom, which at one time was popular both in Europe and the United States, was the search for individuals who had drowned by using ‘quicksilver,’ an archaic term for the element mercury.
The famed American writer, Mark Twain, in his familiar work, Huckleberry Finn, relates an example of the superstition of local villagers in Missouri, searching for a drowned corpse, by placing quicksilver in a loaf of bread. This was then thrown into the water near the site where the deceased individual’s body was believed to have been submerged. Purportedly, the corpse would then float to the water’s surface and thus be retrieved by the seekers.
An early example of the above belief can be found in a prestigious London publication, that of The Gentleman’s Magazine, for April of 1767. An inquistion “on the body of a child,” was taken at Newbury in Berkshire, the one year old having “fell into the river Kennet, and was drowned.” The account continues by stating how the body “was discovered by a very singular experiment…a two-penny loaf, with a quantity of quicksilver was put into it, was set floating from the place where the child, it was supposed, had fallen in, which steered its course down the river…before a great number of spectators…The loaf suddenly tacked about, and swam across the river, and gradually sunk near the child, when both the child and loaf were immediately brought up, with grablers ready for that purpose.”
Newspapers throughout the United States during the 19th century, also printed examples of drowned persons being found by the same procedure as discussed in English publications. For example, the National Intelligencer republished an incident recorded in the Pennsylvania paper, the Spirit of the Times and Carlisle Gazette, on April 13th, 1819, stating how a “young lad about 16 years old…the son of Simon Nichols (then sheriff of Montgomery County, Maryland), who lived then with Mr. Robert Peter, not knowing how to swim, slipped when bathing, into a deep place in the Potomac…After several unsuccessful attempts to recover the body…,” all was “in vain.”
The Intelligencer goes on to record, that “some persons present mentioned the loaf of bread and quicksilver. It was procured and put into the river; after moving some small distance where it was put in, the body of the drowned person, bounced up near the loaf—I say bounced, because it rose with force, so that ten or twelve inches of the body came above the water, and again sunk to the level…There are at least a dozen persons now living who know the fact and were eyewitnesses of it.”
The editor or reporter of the above incident, claimed it had occurred, “at the close of the Revolutionary War…I was talking to an eyewitness about it, not three weeks ago.”
The Daily National Intelligencer, published in Washington, D.C., for March 19th, 1819, referred as well to a similar event, published in Vol.3, No.3, of Dr. Baldinger’s Medical Magazine, which recounted how a university student had drowned, whose body could not be located. A passerby informed the searchers to “procure a large loaf, to scoop out part of the crumb, and fill in the cavity with quick-silver; he then directed them to throw this quick-silver pye upon the current, and averred that it would be stationery at the place where the person drowned was lying. They followed his advice, and actually found the body.”
Entitled, ‘Strange But True,’ the Germantown, Philadelphia (PA) Telegraph, for November 4th, 1863, related an incident which had transpired at Terre Haute, Indiana, after a bridge had collapsed, drowning a number of persons. All the bodies were retrieved but one, that of a ‘Miss Thralls.’ Searchers were about to give up the attempt to locate her corpse, when the suggestion was made to place “quicksilver in a loaf of bread,” then by “putting it in the water it would stop directly over the body.”
A loaf of bread was then filled with “over two ounces of quicksilver,” then thrown into the water some fifty feet above the bridge. It then “floated down in the current…suddenly stopped, and circling around, was apparently about to sink, when a gentleman in a boat caught it, and grappling hooks being put down, the body was found directly beneath,” in from eight to ten feet of water.”
Many other accounts exist in American newspapers of this method of discovering drowned persons, at least as late as 1872. Whether such methods were truly effective or are simply examples of superstious folklore will be left up to the reader. The above renditions of the practice simply show once again, the fascinating and mysterious information which can be found about early America here at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.