The major news article this past week from Yukon, Canada has the amazing headline “Yukon bar patron swallows famous sourtoe, pays fine, leaves town”. To clarify this right from the start, the famous sourtoe is actually a real mummified toe that came from a deceased individual. Cannibalism, or anthropophagy, is the act of consuming the flesh, internal organs or bones of an individual of the same species. The act has been both practiced and condemned in numerous cultures. Our Western culture has primarily been strongly on the condemning side, but there are some acts of cannibalism that seem to be not as reviled as others. A great example is this individual who swallowed the ‘sourtoe’, in fact no one in the actual article seems to be concerned about the fact that this is cannibalism. The concern is more that the individual swallowed the bar’s only mummified toe. But let’s get back to the story.
At the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City, Yukon, there is a special shot known as the “Sourtoe Cocktail”. It has been a local tradition dating back to the 1970’s, to drink a glass of whiskey with a sourtoe, a mummified human toe, in it. The drink was created by Captain Dick Stevenson, who started the tradition. Any individual who drinks the shot with the toe in it is officially enrolled in the “Sourtoe Cocktail Club”. Since it’s beginning, over 52,000 people have taken the drink with the toe and joined the club. Patrons describe the toe as “dark brown color, completely wrinkled… gross looking thing”, and remember the event not so fondly: “I still shudder when I think about my tongue touching the raggedy, severed end”. In order to deter people from stealing or swallowing the toe, there is a $500 fine placed on loss of the toe.
In late August, a man named “Josh” entered the Downtown Hotel, requested the “Sourtoe Cocktail” with Yukon Jack whiskey, and paid the extra $5 for the toe. The bartender placed the severed ancient toe in the glass, poured the whiskey and recited the standard line: “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe”. Josh drank the shot, slurping the toe in, then quickly chugged a beer. The bartender quickly asked where the toe was, and Josh said “I swallowed it”. He then slammed $500 cash on the bar to pay the fine and left. The loss of this toe means that the bar is looking for a new one. Prior ‘sourtoes’ have been donations from the deceased or from accidents. They also plan on jacking the fine for swallowing the toe up to $2,500.
Is this cannibalism? Yes. But why is it that this article doesn’t get the same outrage as other acts of human flesh eating? Perhaps it is because the toe was mummified. The eating of mummified remains actually has a long history within the Western world. Thomas Willis, a 17th-century brain science pioneer, created a medicine for apoplexy, or bleeding, that mixed powdered human skull from mummies and chocolate. King Charles II of England was known to sip a drink known as “The King’s Drops,” which contained mummified human skull in alcohol. Throughout the early modern period in Europe, ‘corpse medicine’ was thought to be quite efficacious. A 16th-century surgeon, Ambrose Paré, argued that mummies were one of the best medicines for bruising, but did not come cheap due to it needing to be aged and imported. Often this meant that cheaper substitutes from the recently deceased could be used. Medical practitioners during this era prescribed crushed human skull for epilepsy, and mummy parts mixed with plaster to prevent rupture of wounds. It wasn’t until the late 18th-century that these practices stopped.
So what is the difference between the native cannibalism so reviled by Westerners, and the medicinal practice? Beth Conklin, cultural and medical anthropologist at Vanderbilt University, argues that the difference is in the perception of the practices as either social or biological. “The one thing that we know is that almost all non-Western cannibal practice is deeply social in the sense that the relationship between the eater and the one who is eaten matters,” says Conklin. “In the European process, this was largely erased and made irrelevant. Human beings were reduced to simple biological matter equivalent to any other kind of commodity medicine.” Therefore, because the Westerners reduced the human remains to their constituent parts, and probably because most were viewed as ancient remains, it was seen as a biological act of healing and not a social act of consumption.
This doesn’t quite explain why drinking a shot of whiskey with a severed mummified toe is an alright act, and that there isn’t a huge outcry for the swallowing of the toe as cannibalism. However, it may speak to the idea that the act of cannibalism which is reviled is different from this act of cannibalism due simply to the fact that it was a severed toe and a sensationalist act, rather than being one with larger social undertones.
What do you think? Is swallowing the toe a social cannibalistic act? Or is it simply a sensationalist act that doesn’t quite have the same connotations as cannibalism?
Also, see the full article for some video involving the “Sourtoe Cocktail”.
Ballingall, A. 2013. Yukon bar patron swallows famous sourtoe, pays fine, leaves town. The Canada Star. http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/08/27/yukon_bar_patron_swallows_famous_sourtoe_pays_fine_leaves_town.html
Dolan, M. 2012. The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine. Smithsonian Magazine. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/The-Gruesome-History-of-Eating-Corpses-as-Medicine.html?c=y&page=2
Fitzharris, L. 2011. Drinking Blood and Eating Flesh: Corpse Medicine in Early Modern England. Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. http://thechirurgeonsapprentice.com/2011/02/25/drinking-blood-and-eating-flesh-corpse-medicine-in-early-modern-england/