A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Will shooting a cannon cause a drowned body to rise to the surface?

April 22, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

I'm reading Huckleberry Finn again, and I've reached the part where Huck, having faked his murder and run away, is hiding on an island watching the ferry try to locate his corpse in the river. This is done by firing a cannon, which supposedly raises a submerged body, and floating loaves of bread filled with quicksilver in the river, which supposedly finds said body. What's the principle behind these practices, and do they work? And wouldn't Huck have died of mercury poisoning after eating the bread?

For those who never took a course in American literature, Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Clemens) published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884. He been working on it on and off for almost ten years as a "kind of companion" to his earlier very successful The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Twain (1835-1910) once defined a classic as "a book which people praise and don't read." Michael Patrick Hearn in The Annotated Huckleberry Finn says that "Huckleberry Finn is the exception to his rule: It is a classic which is both praised and still read. It has also been both condemned and banned. No other living work of American literature has suffered so contradictory a history."

The story is that of a young boy, starting in St. Petersburg, Missouri (a thinly veiled cover for Hannibal, Missouri, where Twain spent most of his youth), in pre-Civil War days, who tries to run away from "sivilization" with an escaped slave named Jim. The book paints a picture of an era through the dialects and habits of the characters, through their adventures and misadventures, and through their attitudes and the way those attitudes change during the story. One of those attitudes is the inclination to superstition.

Let's deal with your cannon question first. In Chapter 8, Huck has run away from being "sivilized" by Miss Watson, his foster-aunt, and is hiding on an island. He has covered his tracks with the blood of a pig, so that it looks as if he has been murdered:

Well, I was dozing off again, when I thinks I hears a deep sound of "boom!" away up the river. I rouses up and rests on my elbow and listens; pretty soon I hears it again. I hopped up and went and looked out at a hole in the leaves, and I see a bunch of smoke laying on the water a long ways up--about the area of the ferry. And there was the ferry-boat, full of people, floating along down. I knowed what was the matter now. "Boom!" I see the white smoke squirt out of the ferry-boat's side. You see, they was firing cannon over the water, trying to make my carcass come to the top.

So, what the heck is that all about?

Radford's Encyclopaedia of Superstition, by E. and M.A. Radford (1947), describes a "widespread" British superstition that "a gun fired over a corpse thought to be lying at the bottom of the sea or a river, will by concussion break the gall bladder, and thus cause the body to float."  The superstition evidently found its way from England to the U.S., and is mentioned in Edgar Allen Poe's 1842 story The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (thanks to Ninjagrapefruit on The Straight Dope Message Board for calling the Poe mention to our attention.)

Does it work? Of course not. Well then, what makes a corpse float or sink in water? Several factors: 

  • Lungs. Lungs are like a sponge. When someone drowns, the air sacs in the lungs fill with water. Since a body without air in the lungs is denser than water, it sinks. A person who is killed on the surface and then put in the water tends to float, since the lungs are still full of air (although see below).  That's how pathologists can tell whether a person was drowned or was dead before hitting the water.
  • Body position. A person who was dead before entering the water can still sink depending on the position of the body.  If the body is upright when dumped into the water, water can enter the lungs while air escapes. Hence, the body sinks after a short time. If the body is prone (face down), the air in the lungs can't escape, so the body floats.
  • Body fat. Body fat is less dense than water. The fatter a person is, the more buoyant the body. Muscle on the other hand is denser than water, so people with a lot of muscle--or people who are just plain lean--tend to sink.
  • Clothing. Some fabrics trap air well; others don't. Natural fibers, like cotton and wool, absorb water and so tend to sink. An exception is silk, whose fine fibers can be woven tightly enough to trap air. Some synthetic fibers, like nylon and polyester, usually don't absorb water, so they can trap air. Other synthetic fibers, such as orlon and other fibers used in cold-weather clothing and sleeping bags, are manufactured like some pastas, with one or more tunnels in them. These tunnels are designed to trap air and insulate the wearer. These fibers float until they fill with water, at which point they sink like a stone.
  • Putrefaction. A body that sinks doesn't necessarily stay sunk. As the corpse decays, it generates gases that collect in various body cavities. That's why corpses become bloated, whether in the water or not, giving us the charming term "floater."

The water can also affect buoyancy:

  • Salinity. Probably the most important factor is salinity. Salt water is denser than fresh water, so corpses tend to float in the ocean but not in a river.
  • Temperature. The water's temperature affects its density. Water is densest at 4 degrees Celsius (about 39 degrees Fahrenheit). Bodies of water often have a thermocline (a depth where there's a dramatic change in temperature). Warm waters "float" and circulate by convection when warmed by the sun; colder waters "sink" and tend to stay there. Hence, there is a slight (very slight) tendency for bodies in cold water to float, since they may be less dense than the water surrounding them.

Can a burst gall bladder have any impact on floating or sinking? Yes, although not necessarily in the way you might think. More important than whether the gall bladder ruptures is whether the skin is broken. If the bladder rupture is strictly internal, there's no effect on buoyancy, since the body's overall density remains unchanged. However, if the skin is broken and the bowels are allowed to come loose (liking that visual, are we?), the body's density may increase. If water enters the body and air and other gases escape, there's a greater chance of sinking. So a burst abdomen can have an effect opposite to what the superstition alleges.

Could firing a cannon over the water cause the gall bladder to burst? Not likely, but it could cause a concussive effect that jarred loose a body snagged in weeds and whatnot on the bottom. So firing a cannon might raise a body, although not for the reasons that the superstition gives.

In The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, Hearn observes, "Once when he was thought to be drowned, young Sam Clemens witnessed a similar scene as the townspeople of Hannibal fired cannon over the water to raise him to the surface. 'I jumped overboard from the ferryboat in the middle of the river that stormy day to get my hat,' he recalled in a letter of February 6, 1870 (Mark Twain's Letters to Will Bowen, 1941, p. 19) 'and swam two or three miles after it (and got it), while all the town collected on the wharf and for an hour or so looked out across . . . toward where people said Sam Clemens was last seen before he went down.'"

In Mark Twain, An Illustrated Biography, we read that "Nine times Sam was pulled from the [river] in what he recalled as 'a substantially drowned condition.' His mother tried to laugh off the narrow escapes by telling him, 'People who are born to be hanged are safe in the water.'" Twain has the slave Jim echo this sentiment in Chapter 4 of Huckleberry Finn. Twain uses a similar incident in Chapter 14 of Tom Sawyer when Huck, Tom and Joe Harper run off to Jackson's Island to play pirates.

Now, on to the other superstition you mention. Shortly after the cannon firing, Huck "happened to think how they always put quicksilver in loaves of bread and float them off because they always go right to the drownd carcass and stop there." Radford says this superstition is British in origin and cites a contemporary (1940s) case where it actually worked! OK, coincidences and wishful thinking do happen. Quicksilver (mercury) isn't soluble in water, but there's no particular attraction between it and a corpse. Usually the bread needs to be blessed before it is launched. Again, a similar incident appears in Tom Sawyer.

You've picked up two superstitions from the text, but there are dozens more. In the preface to Tom Sawyer, Twain writes, "The odd superstitions touched upon were all prevalent among children and slaves in the West at the period of this story." The slaves learned most of the superstitions from their white masters; Daniel G. Hoffman, in 1961, argued that most of the superstitions are of European, not African, origin.

Huckleberry Finn as a character is extremely superstitious, and the book is full of practices that we (like Twain's readers in the 1880s) find quaint. Other examples:

  • In Chapter 1, Huck hears "an owl away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die." The superstition that owls and howling dogs are predictors of death dates back to Roman days or earlier.
  • In Chapter 3, Huck comments that "a drownded man don't float on his back, but on his face." Folklore has it that a drowned woman floats face up, a drowned man face down. Hmm, what else normally occurs with the woman face up and the man face down? Interesting analogy--drowning to sex.
  • Early in Chapter 4, Huck spills some salt, grabs a pinch and throws it over his left shoulder to "keep off the bad luck." Again, an ancient superstition. Hearn points out that in DaVinci's "Last Supper," the salt spilled on the table points to Judas Iscariot.
  • "Magical" items and good luck charms are prevalent in the story. Jim has a five-cent piece worn on a string around his neck that cures ailments and can summon witches. He also has a "hair-ball as big as your fist" that could answer questions, like a Magic 8 Ball.
  • In Chapter 8, Jim comments that it's a sign of impending rain when young chickens flock together.

There are constant references to ghosts, to spirits of the unburied dead who must wander hopelessly, to devils and witches and Satan and spirits of the night.

I don't want anyone led astray: Twain does not believe these superstitions; he uses them to make us understand the influence of superstition on the uneducated.

Let's conclude with a few deep thoughts. Hearn comments that Huck, both in this book and in Tom Sawyer, sees that many popular superstitions are ineffectual.  But he hangs on to them anyway, and is "not so ready to deny his pagan beliefs as he does Miss Watson's Sunday-school teachings." Part of the growing process that Huck undergoes is divesting himself of dubious social conventions--including formal religion, superstitions, and then-common racial attitudes--and trusting more in his own conscience and inherent moral sense.

RESOURCES:

The Annotated Huckleberry Finn by Michael Patrick Hearn; published by Clarkson N. Potter, Inc, New York, 1981.

Mark Twain, An Illustrated Biography by Geoffry C. Ward, Dayton Duncan, and Ken Burns; published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001.

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