Man that Waters the Workers' Beer, The
DESCRIPTION: "I am the man, the very fat man, that waters the worker's beer." The man waters the beer to make more profit (he admits to having "a car, a yacht, and an aeroplane") and to keep the workers in subjection. To this end he even uses poison
AUTHOR: Words: Paddy Ryan / Music: Traditional
EARLIEST DATE: 1937
KEYWORDS: drink poison worker humorous
FOUND IN: Britain(England)
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Silber/Silber-FolksingersWordbook, p. 29, "The Man That Waters the Workers' Beer" (1 text)
cf. "The Son of a Gambolier" (tune & meter) and references there
NOTES [1330 words]: I was hesitant about including this song, but it is narrative, more or less, and it does seem to have entered tradition. - PJS
Reading this, I can't help but think of the charges filed against the founder of chemistry, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794). According to Brock, p. 123, Lavoisier was charged with "having mixed water and other 'harmful' ingredients in tobacco." He was charged based on the testimony of a man whose early scientific work he had shown to be inadequate (Jaffe, p. 70). He went to the guillotine.
To be sure, he was a stockholder of a tax farming company (he had, at age 28, married the 14-year-old daughter of a tax farmer; Porter, p. 414), and this was his real crime (though he did not himself collect taxes, and his wife helped his experiments, according to Porter, p. 414). But the execution was a terrible loss for France, and an even greater loss for chemistry; as Laplace (himself one of history's greatest mathematicians) said at the time, "It required only a moment to sever that head, and perhaps a century will not be sufficient to produce another like it" (Porter, p.415). Much as I sympathize with the British working class, charges such as these are usually oversimplified.
The song lists three poisons placed in the beer: Strychnine, methylated spirits, and kerosene. Kerosene is a highly unlikely contaminant, since it is a hydrocarbon and does not dissolve in water. It is true that, during prohibition, some bootleg compounds were found to contain kerosene (Blum, p. 51). But this was clearly accidental contamination, and it didn't happen in publicly-sold beer. Still, there were a lot of rumors about the matter (Blum, p. 153), which might have helped inspire this song.
Strychnine, which is a natural biological alkaloid, is a more plausible contaminant -- and the same reports which put kerosene in spirits also said that some contained brucine, which is similar to strychnine (Blue, p. 153).
Methylated spirits are even more likely -- methylated spirits usually refers to ethyl alcohol contaminated with methyl alcohol to make it undrinkable, but in this case probably is intended to mean pure methyl alcohol.
Methyl alcohol gives the drinker the impression of consuming "regular" alcohol, but methyl alcohol is in fact a poison (Emsley, p. 110, says that methylated spirit is more poisonous than bleach; Blum, p. 41, adds that it derives much of its effect from the fact that it is very hard to metabolize). Plus its buzz didn't last very long (Blum, p. 161), tempting the drinker to consume more sooner, adding to the danger of overdose.
But methyl alcohol is cheap (Blum, p. 40) -- and was commonly used as an adulterant during Prohibition in the United States. Nor was it just during Prohibition. In June 2020, I saw reports of methyl alcohol (also known as methanol) being used in place of ethyl alcohol (ethanol) in hand sanitizer.
Ironically, the more ethyl alcohol, the less poisonous the methyl alcohol; the ethyl alcohol soaks up the enzyme which otherwise converts the methyl alcohol into lethal formic acid (Timbrell, pp. 196-197). The main effect of methyl alcohol in small doses is to make hangovers far worse, but it can also damage the kidneys and eyes, and if consumption reaches about 70 ml, death will generally follow.
It strikes me as unlikely that a boss would have methyl alcohol placed in his workers' beer; blindness was too likely to result (Blum, p. 49). It would be more likely that a dishonest manufacturer, who doesn't care about the drinkers' health, would do so.
The inclusion of strychnine is much more complicated. For starters, the workers might well notice it -- it is one of the most bitter-tasting substances in existence (Timbrell, p. 227).
Although now known as a poison, it was not always so. Buckingham, pp. 35-47, has notes on the discovery of vegetable alkaloids (which is what strychnine is). It began when it was noted that "Jesuit bark" is effective against malaria (Buckingham, p. 35). It would eventually turn out that "Jesuit bark" contains quinine, the first effective anti-malaria medication (now pretty useless, but it worked fine in the nineteenth century). The incompetent chemistry of the time figured out that a bitter agent was responsible for the curative effect -- but not which bitter agent. It was assumed that most bitter vegetable products -- the vegetable alkaloids -- were active against fevers. One such alkaloid was from the Strychnos nux-vomica tree (Buckingham, p. 36). This was strychnine.
The symptoms of strychnine perhaps explain why it was initially considered a useful drug: Timbrell, p. 155, notes that it heightens awareness, and can be used as a purgative. But it also leads to violent and exhausting convulsions. These are what lead to death -- a painful and terrible death, because the victim remains aware the whole time. Respiration often halts during the convulsions; it can restart several times before finally failing. Death usually comes within three hours of the onset of symptoms; a victim who lasts three hours will often survive.
Apparently it began poisoning people very early on, but it took a century and a half before apothecaries ceased to supply it (Buckingham, p. 46). In the Sherlock Holmes novel The Sign of the Four, near the end of chapter four, we see Watson discuss it in a way which implies it was part of his medical kit. MacInnis, p. 79, tells of an Olympic runner in 1904 who tried to use strychnine as a restorative -- and nearly died of it. Even in 2001, there was a report of a weightlifter testing positive for strychnine (which means, yes, doping agencies test for it!).
It is ironic to note that, if someone really wanted to dose the workers' beer with strychnine, the stronger the beer, the less effective it would be. The reason strychnine causes convulsions is that it opens pathways for especially strong and repeated nerve impulses, leading to convulsions (Timbrell, p. 156). The treatment is to isolate the victim from external stimuli (to prevent the nerves from firing in the first place) and applying a sedative to calm the nerve impulses. Timbrell says that barbiturates are now the preferred sedative, but alcohol would certainly be better than nothing.
If the statement that strychnine was added to workers' beer is based on an actual news report (which I doubt, but I don't know), it *might* have been added in an attempt to keep workers healthy -- it was actually used as a tonic (MacInnis, p. xv). The effect, of course, would have been the reverse. And even if it hadn't been a poison, mass use of alkaloids would have had the same effect as the mass use of antibiotics has had more recently: The bugs would have developed immunity.
I do think adding it to beer at this early date would have been unlikely. It was not until the 1920s that Robert Robinson began to research the structures of the alkaloids; he managed to determine the chemical composition of strychnine (and even, by 1946, to synthesize it; Porter, pp. xxix, 585); until then, getting precise dosages would have been difficult.
To be sure, it was not unusual for pub owners to water beer and then add adulterants. MacInnis, p. xiii, notes the case of levant nut, which caused the consumers to go to sleep. In a place where the company also owns the bars, this might be very popular -- the workers would drink a little watered beer and go to sleep, thus eliminating the need for all that expensive beer and also reduced the number of drunken workers. On p. 46, MacInnis mentions a law case against a man who made a pseudo-beer out of ingredients including opium and vitriol. Bad beer was common -- but not for the reasons in this song.
It is ironic that the song does not mention arsenic, implicated one of the largest bad-beer stories of all time. According to Timbrell, p. 119, in 1900 a batch of glucose used to make beer was accidentally contaminated with arsenic. 6000 people in Birmingham were sickened; 70 of them died. - RBW
Last updated in version 5.2
- Blum: Deborah Blum, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, Penguin, 2010
- Brock: William H. Brock, The Chemical Tree: A History of Chemistry (originally published in 1992 as The Norton History of Chemistry), Norton, 2002
- Buckingham: John Buckingham, Chasing the Molecule, Sutton Publishing, 2004
- Emsley: John Emsley, Molecules at an Exhibition: The Science of Everyday Life, Oxford, 1998 (I use the 1999 Oxford paperback)
- Jaffe: Bernard Jaffe, Crucibles: The Story of Chemistry, from ancient alchemy to nuclear fission, fourth revised edition, 1948 (I use the 1976 Dover paperback)
- MacInnis: Peter MacInnis, Poisons (originally published as The Killer Bean of Calabar and Other Stories), 2004 (I use the 2005 Arcade paperback)
- Porter: Roy Porter, consultant editor, The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, second edition (first edition published in six volumes, 1983-1985, as The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists with volumes on Biologists, Chemists, Astronomers, Physicists, Engineers and Inventors, and Mathematicians), Oxford, 1994
- Timbrell: John Timbrell, The Poison Paradox: Chemicals as Friends and Foes, Oxford, 2005
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