The Sin-Eater, Wizard of Mauritius & Mr Good Day – Three Work Tales – Tales of History and Imagination
Hi all, I’m starting a new role at my day job, and seeing it is something in a whole new field, with possible homework to do – I’m putting a couple of the more content heavy tales on hold till I’ve settled in.
I was planning on podcasting a couple of older blog posts in the meantime; starting with The Sin Eater. The episode only ran six minutes long on it’s first recording, so I figured let’s do a trilogy today – some of this tale is old, most of it is new.
Today let’s talk about the things some people did for work.
One- The Last Sin Eater.
On occasion I’ve wondered about Richard Munslow’s funeral in 1906. When the Shropshire farmer – and practitioner of a lost art – died, aged 73, did the kin of his clients come to pay their respects? Was a gathering held afterwards, with food and drink? Did those assembled dare take a bite? I don’t ask to make fun of his passing – I do seriously wonder.
There’s a riddle ‘When the undertaker dies, who buries the undertaker?’ The answer “whosoever undertakes to do so”
When a sin-eater passes, who will break bread for them? Given Munslow’s passing saw the death, also, of a practice long frowned upon – my best guess is no-one? When Richard Munslow passed, the act of sin-eating went to the grave with him. I’m a non-believer myself, and of course don’t believe Mr Munslow went to hell. I dread to think he might have believed in his avocation. Did he go to the grave terrified all of Shropshire’s collected sins would drag him to the other place when he crossed over?
The practice of sin eating dates at least as far back as the early 17th century, mostly in Wales and the bordering English counties. If someone died before they could make a final confession, a sin-eater was called in. As the body lay in state, a pastry would be placed upon the deceased’s chest or face. Like a crouton swimming in a bowl of soup, the pastry would soak up the deceased’s misdeeds. The sin-eater then entered, and ate the pastry – reciting
“I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace, I pawn my own soul. Amen.”
Not unlike The Green Mile’s John Coffee, a literary stand in for Jesus (right down to the JC initials), it’s believed the practice grew out of a wish to emulate Christ.
The service gave families solace, knowing their relative would now ascend to heaven free of their baggage. The community at large could breathe easy some poor spirit would not be stuck in limbo to chain rattle – scaring others half to death on stormy, or foggy nights.
For having scapegoated themselves, the sin-eater barely eked out a living.
Sin-eating was a profession for only the poorest in the village. It paid little, and carried the heaviest of stigmas. Sin eaters regularly lived on the outskirts of the town or village, in semi-isolation. Often they made do in some abandoned, ramshackle old shed living a life scarcely better than a deceased sinner locked out of heaven. They were considered so toxic, to look a sin eater in the eye was said to bring a curse upon you. Sin Eating was also considered an act of heresy – and if caught, a practitioner could face punishment similar to a witch caught practicing witchcraft. As a rule, most sin-eaters were criminals or alcoholics who had few other options available than other than to turn to such work.
Though the practice all but disappeared in the mid 19th century, Richard Munslow – a man who had a well-paying job, but hated to see others suffer – continued to break bread with the deceased till early into the 20th century. I’m doubtful others passed on the favour for him, though it is something that he was honoured by the people of Ratlinghope, Shropshire in 2010. His tombstone much the worse for wear after a century of neglect, Reverend Norman Morris collected £1,000 from locals, and had his grave restored to something more akin a man of his heroic stature.
Two- Mr Good Day…
There’s a belief the Chinese philosopher, and by profession politician and teacher, Confucius once wrote “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life”. This is a misnomer. For one, it doesn’t reflect his strict views on life (the man was a stickler for a rigid social order, and expected people to even wear specific items of clothing on specific days. If you were caught wearing Wednesday’s outfit on a Tuesday, you could be in deep trouble.) For another the quote doesn’t appear in the analects. It’s a nice quote however, whoever said it first. It is also something many never achieve. Workplace research shows in our own time only 23 percent of workers are actively engaged in their day job. Half of employees, on the other hand, are likely to be actively disengaged with their role.
Joseph Charles of Berkeley, California was a man who found great joy in a job he loved.
What’s more he was appreciated for his hard work. The Mayor of Berkeley honoured him on his 85th birthday. The people named a tennis court in his honour. His gloves are on display in a museum. Even Walter Cronkite interviewed the man.
Charles came to his best loved role later in life. Born in 1910, he was professional baseball player in the segregated ‘Negro leagues’ before moving to the Bay Area in the 1940s. Mr Charles worked much of his adult life in the dockyards.
On October 6th 1962 he began the role he became best known for. Stepping out from his weatherboard home on the corner of Oregon Street and Martin Luther King Way (then Grove Street), he waved to every single motorist who drove past. As he waved he’d call out to motorists “Keep on smiling” and ‘Have a good day”. Joseph Charles took his post weekdays between 7.45 and 9.30 am, rain or shine, for the next thirty years – only retiring from the role, aged 82 in October 1992.
Some motorists were initially suspicious of the Waving Man of Berkeley, or ‘Mr Good Day’ as some called him. Was the man some kind of communist out to spread Marxism under the guise of random kindness? Others wondered how long it would take him to cause an accident with his tom-foolery. Many, however, found him charming – and waved back, or beeped their horns. One day a man stopped to give him a pair of bright yellow gloves. These became the first pair of eighteen Charles would own in his tenure. Many of the estimated 4,500 people he waved to each day detoured just to see him in the morning.
Most locals loved the Waving Man – one child commenting to her mother “it’s like having a blessing bestowed on us every day we drive by”. In 1992 a stranger knocked on his door, stating
“You don’t know me, but my wife and I have been having a lot of problems and we’re thinking of getting a divorce. But after driving by your house every day and seeing your positive outlook on life, we’ve decided to give it another try.”
Like any superhero, Charles became the Waving Man after suffering a loss. A Filipino neighbour he regularly waved to packed up and returned to the Philippines one day without warning. He found he missed the interaction, so he started waving to everyone. His wife Flora at first thought he’d gone mad – but after the NBC Nightly News, CBS News with Walter Cronkite, Real People and Ripley’s Believe it or Not came knocking, Flora conceded he was at least helping make a world a better place for people, one wave at a time – mad or not.
The people of Berkeley, California were distraught at losing their famed Waving Man, aged 92, on March 13 2002.
Three – The Wizard of Mauritius
For a period of close to half a century in my own lifetime, New Zealand had it’s own wizard. Ian Brackenbury Channell arrived on our shores in 1974, having previously served in the RAF as an airman – and Australia’s Melbourne University as an official sociology lecturer and unofficial ‘cosmologer, living work of art and shaman.’ He stood atop a ladder in Christchurch’s city square to argue a contrarian viewpoint over whatever was topical that day. He trolled Ray Comfort, a New Zealand born, American televangelist. When he was not performing a rain dance in the middle of a drought, the Wizard regularly donned his velvet robes and entertained kids on Sunday morning television.
The Wizard was honoured as a living work of art in 1982, promoted from Wizard of Christchurch to Wizard of New Zealand by Prime Minister Mike Moore in 1990, and was granted an annual stipend for his wizardry. In 2021, Ian Brackenbury Channell was told to hang up his magic robes by Christchurch city council after stating in a television interview
“ I love women, I forgive them all the time, I’ve never struck one yet. Never strike a woman because they bruise too easily is the first thing, and they’ll tell the neighbours and their friends … and then you’re in big trouble.”
It was not his finest hour.
Of course, as colourful a character as the Wizard of New Zealand was, he was an entertainer cosplaying as John Dee. The Wizard of Mauritius on the other hand – he had mysterious powers which to this day may still defy explanation.
Etienne Bottineau, a man known as the Wizard of Mauritius, was believed to have an uncanny ability to detect ships headed towards the isle de France from distances greater than any spy glass could see. What’s more he could often guess the size and type of the vessel, and if the ship was sailing alone or in a flotilla.
Bottineau was born in Anjou, France some time around 1740. As a young man he became enamoured with the sea, joining the navy as an engineer. Though records of his life and alleged abilities are sketchy, we know in 1762 he claimed he could sense incoming ships before they became visible. His claim, ships “…must produce a certain effect upon the atmosphere”. This isn’t a terribly descriptive explanation – though it appeared incoming ships somehow struck him with a wave of sensations and colours – perhaps similar to the way synesthete experiences seeing musical colours from different sounds? He tried to codify this talent, and sharpen it, by privately making predictions on arrivals. The results were dismal – something he put down to far too much noise in the signal. Too many boats were constantly coming and going in French waters.
His talents lay dormant, and functionally useless, till he was assigned to the remote East African island of Mauritius – 700 miles to the east of Madagascar. Out in the splendid isolation of the island chain – then named Isle de France by the French – he could easily sense ships as far as 700 miles away. Was that colourful sensation a French battleship headed their way, or an East Indiaman sailing for the Bay of Bengal? Bottineau claimed to know exactly which it was, while others were still asking “what ship?” He honed his talents, intending to develop a teachable method he could monetise. He named the method ‘nauscopie’. After six months on the island he had fully mastered the art, and began to show others.
People in charge possibly either saw him as dangerous or an annoyance, and sent him off to Madagascar for several years. When he returned to Mauritius, however, attitudes had changed and the people there viewed Bottineau as a living, breathing oracle.
In 1780 Etienne Bottineau started collecting data, in the hope of selling nauscopie to the French government. Over the space of eight months he claimed to have made sixty two predictions, correctly predicting the course of 150 ships. He kept a log of his predictions – most of which took between two and four days to confirm. He set sail for home in 1784, with his evidence and a letter from the Governor of Mauritius, Francois de Souillac which concurred the man was indeed an oracle. He wrote Bottineau ‘…sees in native signs that indicate the presence of vessels, as we assert that fire in places where we see smoke”
On his arrival he was widely regarded as a conman or a fantasist. He did have one prominent sponsor however – in all round renaissance man Jean-Paul Marat. Of course the French Revolution erupted in 1789, and his patron Marat took to writing angry invectives which influenced many towards the reign of terror that followed. In 1793 a minor aristocrat named Charlotte Corday assassinated Marat as he bathed. Initially a supporter of the Giordins’ who wanted to abolish the monarchy, Corday was horrified by the September Massacres of 1792. More than 1,100 political prisoners were murdered in a mass lynching. She blamed Marat for the massacre.
With his patron gone, Bottineau returned to sea. His evidence was sketchy at best, and his major backer – a man partially responsible for 40,000 murders – was increasingly more hinderance than help. He spent four years in Sri Lanka, and is believed to have passed on in Pondicherry, a French colony in India, in 1802.