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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cannibals in American Folklore

According to folklorist, B. A. Botkin, there existed a strain of American folklore in the "Wild West" days concerning braggarts who purported to be cannibals.

The American "Wild West" refers largely to the entire 19th-Century, but more specifically (and usually) to the latter half of the century, after the Civil War and before the turn of the Century. As America was settled in the East, the West was indisputably "wild" by comparison, and true cowboys and Indians often fought it out across the plains as European descendants expanded westward.

From this era come many legends of violent, debauched men - many of whom were vilified in their day, but have since become heroes of a type. And according to B. A. Botkin, there was a second group of "pseudo-bad" men who boasted of deeds and behavior similar to such legendary men as Wild Bill Hickock, Jesse James, and the like. However, this group of braggarts laid claim to a practice which made them stand apart: "man-eatin'."

Apparently, this claim's origins can be traced back (somewhat) to "savage remarks" such as "I eat men for breakfast" and the stories carry much the same structure, regardless of whom told them:
I live in ____, Texas... whar the human man-eaters come from, and I'm one on 'em. Every person they don't take no fancy to is drug out and scalped alive. My hum range is so plumb full of murder and sin that [H]ell won't be no treat to me.
While the Wild West certainly forced many a man to do things most of us would consider inhuman, and others did these things out of sheer desire or "meanness," Botkin considers these tales to be exactly that and asserts those who told them were invariably drunk at the time.

© C Harris Lynn, 2008


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