A Little Pub History…
In the early 1800’s, at the local ale house, the innkeeper kept a record of each man’s drinking on a slate with a piece of chalk – one mark for a pint and two marks for a quart. It was called “running up a tab”.
Unscrupulous innkeepers sometimes added extra marks so customers had to “mind their p’s and q’s”. When you paid up, the innkeeper “wiped the slate clean”.
Every table was furnished with a “black jack” of ale: a sleeve dipped in a black tar or pitch (hence the word for pitcher) for waterproofing. There was a nasty side effect to the pitch treatment on the black jack: the tar contained lead that the alcohol leached into the ale, creating an extremely toxic drink that routinely led to unconsciousness, or in more severe cases, coma. The victim was dragged into a corner and left until the slate floor had rendered him “stone-cold sober”.
Since toxic coma could easily be mistaken for death, the body was placed in a coffin in front of the kitchen hearth and a noisy celebration was held to try and wake the victim. If the person had not regained consciousness after a “three-day wake,” he was presumed dead and was buried. With the mortality rates soaring thanks to the black plague, church graveyards filled so rapidly that old coffins had to be dug up and the bones stored in urns in the church so the burial space could be reused. It was found, however, that one out of every 25 exhumed coffins had scratch marks on the inside of the lid, indicating the person had been buried alive.
The church was mortified by the revelation, and sent a directive from the highest level that a rope should be tied around the wrist of each corpse and the end attached to a bell on the gravestone. If a person should regain consciousess and begin to struggle, the bell would ring.
Men were hired to sit in the graveyard to listen for the bell. With superstition rampant, few were eager for the nightly “graveyard shift.” It is said that hundreds of lives were “saved by the bell,” and towns-people were often disconcerted to meet someone on the street that looked identical to a person they had buried only a few days earlier. They said he must surely be a “dead ringer”.