Folklore Profile: The Water Man
The year is 1935, the Great Depression has already crippled the United States for more than six years. Writers, artists, teachers, librarians, and historians are struggling to find any type of work that will allow them to use their specific set of skills. The already dark days look to be getting even darker as time passes, but a glimmer of hope has arrived to put these skilled individuals back to work. After years of not being able to find work in environments that favor the written word, unused pens and pencils will be put to paper once again, and it is all thanks to The Federal Writers’ Project.
Created by the Roosevelt Administration as part of the New Deal policies, the FWP was able to get over 10,000 unemployed individuals back to work by collecting various stories and information regarding each state within the United States. Originally created as a way to produce guidebooks which showcased the historical events that took place within each state as well as the economic resources the land within those states provided, the FWP evolved into something much, much more. New departments were created that focused specifically on life histories, studies of customs of different social and ethnic groups, the testimonies and oral histories of ex-slaves, essays regarding the various immigrant cultures settling in the United States, and finally, rural and urban folklore.
The Federal Writers Project, which was overseen by the Works Progress Administration, selected various individuals from each state to oversee the specific departments in which the FWP had writers. To oversee the Wisconsin folklore project, historical society museum director Charles E. Brown was chosen, and to lead the project, Brown hired Dorthy Miller. So beginning in December of 1935, Miller started a three-year project which had her and her staff conducting over six hundred interviews with various residents of the state of Wisconsin.
Along with these interviews, Miller and company searched for folklore within newspaper archives, old magazines, and obscure books. When all was said and done, Miller and her team had collected over 1,000 stories, 3,000 songs, 1,500 games and superstitions, and 9,000 sayings and anecdotes. To make those numbers even more impressive, it must be noted that every single one of those pieces of information collected was first handwritten by the folklore team and then typed up for official documentation. The amount of time required to ensure all these bits of information were recorded for historical use is just insane to think about.
But the overall insanity paid off as a vast majority of these stories would have been forgotten to time if it wasn’t for Dorthy Miller and her team. How terrible it is when intriguing pieces of history are lost to the ages because nobody bothered to simply write them down, or because others just weren’t interested in listening and turned a deaf ear. But thankfully, we do not have to worry about that in this instance as modern technology has allowed for all of the notes, typed reports, and stories involving the Wisconsin folklore collected by the FWP to be uploaded digitally to the Wisconsin Historical Society online archives. Everything collected is now available to anyone who wishes to read through the overwhelming number of pages that were written and typed between 1936 and 1938 (the Wisconsin collection ended in ‘38, the national FWP ended in 1943), and wouldn’t you know it, we at the PBI wished to do just that, so we did.
During our time reading through the various stories collected, we came across an intriguing piece of folklore that originated among the local Czechoslovakian residents who had settled in the state during the first wave of arriving immigrants after the state was incorporated into the union in 1848. This first mass arrival of settlers included Germans, Scandinavians, Irish, and Norwegians, so it is quite possible that this folktale was also known to those settlers as well. But, because I know many of you did not come here for a history lesson, I will stop with the background and get into the folktale itself as that is the whole purpose of this article. So for those of you who have stuck with us this far, here is your reward, the legend of The Water Man.
While the origin date of the Water Man story is unknown, it makes its first written appearance in the Wisconsin FWP notes on November 4th, 1936. The collection of the story is recorded as being done by Florence May Swan from a report given by Stephen Kliman entitled “Folk Lore And Customs In Czecho-Slovakia”. The entire written report clocks in at seventeen pages and touches on subjects such as superstitions, gnomes, wedding customs, exorcising witches, plants with magical powers, and of course, how to summon the devil (hint, you need a crossroads and it involves wild horses and black knights). In fact, the story of The Water Man appears immediately after reading up on how to summon Satan himself.
So as not to lose any of the story or muddy it up with any modern context, here is the exact story of The Water Man that appears in the seventeen-page report:
“…Now the Water Man is not a devil, but he will try also to get your soul. He is not a ghost, for there are villagers who have actually seen him. My grandfather, who transported timber on the river, talked and walked with him. He told me that the Water Man looks like any other man. He dresses in a long cloak, slit into tails. You may recognize him by the water dripping from his handkerchief thrust into the slit tails.
His castle is situated in the deepest part of the river. His family consists of three generations. They can be seen walking on the water at any time save the ringing of the Angelus during the noon hour. Then they lurk in the castle and woe betide the boy who is swimming there at the time. For the Water Man ties a hair from a horse’s tail around his big toe, drags him down and drowns him. He seizes the boy’s soul, and thrusts it into an earthenware pot mounted on a tripod over a big open hearth. The soul boils for a year.
You are incredulous? Here is proof: Each year the merchants from all over the country hold an open market in the village. It is quite an event. Everyone attends. The Water Man is there, too, to buy new earthenware pots. Hard-headed merchants do not trade with wraiths.
And for further proof, there is the tale of the girl who went swimming at the forbidden time, sank and supposedly drowned. She found her way into the kitchen, inquisitively poked among the posts on the hearth and lifted a cover. Out flew a soul. She uncovered all the pots and released other souls. Then she too escaped.
And there was the immodest woman who in an open meadow brazenly removed her footwear and bathed her feet in a shallow pool. Not two feet deep was it, yet the Water Man tried to snare her big toe with his horse hair. But the woman screamed and ran away.
So it is no wonder that the belief in the Water Man is very deeply rooted. As deeply rooted as the conviction that certain trees and plants have supernatural powers…..”
Now, right away one can see that the lore of the Water Man is not speaking about a real being. The story suggests that this thing exists both in the water and out of the water, boils souls for years and years, and has absolutely no issue with interacting with normal humans and even being friendly with some of them from time to time. This folklore tale almost comes across as a somewhat enjoyable tale of a magical being that just exists among regular folk, that is until you get the part where he drowns people, then it stops being friendly. But overall, the story is not outright scary or unnerving.
So why does it exist, what was the legend of the Water Man created for? While not certain, it appears that the Water Man was created to act as a sort of Boogeyman when speaking of the dangers of swimming alone. The examples of the children who fell victim to the Water Man were never described as being with anyone else when they met their fates, they were by themselves. As children often like to be headstrong and do things on their own, this can prove to be a great obstacle to overcome when trying to get them to think about safety while doing something they love. Swimming is a perfect example of this as children often like to assume that most bodies of water are safe due to not being able to see the dangers through the dark water. And if these children will not listen to the words of their parents, they will listen to a tale involving a soul-stealing wraith that lurks just below the surface of the very water they wish to go into.
Again though, this is all speculation as we are not sure where or when this exact story originated. But truth be told, it makes sense. All the indicators are there as to this being a classic Boogeyman warning tale. But this isn’t all the story touches on, not by a long shot. This tale also seems to have been created as a way to get children and teenagers on board with keeping to religious traditions. You see, the story of the Water Man mentions the “ringing of the Angelus during the noon hour”, and for those who are unaware, this is a direct reference to a Roman Catholic practice.
You see, the Angelus is a Roman Catholic practice in which bells are sounded at three specific times of day; morning, noon, and sunset. These church bells would ring to recognize a specific event related to the stories of Jesus, as well as to signify the time in which all followers of the Roman Catholic faith should recite the Hail Mary. So, if you were a stubborn or hard-headed child who did not want to recite your prayers at the designated time, and you also believed in the legend of the Water Man, that meant that during these specific times your soul was vulnerable to be taken and boiled for an entire year. The fear of this aquatic Boogeyman was used to keep young followers of the Roman Catholic faith in line and to preserve traditions.
Another thing that is interesting about this legend is that even though it seems to be associated with Roman Catholic Christianity, it also seems to be pulling aspects from Celtic and Norse horse magic. In the story, it is said that the Water Man uses a horse hair in which to pull his victims down into his castle. While at first seeming somewhat odd that a single horse hair would be used to pull entire child down below the surface, it is worth noting that prior to mainstream Christianity, horses were regarded as magical creatures. And not just an entire living horse, but also any object that had come from a horse such as their shoes, hair, and bones. Both ancient Celtic and Norse mythology have traditions that spoke of horses being associated with fertility magic, protection magic, and divination.
Because of this tie to ancient magic and secret ways unknown to most residents of the villages, towns, and cities where the legend of the Water Man was present, this wraith came across as even more dangerous and evil since was able to use magic that nobody besides it understood. The fear of the unknown is always the greatest fear, and when you tie that fear into something that is considered evil by the church (ex: magic), you have created something that can be used to influence young minds. Now I’m sure that the Water Man was not only used in this context, its name was probably thrown around often in order to scare people in different ways and over time, it evolved and became associated with many more areas that were quite different than what it was originally created for.
Personally, I like the idea of it being used to keep children safe while in the water and to never swim alone. I don’t much enjoy the idea of it being used to force people to uphold religious customs, but that is just my opinion and everyone is entitled to think what they want. Regardless of what it was used for, you have to admit that this is one of the more interesting folk tales associated with the state of Wisconsin. The image of an odd looking man emerging from the water, wearing a long cloak that is constantly dripping water, and walking through an open market searching for the best deal on various pots in which to eat souls out of is a hoot to think about. Honestly, modern-day stories and legends can’t hold a candle to the stuff that was thought of years ago, and people need to realize that. Ghosts and Cry Baby Bridges are not scary, wet strangers who live in castles and try to snatch you away with a little horse hair are, and that’s the truth.
-The Pine Barrens Institute
Image Credit: Google