Friday, 18 September 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Even A Stopped Clock...


Last time we examined the curious and sometimes sinister superstitions that have grown up around clocks over the years, and related how a stopped clock was often related to a death in many folk beliefs. Now this widespread superstition comes in two main variants, firstly there is the common tradition that a clock is stopped when some one dies. These days most people are familiar with it from a scene in the popular film Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), and the origin of  this funereal custom has prompted much speculation over the years.

A commonly touted explanation is that folks stopped the clock when a loved one died so that the time of death was recorded accurately for when the doctor or similar vassals of officialdom came a-calling.  However while this theory sounds all well and good, there is a problem with it - for it assumes that in ages past, our ancestors recorded deaths on certificates like we do today. However, death certificates requiring a doctor's signature and attested details such as time and cause of death are a relative modern phenomena, with centralized death records only coming into effect in the late 19th century, and in the US death certificates were not introduced until 1910. Before then, deaths were recorded in parish registers and required far less details. But there are many sources that record this superstition dating back well before modern death certification came into effect.

So then, what was the origin of the custom? Another theory that has been advanced is that in olden times, clocks were large and noisy, and hence to silence the loud ticking they made, they were stopped, so to allow mourners to grieve in silence. A variation of this theory states that clocks in the room where the deceased was laid out were stopped so mourners did not worry about how long they spent paying their respects! Again both of these theories sound ostensibly plausible, but actually do not entirely fit the lore we have recorded. For many variations of the belief hold that the clock should remain stopped until the body is carried out of the house for the funeral. Then, and only then, may the clock be started again. It was therefore, a kind of symbolic gesture, acknowledging that for the dear departed time itself had stopped. Indeed this is made clear in one of the earliest references to the belief. In 1825, the Newcastle Magazine reports that -  
At a northern latewake... the clock is shrouded and stopped, to signify that time has become a blank (for the deceased)   
It has been also speculated that stopping the clocks is also a sign to the deceased's spirit that their life is over and they must now move on from this life; quite literally a way of telling the dead 'your time has ran out'. However it is also very possible that it is related to our second famous superstition about stopped clocks - that a timepiece will mysteriously stop when a loved one dies.

Now in the world of folklore, cause and effect is often not a linear process. Many superstitions originate in the same magical philosophies that give rise to sympathetic magic. Everyone knows the famous example of this - the voodoo doll, but as we saw in a previous article on witch bottles, sympathetic magic was a two way street - hence an evil curse could be rebounded back to the sender by example the magical 'sympathies' that power the original spell. Hence stopping a clock when someone dies may be similarly exploiting a magical sympathy, in this case to prevent the Reaper making a second call to the household too soon.


Clocks that mysteriously stop when a death occurs is often thought to be merely a hokey old plot device, with many crediting a hit song, My Grandfather's Clock for being the origin of this superstition. Certainly this perennial favourite, written  by Henry Clay Work, is a very old work, being first published back in 1876 (and if you are not familiar with it, the lyrics will be reproduced at the end of this article). And it is true too that the song has been massively influential - for it is thanks to Work's song that we call grandfather clocks by that term - previous to this ditty they were known as long case clocks, floor clocks or tall clocks! 

However what few people realize is that the song was inspired by a true life case. In the north of England, there is a little town called Piercebridge which is home to an old pub, The George Inn. Some one hundred and sixty years ago, The George was a coaching inn, run by two brothers named Jenkins. Their pride and joy was a long case clock made by the famed Thompsons of Darlington, for at the time Thompson clocks were renowned for their precision and accuracy with many famous clock-makers learning their trade at James Thompson's workshop on High Row in Darlington. And by all accounts, The George Inn's clock was exceptionally accurate, a very handy thing for travelers to a coaching inn.  

However when one of the Jenkins brothers died, the clock began to lose time on regular basis. And when the surviving brother passed away aged 90, the clock, although fully wound, stopped.  The new manager of The George attempted to get the clock running again, and despite being examined and rebuilt by Thompsons, the clock would not run. And indeed it never ran again, and can still be seen to this very day in the foyer stuck at 11.30. Now Henry Clay Work stayed at The George in 1874 and heard the tale of the stopped clock, and was thus inspired to write his famous song.


So if My Grandfather's Clock wasn't the origin of this superstition, where did it originate? Well according to documents left by the King's Clockmaker, a Mr Vullamy, a clock in the royal household mysteriously stopped when George III died in 1820. And this historical oddity has been claimed to be the inspiration for the belief. However even a small amount of research will uncover a host of similar stories, and it appears that rather than being a folk belief, clocks do stop when some one dies. Now skeptics of course will claim that this is merely a trick of probability - and that obviously some people will die at the exact moment a clock that can be seen by relatives stops. 

However while invoking that old favourite agent of debunking, Coincidence, seems all very rational and scientific, at the same time it is hard not to feel a little chill when reading account after account of people reporting clocks and watches stopping at the moment of a death. Particularly when you have reports of modern digital and electrical timepieces suddenly stopping, and even multiple clocks stopping when the death occurs. It is apparently a common enough phenomena for many doctors and nurses to have noted it as something that happens often when some one dies. 

Some have even theorized it may be some electro-magnetic effect, generated biologically when some one dies that is to blame, for it is a scientific fact some people's bodies do carry a certain electro-magnetic charge that will stop any watch they wear. Perhaps when we start to see ourselves more as complex electromagnetic events than just bags of meat, when biology gains a deeper understanding of the electrical energies that are so vital to making us living, thinking creatures, science will get us an answer. Until then however we cannot rule out the Reaper's bony fingers stopping the clocks to say "Time's up..."  


MY GRANDFATHER'S CLOCK
by Henry Clay Work

My grandfather's clock was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor;
It was taller by half than the old man himself,
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.
It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born,
And was always his treasure and pride;
But it stopped short — never to go again —
When the old man died.

Ninety years without slumbering
(tick, tock, tick, tock),
His life's seconds numbering,
(tick, tock, tick, tock),
It stopp'd short — never to go again —
When the old man died.
In watching its pendulum swing to and fro,
Many hours had he spent while a boy;
And in childhood and manhood the clock seemed to know
And to share both his grief and his joy.
For it struck twenty-four when he entered at the door,
With a blooming and beautiful bride;
But it stopped short — never to go again —
When the old man died.

Ninety years without slumbering
(tick, tock, tick, tock),
His life's seconds numbering,
(tick, tock, tick, tock),
It stopped short — never to go again —
When the old man died.
My grandfather said that of those he could hire,
Not a servant so faithful he found;
For it wasted no time, and had but one desire —
At the close of each week to be wound.
And it kept in its place — not a frown upon its face,
And its hands never hung by its side.
But it stopped short — never to go again —
When the old man died.

Ninety years without slumbering
(tick, tock, tick, tock),
His life's seconds numbering,
(tick, tock, tick, tock),
It stopp'd short — never to go again —
When the old man died.
It rang an alarm in the dead of the night —
An alarm that for years had been dumb;
And we knew that his spirit was pluming for flight —
That his hour of departure had come.
Still the clock kept the time, with a soft and muffled chime,
As we silently stood by his side;
But it stopped short — never to go again —
When the old man died.

Ninety years without slumbering
(tick, tock, tick, tock),
His life's seconds numbering,
(tick, tock, tick, tock),
It stopped short — never to go again —
When the old man died

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