Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

Beware the Grey Mare:
Early-American River Superstitions
Many riverboat pilots of the late-19th century would tell you, a black cat onboard a riverboat was a sure sign of calamity. The only way to remove the bad luck was to toss the poor creature overboard by the tail, but only if done from the port side of the vessel. The starboard side would have absolutely no effect and the boat would be destined for disaster.
Superstitions are irrational beliefs in supernatural forces used to justify misfortune. They develop from fear of the unknown and belief in magic. They are often based on the assumption that a connection exists between co-occurring, non-related events or circumstances. Superstitions can be self-validating and have real world implications when influencing a believer’s actions. Similar to folklore, they are often passed down generations and have their basis in tales that date back centuries.
For many early Americans, life took unexpectedly tragic turns. Doctors were scarce, and illness struck suddenly and spread swiftly. Severe weather events were catastrophic, minor injuries could lead to death, and travel was exceedingly dangerous for a multitude of reasons. Superstitions were used to rationalize tragedies, while empowering believers to think they could control their fate through actions to counter bad luck. Riverboatmen, whose professions were extremely dangerous, were particularly superstitious. Rivers were full of hidden dangers that could sink boats and boiler explosions were common. The average life expectancy of a steamboat was roughly five years. These disasters, and the anxiety around them, resulted in an abundance of river superstitions. Many of these beliefs are captured in the literature of the time.
Life on the Western Rivers by John Habermehl, 1901.
From the collection of the Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library
John Habermehl’s Life on the Western Rivers recounts his personal experiences and observations of boatmen and passengers on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, with an emphasis on their social life and customs. Within the first chapter, the author immediately addresses the general superstitious nature of riverboatmen, describing several common river superstitions. This early discussion in the book lends credence to the significance of superstition in the lives of river communities.
“Friday was always considered a day of bad luck and while boatmen had no Sunday it was always considered of importance to look out for breakers ahead on Friday. There was all the proof in the world. A certain boat had been begun on Friday - launched on Friday - started out on Friday - and sunk on Friday, evidence enough for some captains to be on their guard.”
Gould’s History of River Navigation by E. W. Gould, 1889
From the collection of the Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library
 Like Habermehl’s text, Gould’s History of River Navigation is a well-known contemporary examination of river life. Gould’s book explores the history of steamboats and the character of early navigators, among other river subjects. He mentions superstitions several times throughout his book. One superstition he describes is the belief that boats whose names begin with the letter “M”, the 13th letter of the alphabet, were unlucky. He quotes Captain John N. Bofinger’s article in the St. Louis Times.
“I do assert that, with barely an exception, that all steamboats built and run on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, whose name commenced with the letter M, were either burnt, sunk, exploded or unsuccessful as an investment to their owners. You can look over a long list of Missouri, Mississippi, Mary, Michigan, Marie, Monarch, Mediator, etc.”
Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi recalls his early days as an aspiring steamboat pilot in a series of humorous anecdotes. Superstitions, folklore, and the supernatural are common themes throughout Twain’s works. Written at the height of his career, Life on the Mississippi provides a glimpse at the real-life inspiration behind his work.
Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain, illustrated edition, 1883
From the collection of the Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library
In chapter 27 Twain describes a common river superstition involving a preacher and a gray mare.
“A good many steamboat corpses lie buried there, out of sight; among the rest my first friend the 'Paul Jones;' she knocked her bottom out, and went down like a pot, so the historian told me—Uncle Mumford. He said she had a gray mare aboard, and a preacher. To me, this sufficiently accounted for the disaster; as it did, of course, to Mumford…”

Late-19th century Waterways Journal and other river news articles frequently referenced superstitions with a casualness that indicates how commonplace and widely accepted the beliefs were. One of the most cited superstitions was the belief steamboat accidents came in sets of three. The October 22, 1892 Waterways Journal reported a steamboat accident, “There is likely to again be a verification of the “three theory”...The Robt. Jenkins burned a few days ago and was soon followed by the Bellaire. What will be next?”
Waterways Journal Clipping, Rats Left Steamer and Then it Sank, 11/3/1900.
Another common river superstition, rats leaving a steamboat is a sure sign the boat will sink. The last sentence of the article references the “three theory”.
From the collection of the Pott Waterways Library, St. Louis Mercantile Library
There were specific actions taken to counter bad luck. Pigs, for example, were considered lucky. Many boat crews kept a pet pig. In the passage from Life on the Mississippi, Uncle Mumford describes a time he found himself on a boat cursed by a preacher and gray mare. He explains they painted the mare blue and tossed the preacher overboard, “or we should not have arrived at all”. In the passage from Life on the Western Rivers, Habermehl explains horseshoes were often nailed near engines to ward off bad accidents. Captain Wes Doss wrote to the Waterways Journal in the January 1, 1898 publication that he discovered a new talisman, “...a Mississippi River catfish eye... if you will put one in the band of your hat, luck will never desert you while navigating the muddy waters.”
Whether you consider yourself a superstitious person or not, you likely think twice about walking under a ladder or when you see a black cat on Halloween. Many superstitions have become ingrained in our culture, as they passed from generation to generation. Rivermen are no different. Although preachers are not thrown off boats any longer, many river crews still carry remnants of these early superstitions. Visit our Facebook page to share some river superstitions you know or practice.
A note from the author: When researching this topic, I found the term hoodoo was regularly used to mean unlucky. River news often described “hoodooed” boats and crew. The term was also used synonymously with superstition, as in “river hoodoos”. Upon closer investigation of the origins of the term, I learned it was culturally misappropriated. Hoodoo was a spiritual tradition that developed in the 18th and 19th century among enslaved Africans brought to America. It was a combination of African practices, Native American influence, and European folk practices. The stigma associated with folk religions is so prevalent in western society, it is commonplace to associate them with superstition and bad luck. At some point the term took on a new meaning for the people using it, a meaning that was likely offensive to the culture it originated from. I chose to omit the term from this article. Language is powerful and we should be thoughtful in how we use it. --SH
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