Whosoever Drinketh of the Water That I Shall Give Him Shall Never Thirst ('Cause He'll Be Dead)

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Wheeling Register, July 3, 1883. The phrase "poisoning the well" still gets bandied about a lot, but only as a metaphor in discussions about rhetorical rules of engagement. But back before the days of socialized tap water, literal well-poisoning was a common crime. But the crime was nowhere near as common as charges of well-poisoning, because everybody who drank from a well was very conscious of its vulnerability to interference.

That's an unbeatable recipe for hysteria and moral panic, and in medieval Europe, Jews, witches, lepers and Muslims were all regarded as incorrigible well-poisoners, which helped keep life interesting for them.

Hard to say what's going on between the lines of this little drama, but I love it for its Faulkner-meets-Poe-with-a-side-of-Erskine-Caldwell flavor. That Reverend Malpheus (great name!) thought he could pass himself off as a wayfaring stranger to Harlee Clay suggests that he had bought a bit too deeply into the stereotype of the gullible and childlike negro. Presumably Mr. Clay kept a straight face while entertaining his ofay guest. One wonders what the relationship was between the two, and how it came about that Clay had the local clout to effectively press his legal suit across the color line in post-Reconstruction Georgia. That would have required significant white patronage in local power structures, I should think.

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