Before there were ships in a bottle, there were whimsy bottles depicting crucifixions, saloons, murders and missing men.
When hobo Carl Worner arrived in a new place, he would call for a large bottle and cigar boxes or other scrap wood, a hatpin, and glue.
In less than a day he would produce a bottle whimsy of a vibrant local scene.
Find the missing man
In exchange, he got food, clothes, shoes, lodging, and perhaps above all, drinks at the local tavern.
His trademark bottle was a saloon scene, often with the saloon keeper’s name over the bar, featuring a mustached bartender standing in front of rows of bottles and signs advertising Cuban cigars.
In front of the bar, he put a table and chairs when space permitted. Two men usually stood at the bar, with glasses of beer raised in toast to each other. Sometimes the men were sitting at the table, and when the bottle was large enough, there were men standing and sitting.
These tiny dioramas in bottles were called whimsy bottles, patience bottles or puzzle bottles.
His bar bottles usually have a sign or note in them to “Find the Missing Man” or “ “Find the 4 Man.”
The “missing man” is always below the floor in the “crapper,” which is usually an open three-sided niche with a carved or painted figure inside.
The large seltzer bottles have not one but two men below the main floor using the men’s room!
Worner would instruct the barkeep to make sure that the person examining the bottle received it in his right hand. The idea was to hide the missing man for as long as possible.
In one of his bar scenes he wrote:
“who does not love beer, wine, women and song remains a fool his whole life long”.
That may tell us something about the man.
But we know next to nothing about Worner’s life – he is the original missing man.
He identified himself as a “Sailor” in two of his bottles, so he may have worked on the Great Lakes and on many of the rivers and canals crisscrossing his travels.
Carl Worner would never have considered himself a historian, but in a way that’s exactly what he was.
The Murder Bottle
Among whimsy bottles, one tells the story of a real-life murder.
Inside this bottle, you see a sad looking figure, walking along with his head cast down and a hobo’s stick-and-kerchief luggage over his shoulder.
One of the two notes in the bottle reads:
“A foul seducer and murderer has been turned loose on the community of Uniontown, Pennsylvania. He has with him his lawyer and perjured jurymen, but the mark of Cain is on him: ‘A fugitive and vagabond shalt thou be in the earth’.”
This figure, it’s obvious, is the fleeing murderer.
The note is signed by a man named William Wiggins of Tipton in Pennsylvania.
It’s even dated – March 30, 1883.
Turn the bottle around and there’s a tally of 12 “perjured jurymen”, clipped from an 1883 newspaper. Each man is listed with his profession: the miner Henry McIntyre, the farmer Elmer Cagey, the blacksmith Robert Acklin and so on.
The very short version of the murder is that a young lawyer named Nicholas Dukes slept with a Uniontown girl called Lizzie Nutt. He wrote a brutal letter to Lizzie’s father informing him of this fact and then shot Captain Nutt dead when he demanded that Dukes marry the girl.
In the resulting trial, the prosecution argued that the murder was premeditated and sought a verdict of first-degree murder.
Dukes pleaded self-defense, claiming that he did not reach for his pistol until he saw Captain Nutt reach for his.
To everyone’s astonishment, the verdict was “not guilty.”
Even the judge was amazed by the not-guilty verdict:
“Gentlemen of the jury, I suppose the verdict is one that you thought you should render under your oaths; but it is one that gives dissatisfaction to the Court, because we thought the evidence sufficient to justify a different verdict. If you have committed an error, it is one that we cannot avoid, but can only express our condemnation of it in this mild way. The prisoner is dismissed.”
The local newspaper railed that the verdict:
“legalises seduction, throws a cloak around murder, sticks a dagger in the heart of every family and is a disgrace to the civilised world”.
The town citizens agreed – they threatened to lynch both Dukes and the jury that freed him.
The ripple effects of this murder grew to include three more shootings and Nutt’s son ending up in prison.
You read the full, fascinating story by Paul Slade here.
God in whimsy bottles
Most religious whimsy bottles contain crucifixion scenes.
The cross is often decorated in a lurid fashion: glitter is sometimes used to highlight the scene. Loincloths may be made of aluminum foil.
The bottle crosses are generally surrounded by symbolics carvings – a rooster, dice, skulls, pliers, saws or lanterns.
The opposing fascination in the whimsy bottles is with Man’s vices.
One bottle has carved figures engaged in a card game, complete with small carved beer mugs. These carvings are so detailed that you can see the markings on the faces of the tiny cards!
Another bottle goes straight to the point: a carved and hinged devil is climbing a wooden ladder – trapped forever in a wine bottle.
Before we had plastic covers for photos, pictures were often placed into glass containers as a type of memory bottle for deceased family or friends.
Some were made for wedding or birthday or just as gifts.
The most bleakly moving memorial puzzle bottles contain only an empty chair.
What makes these bottles sculptures more resonant is that their makers were often imprisoned either mentally or physically.
The messages in a bottle are from people trapped in concentration camps, mental hospitals, sanitariums, or prisons.
Others were in their own “physical” prisons such as the severely physically handicapped or socially handicapped.
Some, like Worner, were hobos just trying to use their skills in hard times to make money or barter for daily necessities.
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.