November 19, 2015 12:02 am

Sin Eaters were once a real part of peoples lives in the mountain communities of western N.C.

sin eaters

People of Irish decent brought the custom of sin eaters to some of the mountain communities of N.C. , Virginia , and West Virginia. The sin eater was brought in just before a person died or just after a person had died. My Grandmother often told of seeing the sin eater come when she was a child in western North Carolina.

The mountain people especially those of Irish decent believed that the sin eater could come just before a person died or just after and they would be able to take the sins of the person about to die or the person who had just died upon themselves. The sin eater would do this by requesting a plate of food to be prepared and the plate of food would be set on the chest of the person who was soon to die or who had just died.

The Sin Eater would then say a ritual of words and then he or she would take the plate of food over into a corner of the room and eat it taking the sins of the dying or dead person away from them and placing them on the sin eater.

Quite often especially in western North Carolina the identity of the sin eater was kept hidden so that no one in the community knew who the sin eater was. And my grandmother told that in her community when she was a young girl the sin eater wore a costume similar to the one in the photo above. She said that the sin eater that came to her community also went to other communities around in the same area where she lived as a young girl. She told us that she remembered seeing the sin eater come up until the time she married at age 19.

My Grandmother said that the sin eater would be sent for when someone was near death or when someone was killed or died suddenly and the sin eater would come at sundown on the day before the person was to be buried and he would place a white handkerchief on the ground in front of the door of the house where the person had passed away and the man of the house or the closest living male relative would place a money payment on the handkerchief. My Grandmother said that when she was a girl the payment was usually $2.

She said that the sin eater brought a wooden plate , a wooden cup , and his own fork and spoon and it was these that he would use when he performed the ritual of eating the deceased persons sins up on himself. My Grandmother used to say that at that time $2 was a good sum of money. She always told us the sin eater would carry his eating utensils tied up in a brown cloth and that he also carried a big black bible.

She told us that to the best of her memory that the sin eater would ask for his plate to be filled with food and his cup with what ever beverage was around and that then after placing his wooden plate on a dead persons chest that the sin eater would say. ” I pledge my soul for your sins and ask that God Almighty remove those sins from you and place them up on me and I eat this food and drink from this cup to show that I have taken your sins upon me. If I lie may God strike me dead before I eat from this plate or drink from this cup ” And with that the sin eater would go over in the corner and eat everything on the plate and drink everything in the cup and then the sin eater would tie his eating utensils back up in the brown cloth and with that he was gone never speaking to anyone in the house again that night.

The remote mountain communities of western North Carolina had all kinds of weird and unusual customs like sin eaters.
The remote mountain communities of western North Carolina had all kinds of weird and unusual customs like sin eaters.

$2 was not much pay though to take all of a persons sins upon you. Though $2 around 1915 would have been quite a sum of money especially to the very poor living in a remote mountain community. The sin eater not only got paid for his troubles but he was also given a meal. In some parts of the world only bread was given to the sin eater. Though my Grandmother said that in her community the sin eater was given a full meal.

I have talked to other people and I have found stories of sin eaters in western North Carolina , Virginia , and West Virginia. One man told me he lived near Beckley West Virginia and as a small child he remembered the sin eater coming. And this was supposed to have happened in the late 1950s. He told a very similar story to what my Grandmother told.He said the sin eater he saw as a child on several occasions was paid a cash payment and that he wore a hood to hide who he was.

So it would appear that Sin Eaters were around until recent times. As far as I can tell sin eaters were only found where there were Irish mountain communities. I could only trace down sin eaters in the three states mentioned so I don’t know if they were around in other parts of the United States or not.


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This post was written by Nadia Vella