The Sin Eater
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.
$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.
Have you ever heard of a sin eater in other places in the United States. Please post your comments below and thanks for taking the time to read my Hub Page on Sin Eaters.
Please post your comments about Sin Eaters now. And thanks for taking the time to read my Hub Page.
Les Butchart on August 11, 2020:
I have a sin-eater scene in a novel entitled Elyana about a girl raised by a witch/sineater in WVA. I based the scene on a description my folklore professor gave us in a class at UNC-CH, in which the sineater vomits into a bucket after eating the sins, but slips frogs and snakes (small ones, I presume) and lizards into the bucket, then shows them as proof that the sins were purged. Disgusting, I know, but this professor was very well studied on the subject. He also said that yes, sin-eaters did make their way to the new world.
chuc on December 10, 2017:
Look into the lives of Appalachian folks in the backwards of Kentucky. Very interesting.
Lucia826 on March 14, 2016:
The "sin eater" of Irish origin was common in Ireland and I believe it hearkens back to the old Druid rituals.--crossing somewhere between those old pagan practices and Christianity. The fact that it was/is at all in the U.S., is indicative of the fact that it was brought to this country by the Irish immigrants.
Wanda Harrell on November 10, 2015:
Since I read about this yesterday, my curiosity has been piqued. As an author working on a book set in the 19th Century, I'm wondering about adding a sin eater into the story. My ancestors, paternal and maternal, are from NC and TN. I've been involved in genealogy since 1983, but have not heard of a sin eater before now. Thank you!
Irma "Mimi" Rockwell on November 08, 2015:
I just posted an account of Sin Eaters on Sheila Adams Facebook Page as has the author of this Hub. Personal disclaimer: I am not a native Appalachian but have lived in Washington County, VA since 1982, nor am I of Irish descent. I am native Hoosier but am not aware of this custom in Indiana. I have come to admire Appalachian folks very much because of their poetic language, sense of humor, witticisms, and friendliness. y
Tony Malone on November 08, 2015:
My grandma told a tale of a person or something in a black robe who came to her house when her dad died and the wake was held in the home. I have often wondered about this because she was serious when she told it. This is the first I've heard of this but it could have been this person that she saw. She lived in the Mountains of upper east Tennessee.
rhonda on November 07, 2015:
We all answer for our own sins. No one can come in and take them away by eating. U die in sin...u raise that way.. No one else can take away your sins except jesus!!
Shelia on November 07, 2015:
ladygarnet on November 07, 2015:
Who eats the sins of the sin eater? There was a show called "Night Gallery" that told exactly this story. Ireland in Famine and the sin eater comes to the funeral.
Jacob Jackson from Kansas on August 24, 2013:
say what now? this is a very strange article.
Christine on March 21, 2013:
if this stuff interests you i would suggest the book " The Last Sin Eater". It is really good!
dylan on January 29, 2012:
Hi the tradition of sin eating exists in many cultures and is still practiced widely, it's just called different names..
Kitty Fields from Summerland on November 04, 2011:
I've never heard of this, but it's super intriguing. Voted up and interesting.
Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on September 11, 2010:
This is a very interesting hub. Years ago I saw a movie on TV with the actor who played John Walton (the TV series). In this movie he was the son of the village "sin eater". I never knew this was a true custom. What a fascinating custom. I wonder though, how much sin the sin eater took on and how could he survive this? Great hub!
Lori J Latimer from Central Oregon on September 10, 2010:
I like this Hub very much. I inhabit realms of time and space that aren't considered 'normal'. In the Ozark Mountains - Booger Hollow, there are still old ways of doing things. Thank you...
Thomas Byers (author) from East Coast , United States on September 10, 2010:
Yes at least in the mountain communities of Appalachia they were real and existed until recent times. I have found no stories or evidence of them still being active today however in some places in the mountains the communities are still pretty close mouthed. So there is a possibility that somewhere there is still a sin eater around. Thanks for your comment. It is appreciated.
Nell Rose from England on September 10, 2010:
Hi, I never knew they were real! and the funny thing is that I have been watching the sin eaters on TV in England, this week, with Heath Ledger, but I thought it was a bit far fetched! I can't believe I missed that one, nice one, and thanks for the information, I have the urge to go and look it up some more now, cheers nell