Fact Check

The Barrel of Bricks

History of the apocryphal tale about an accident-prone man and a barrel of bricks.

Published Sep 20, 2001


Legend:   Calamity ensues when a dim-witted lad tries to hoist a barrel of bricks to the top of a building.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 1997]

This man was in an accident (work accident, not car accident), so he filled out an insurance claim. The insurance company contacted him and asked for more information. This was his response:

I am writing in response to your request for additional information for block number 3 of the accident reporting form. I put 'poor planning' as the cause of my accident. You said in your letter that I should explain more fully and I trust the following detail will be sufficient. I am an amateur radio operator and on the day of the accident, I was working alone on the top section of my new 80 foot tower.

Cartoon of the legend

When I had completed my work, I discovered that I had, over the course of several trips up the tower, brought up about 300 pounds of tools and spare hardware. Rather than carry the now un-needed tools and material down by hand, I decided to lower the items down in a small barrel by using a pulley, which was fortunately attached to the gin pole at the top of the tower. Securing the rope at ground level, I went to the top of the tower and loaded the tools and material into the barrel. Then I went back to the ground and untied the rope, holding it tightly to ensure a slow descent of the 300 pounds of tools. You will note in block number 11 of the accident reporting form that I weigh only 155 pounds. Due to my surprise of being jerked off the ground so suddenly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Needless to say, I proceeded at a rather rapid rate of speed up the side of the tower. In the vicinity of the 40 foot level, I met the barrel coming down. This explains my fractured skull and broken collarbone. Slowed only slightly, I continued my rapid ascent, not stopping until the fingers of my right hand were two knuckles deep into the pulley.

Fortunately, by this time, I had regained my presence of mind and was able to hold onto the rope in spite of my pain. At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of tools hit the ground and the bottom fell out of the barrel. Devoid of the weight of the tools, the barrel now weighed approximately 20 pounds. I refer you again to my weight in block number 11. As you might imagine, I began a rapid descent down the side of the tower. In the vicinity of the 40 foot level, I met the barrel coming up. This accounts for the two fractured ankles, and the lacerations of my legs and lower body. The encounter with the barrel slowed me enough to lessen my injuries when I fell onto the pile of tools and, fortunately, only three vertebrae were cracked. I am sorry to report, however, that as I lay there on the tools, in pain, unable to stand and watching the empty barrel 80 feet above me, I again lost my presence of mind. I let go of the rope . . .

Origins:   Viewers of television's Saturday Night Live on 23 October 2004 saw the comedy program present one of its typical political sketches, this

one a send-up of the presidential campaign debates between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. In the SNL spoof, the John Kerry character related an elaborate anecdote to illustrate the perils of inadequate health insurance coverage, a tale about a construction worker who was repeatedly injured on the job while trying to hoist a barrel of bricks. The President Bush character responded by maintaining that Senator Kerry's anecdote sounded like an "exaggeration," and the moderator chipped in to assert he was sure he had read the same story in Reader's Digest years earlier.

What Saturday Night Live had incorporated into its presidential spoof was a century-old urban legend. One of its earliest sightings appears in the 1902 book At Home With the Jardines, where it appears as "A Letter From Jimmie." However, even that is handily predated by this sighting of the tale in an 1895 newspaper.

The law of the attraction of gravitation was well illustrated on Cedar Street the other day. A man stood holding a rope which ran over a pulley and into a second story window, where it was attached to a barrel containing about 600 pounds of iron chain. The barrel was poised on the sill of the window, and by some mischance the man in the building let go of it without notifying the man on the ground. Result, illustration of the law of gravity, barrel down and man up, as he retained his grip on the rope.

Then, to complicate matters, the barrel struck the ground so hard that the bottom fell out, the contents following, of course. And again the gravity was demonstrated, for this made the barrel lighter than the man, and down he came with a thump, and the barrel went up.

Then he made the mistake of his life by letting go of the rope, that he might feel his bruises, for the barrel, being heavier than the loose end of the rope, dropped swiftly downward and struck him fairly, just as he was struggling to his feet, again vindicating the attraction of gravity.

But the spectators failed to realize the gravity of the situation.

Adding yet another sighting of this well-loved and incredibly old tale to the many documented throughout the years, I offer the following from the 1951 autography of a renowned old salt. If we believe Rear Admiral Gallery, he told this story to his crew in either 1943 or 1944, while he was captain of the U.S.S. Guadalcanal:

One night at the movies I told the crew the story about the sailor on the Saratoga who requested an extension of leave in the following air mail letter:

C.O., U.S.S. Saratoga

Dear Captain,

When I got home I found that my father's brick silo had been struck by lightning, knocking some of the bricks off at the top. I decided to fix the silo, and so I rigged up a beam, with a pulley and whip at the top of the silo, and hoisted a couple of barrels full of bricks to the top. When I got through fixing the silo there were a lot of bricks left over.

I hoisted the barrel back up again, secured the line at the bottom, and then went up and filled the barrel with extra bricks. Then I went down to the bottom and cast off the line.

Unfortunately, the barrel of bricks was heavier than I was and before I knew what was happening, the barrel started down and jerked me off the ground. I decided to hang on, and halfway up I met the barrel coming down and received a severe blow on the shoulder. I then continued on up to the top, banging my head against the beam and getting my fingers jammed in the pulley.

When the barrel hit the ground it busted the bottom, allowing all the bricks to spill out. I was now heavier than the barrel and so started down again at high speed. Halfway down I again met the barrel and received severe injuries to my shins. When I hit the ground I landed on the bricks, getting numerous painful cuts from the sharp edges.

At this point I must have lost my presence of mind because I let go of the rope. The barrel then came down and struck me another heavy blow on the head, putting me in the hospital for three days.

Respectfully request five days extension of leave.

I told the boys that unless they could top that one, they would just be wasting their time and mine trying to alibi being overleave.

Another take on this legend comes from Why Paddy's Not at Work Today (or "The Bricklayer's Song"), a spoken version of "The Bricklayer's Lament" tale performed by Gerard Hoffnung at the Oxford Union, 4 December 1958. In both these well-known versions, the injured party is a bricklayer and his letter is to the firm he works for.

Barbara "just another brick in the fall" Mikkelson

Sightings:   Look for this legend in the 1996 novel Infinite Jest. For a really old occurrence of it, hunt up a copy of the 1937 Laurel & Hardy film Way Out West. Recent sightings of the hilarious accident can be found in the 1998 film Babe: Pig in the City and is acted out in the Beta Band's 2001 video for the song "Squares."

Last updated:   23 March 2008

  Sources Sources:

    Bell, Lilian.   At Home With the Jardines.

    New York: A. Wessels Company, 1906   (pp. 298-300).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Curses! Broiled Again!

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.   ISBN 0-393-30711-5   (pp. 180-188).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good To Be True.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 166-168).

    Dale, Rodney.   The Tumour in the Whale.

    London: Duckworth, 1978.   ISBN 0-7156-1314-6   (p. 120).

    Gallery, Daniel V.   Clear the Decks.

    New York: Warner Books, 1951   (pp. 62-63).

    St. Paul Globe.   "The Laws of Gravity."

    Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Evening Gazette.   11 January 1895   (p. 6).

  Sources Also told in:

    Wallace, David Foster.   Infinite Jest.

    Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.   ISBN 0-316-92004-5   (pp. 139-140).

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.

    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 110).

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