The Tale of the Sourtoe Swallowing
Ian Stewart/Yukon News
Do you know who swallowed the toe?
Word on the street is his name was Joe,
Or Justin or Josh, or possibly Moe.
He did it for show, so the new legend goes.
To prove his cred as a real sourdough.
In a tale torn from the pages of Robert Service, a mysterious stranger pulled of a stunt on Saturday night in Dawson City that won’t soon be forgotten.
The shocking act has left the Downtown Hotel one important digit short.
On what appears to be his last night in town, the unknown ruffian strode into the bar at the Downtown Hotel and asked for a shot of whisky.
In Dawson City on a Saturday night, that is no strange thing. And as many Yukoners are well aware, even cocktails containing severed human digits are not unusual. Tourists line up all summer long for a chance to shoot the Sourtoe Cocktail, containing a desiccated, amputated human toe.
What our character did next, however, is somewhat surprising.
“This guy came into the bar, and he came up to the table near the end of night. He sits down, and he says, ‘I want to do the toe, but I want the guy at the bar to do it, too. He’s the one who signed me up,” said Terry Lee, the “Toe Captain” for the evening.
Terry’s job is to initiate patrons into the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. To become part of the club, patrons must recite a short verse and shoot back the whisky, allowing the toe to touch their lips, but it must go no further.
“Kevin (a former Toe Captain himself) was a little rusty and he kind of stumbled over the words, so I helped him out: ‘You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow but your lips must touch the toe.’
“And then we gave a warning: the toe must not enter the mouth, be bitten, chewed or swallowed or it’s a $500 fine,” Lee said.
“So this guy takes the toe, and he puts it up to his lips, and he puts it into his mouth. I was shocked, because he was warned.
“He had a beer chaser with him, so he kind of slugs back some beer. Then he stands up, reaches into his pocket and pulls out five $100 bills. He slams them on the table and starts walking away. I say, ‘where’s the toe?’ And he says, ‘I swallowed it.’
Stunned, Lee phoned the Downtown’s general manager and said, “You’d better get over here right away. Somebody swallowed the toe.”
But by the time the manager arrived, the mysterious man had already disappeared into the night.
Word spread rapidly around town, but details about his identity remain sketchy.
“I heard his name was Justin, and he’s a placer miner in town,” said one excited Dawson citizen.
“I heard he worked on that reality TV show, Gold Rush. Word is he planned to do it, walked in there with $500 cash,” said another, in wonderment.
Even the town’s mayor was stumped.
“I have no idea who he was. I have some hunches, but that’s about it,” exclaimed Wayne Potoroka, sounding puzzled.
“Apparently his name was Josh, and he’s from New Orleans,” said Lee.
According to Lee, there have been eight toes lost since the tradition began in 1973, some of which have been swallowed.
But as far as Lee knows, no one has ever done it intentionally.
As strange a tale as the swallowing of a Sourtoe is, it’s also a serious concern for the hotel.
Lee explained that they only have one severed toe left. This is a problem because they try to keep the toes stored in salt to prevent them from rotting. Until Saturday’s incident, the hotel had two, and would rotate them weekly to make sure they lasted.
“We’re down to one toe used continuously, and it will deteriorate that much faster.
Most of the toes come as anonymous donations in wills, Lee said, “but right now we’ll take any toe anyway we can get it.”
The owners of the Downtown Hotel couldn’t agree more. Northern Vision Development, which purchased the hotel in July, has put out a toe-in-cheek wanted poster seeking more donated toes.
“It is kind of meant as a joke, but it would be great for us to get new ones so we can continue,” said Adam Gerle, Northern Vision’s vice-president of marketing and sales.
The hotel has also jumped the fine for digit mastication or ingestion from $500 to $2,500 dollars, hoping to dissuade any more would-be toe-eaters from taking the big gulp.
The Sourtoe tradition may seem trivial, but it has reached world-wide fame, and protecting that is something that Northern Vision is intent on doing, Gerle said.
“Not a day goes by that we don’t see a story on a travel blog or a tweet or something,” he said.
Indeed, the Sourtoe Cocktail was featured on CNN.com’s list of the world’s 12 most unusual cocktails, alongside one containing gunpowder and another with a “dollup of Earl Grey-infused air.”
Gerle said that the Downtown hopes to find a replacement toe soon, before the only one left deteriorates beyond saving.
Contact Jesse Winter at