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Bessie Bingo: An Expression of into squares and a cow is

set free to roam on the

Traditional Interspecies Play field until it excretes
manure. The winner is the
By David S. Rotenstein person who has placed a
© 1992 D.S. Rotenstein bet on the square where
manure lands. [UPI 1990]
From the What Was I Thinking Files. I guess this
proves that everything is fair game in a liberal arts For $2.50, people can
graduate program. purchase a one-yard patch
of grass behind Thorp
High School and on May
Cows are fun. Cartoonist Gary Larson, whose 15 a cow will be let loose
surreal bovine images have captured imaginations in to roam the field to do
daily newspapers for over a decade, says that "even what comes naturally,
the name 'cow'... is intrinsically funny" (Larson letting the chips fall where
1989:156). Larson suggests that cows are "the they may on the purchased
quintessentially absurd animal for situations even squares. A "chip" in the
more absurd" (Larson 1989:156). right place will win a $250
jackpot. [Khalsa 1987]
Although Larson has wrought cows in roles
juxtaposed with human roles -- from speaking to tool From Connecticut to Virginia to Illinois to Michigan
using to game playing -- real life has taken Larson's to Washington, over the past five years Bessie Bingo
fictive visions of absurdity to the furthest margins of has become a popular festival event. Despite
imagination. Bessie Bingo, or Cow Chip Bingo, or variation in the cost and size of each square and even
Cow Pie Bingo is a contest involving cows and the number of cows used (in Virginia, one episode
people. It is a performance staged under the auspices involved two cows), the basic formula for Bessie
of charity, however folkloristically speaking it may Bingo remains constant: People place a cow in a
be viewed as a secular scatological performance. demarcated area and award a cash prize to the person
correctly predicting the point where the cow will
Basically, Bessie Bingo involves (with a lot of defecate. Proceeds after the cash award are used
latitude for variation): toward a charitable purpose. But what exactly is
Bessie Bingo?
A cow, a giant outdoor
grid, and the animal's According to John Bourke, "the subject of scatologic
spontaneous placement of or stercoraceous rites and practices, however
a cow pie somewhere in repellent it may be under some of its aspects, is none
that grid. The bold among the less deserving of the profoundest consideration"
the bovine bingo set can (1891:iii). From his armchair, Bourke was examining
plunk down $25 for a the place of human and animal excrement in ritual.
ticket that corresponds to Bourke delved into the ritual use of cow dung among
one of the 100 squares in the Hindus and ancient Hebrews in a chapter titled
the grid. People who buy "Cow Dung and Cow Urine in Religion." Although
the square that the cow he was concerned mostly with the consumption of
eventually hits will share cow excrement, it is important to note that Bourke
some of the pool money. recognized the symbolic significance of cow
[Mills 1989] excrement.
In a "cow chip bingo" Looking at cows and their end products, they may be
game, a field is divided seen in terms of context and content. By taking cows
from the barnyard to the arena, they have been placed legislature adopted an amendment during this year's
in a situation of reversal -- put in an unexpected place session to legalize the games, but... it was poorly
for an extraordinary purpose. Like the horses of the drafted and placed in the wrong section of the
palio in the Sienese church, the cows are expected to statutes" (UPI Sept. 26, 1990).
defecate in a place that at any other time the act
would be considered defiling (see Dundes and Falassi The mere proposal of Bessie Bingo can cause conflict
1975:96). like that encountered by Richard Baker, the mayor of
Marengo, Illinois. Although it was in his power to
Bessie Bingo is a performance. It is an event of deny a permit for Bessie Bingo within city limits,
"situated behavior" that is meaningful and culturally festival planners held the event at a field just outside
defined (Bauman 1977:27). Unlike the scatological of town.
rites examined by Bourke, Bessie Bingo is secular,
not overtly tied to any religious context. Bessie Bingo In Woodbridge, Virginia, three members of the local
does, however, articulate with the sacred world Rotary Club resigned "harboring a beef about cow
because it involves an act of defilement that is chips" (Thomas 1987) when their organization
considered by many to be an affront to good taste and announced that Bessie Bingo was on the agenda for
in violation of society's morals on two levels. First, the annual Fourth of July celebration:
there's the most obvious of public defecation. Second,
Three of the Rotary Club's
the event involves what some people would consider
46 members have quit
over concerns for that
Some might view Bessie Bingo as an "anomalous gambling, the sale of beer
event" that threatens the cultural categories of order and the liability if the
and cleanliness. Intentionally creating dirt, i.e., cow cows injure someone. "We
manure, in a place where it is not expected violates did this as a club, but
socially constructed categories of propriety (cf. unfortunately we had
Douglas 1966:29-40) or the distinction between some resignations over a
edible and filthy beasts (see Leach 1972). There's no difference of opinion..."
question that some folks are going to be offended by
... The public hardly
a cow shitting in public.
seems outraged about the
"This taints the image we want to give. I don't believe game. All but 10 of the
we have to have a Super Duper Pooper Pool to fund 100 plots have been sold.
this [festival]," said Mayor Richard Baker of [ibid]
Marengo, Illinois after vetoing a request to have a
According to Alan Dundes, cows and their manure
round of Bessie Bingo (Mills 1989a). "How is a town
have a long historical significance in our society.
to keep its dignity when the current controversy
Looking at German traditions involving cow dung,
concerns cow pies?" (ibid).
Dundes notes that "cow manure... occupies a place
On a larger political level, two state legislatures for special affection in German culture" (Dundes
debated several legal issues revolving around Bessie 1984:16). Dundes ruminates over the positive
Bingo. In Michigan, for example, state officials affective nature of cow manure and suggests a
declared that the event was illegal because it was symbolic association of bovine excrement and wealth
unlicensed and "it could not be licensed... because the (Dundes 1984:12-13). With Bessie Bingo, it's easy to
cow could be enticed to make a drop on cue" see the association of cow excrement and money: a
(Chicago Tribune June 10, 1987). share of the wealth in the game is dependent on
where the cow drops its chips.
In Connecticut, the state legislature debated the issue
two years running, finally passing a "Cow Chip Bessie Bingo isn't unique in that it is an event
Bingo bill" in 1990. According to a UPI report, "The involving the interaction between humans and
animals. But is it folklore? Jay Mechling points out sounded great,'" noted an organizer of another
that traditional interactions between humans and episode in Virginia (Thomas 1987). At this point, it's
animals are common and they contain many levels of difficult to say where or when Bessie Bingo
communication (Mechling 1989). According to originated, but newspaper accounts suggest that it's a
Robert Malcomson, people have long been nationwide phenomenon.
predisposed toward using animals for gaming
(1973:45). Bull-bating, dogfights, cockfighting have
long been part of the Western play repertoire
(Malcomson 1973). Bessie Bingo, in Roger Caillois'
eyes, would be a game of chance (1979:17-18), an
aleatory excursion into the absurd reversing the
expected roles of human and cow.

Bessie Bingo as a secular scatological performative

event supports Mechling's claim that play frames are
not necessarily voluntary, an error by folklorists who
succumb to a "romantic fallacy," an ideal that
suggests that "participants in a folk event are there by Bessie Bingo Locations as of 1992
free choice" (Mechling 1989:319). Mechling notes
that participants in an event might be coerced. For
obvious reasons, it's difficult to determine the degree
of consent on behalf of any cow used in the staging
of Bessie Bingo.

So, where does this leave us in terms of the statement

that "cows are fun"? Patti Rollinger, speaking on References Cited
behalf of the Washington Dairy Commission notes
Bauman, Richard
that "Cows are cute, but I really don't know what has
1977 Verbal Art as Performance. Prospect Heights,
given them the popularity... They're all the rage right
Ill.: Waveland Press.
now, especially Holsteins. You see them everywhere,
on T-Shirts especially" (quoted in Khalsa 1987). Bourke, John
1891 The Scatalogic Rites of All Nations.
Bessie Bingo functions like a joke in some respects.
Washington, D.C.: W.H. Lowdermilk
In all of the reported instances of Bessie Bingo, the
event was staged for charity: people are asking for Brunvand, Jan
money. Functionally, there's little that sets a 1981 The Vanishing Hitchhiker. New York: Dutton
"legitimate" charity apart from a street person
begging quarters on any city street corner. Asking for Buchan, David
money is difficult. In this sense the cow, an 1981 "The Modern Legend." In, Language, Culture,
acknowledged "fun" animal, is used as a humorous and Tradition, edited by A.D. Green and J.D.A.
technique (cf. Oring 1987:277). Like a well timed Widdowson, pp. 1-32.
joke, the cow is used to take the edge off a difficult
situation, in this instance that of soliciting funds. Caillois, Roger
1979 Man, Play, and Games. New York: Shocken
Like much "urban folklore" (cf. Brunvand 1981; Books.
Buchan 1981), Bessie Bingo appears to have spread
via the popular press. "We heard about a few other Douglas, Mary
places doing this" noted one festival planner in 1966 Purity and Danger. London: Ark Paperbacks.
Marengo, Illinois (Mills 1989a). "Some members had
read about a similar event in a newspaper and 'it
Dundes, Alan
1984 Life is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder. New
York: Columbia University Press.

Dundes, Alan and Alessandro Falassi

1975 La Terra in Piazza. Berkely: University of
California Press.

Khalsa, G.S.
1987 "Everywhere You Look There Are Cows."
United Press International May 5, 1987.

Larson, Gary
1989 The Prehistory of the Far Side. Kansas City:
Andrews and McNeel.

Leach, Edmund
1972 "Anthropolgical Aspects of language: Animal
Categories and Verbal Abuse." In, New Directions in
the Study of Language, edited by Eric Lenneberg, pp.
23-63. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Malcomson, Robert W.
1973 Popular Recreations in English Society. New
York: Cambridge University Press.

Mechling, Jay
1989 "Bannana Cannon and Other Folk Traditions
Between Human and Nonhuman Animals." Western
Folklore 48:312-323.

Mills, Marja
1989a "Mayor Just Can't Stomach Cow Pie
Contest." Chicago Tribune, August 17, 1989, p. C-1.

1989b "Marengo Festival May be in the Chips After

All." Chicago Tribune, August 22, 1989, p. C-1.

Oring, Elliott
1987 "Jokes and the Discourse on Disaster." Journal
of American Folklore 100:277-286.

Philadelphia Inquirer
1989 "Droppings for the Deaf." July 4, 1989, p. 3-A.

Thomas, Pierre
1987 "Let the Cow Chips Fall Where They
May." Washington Post Wednesday, July 1, 1987, p.

United Press International 1990 "Cow Chip Bingo

Bill Proposed." Sept. 26, 1990.