In a Word

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thersitical
adj. abusive, foul-mouthed, reviling

In his Recollections of the Civil War, Charles Anderson Dana called Union general Andrew Atkinson Humphreys “one of the loudest swearers that I ever knew.” “The men of distinguished and brilliant profanity in the war were General Sherman and General Humphreys — I could not mention any others that could be classed with them. General Logan also was a strong swearer, but he was not a West Pointer: he was a civilian. Sherman and Humphreys would swear to make everything blue when some dispatch had not been delivered correctly or they were provoked.”

In Rex v. Sparling (1722), a leather dresser named James Sparling was alleged in the course of 10 days to “profanely swear fifty-four oaths, and profanely curse one hundred and sixty curses, contra formam statuti.” His conviction was overturned because the charge sheet had failed to list them. “For what is a profane oath or curse is a matter of law, and ought not to be left to the judgment of the witness … it is a matter of great dispute among the learned, what are oaths and what curses.”

When in 1985 a man named Callahan called a California highway patrolman a “fucking asshole,” California Court of Appeal Justice Gerald Brown referred to this phrase as the “Callahan epithet” to avoid having to repeat it continuously, “which arguably would assist its passage into parlor parlance.” And he reversed Callahan’s conviction:

A land as diverse as ours must expect and tolerate an infinite variety of expression. What is vulgar to one may be lyric to another. Some people spew four-letter words as their common speech such as to devalue its currency; their repetition dulls the senses; Billingsgate thus becomes commonplace. Not everyone can be a Daniel Webster, a William Jennings Bryan or a Joseph A. Ball. …

Fifty years ago the words ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ were as shocking to the sensibilities of some people as the Callahan epithet is to others today. The first word in Callahan’s epithet has many meanings. When speaking about coitus, not everyone can be an F.E. Smith (later Earl of Birkenhead) who, in his speech in 1920 in the House of Commons on the Matrimonial Causes Act, referred to ‘that bond by which nature in its ingenious telepathy has contrived to secure and render agreeable the perpetuation of the species.’

Spirit Reading

https://www.google.com/patents/US1767820

During Prohibition, an enforcement agent had a tough job: If he infiltrated a speakeasy and ordered a drink to confirm that it was alcoholic, his oral testimony could easily be attacked in court, and, ironically, once he admitted that he drank alcohol regularly then defense attorneys could question his reliability.

Robert Tetro patented this solution in 1930. Instead of drinking your drink, you’d discreetly clip a tube over the rim of the glass, reach into your pocket and squeeze a bulb, drawing off a sample. Then you’d pay your tab and leave. If the sample proved alcoholic then the feds could raid the place, which had no warning that it was under surveillance. And now the authorities had physical proof that alcohol was being served.

In the patent application, Tetro says his invention “has been used to a considerable extent, proving its value.” He was based in Michigan; I don’t know how widely it was used.

Fair Play

An extraordinary scene took place on Saturday last at a small village within three miles of Middleton. A half-witted fellow named James Driscott had cruelly ill-used his donkey. He was told by several of the villagers that he would be brought up before the magistrates and severely punished; but his informants said that if he consented to do penance for his inhuman conduct, no information should be laid against him. Discott gladly agreed to the proposed terms. The donkey was placed in the cart, and its owner, with the collar round his neck, was constrained to drag his four-footed servant through the village. The scene is described by a local reporter as being the most laughter-moving one he had ever witnessed.

Illustrated Police News, Jan. 22, 1876

Reflections

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More maxims of La Rochefoucauld:

  • “Those who are deceived by our Cunning don’t appear near so ridiculous to us, as we seem to ourselves, when deceived by the Cunning of others.”
  • “The World oftner rewards the Appearance of Merit than Merit itself.”
  • “The Calm, or Disquiet, of our Temper depends not so much on Affairs of Moment; as on an agreeable, or disagreeable, Disposition of the Trifles that daily occur.”
  • “In Misfortunes we often mistake Dejection for Constancy; and we bear them, without daring to look on them; as Cowards suffer themselves to be kill’d, without Resistance.”
  • “How brilliant soever an Action may be, it ought not to pass for Great when it is not the Effect of a Great Design.”
  • “There are Crimes which become innocent, and even glorious, thro their Splendor, Number, and Excess: Hence it is, that public theft is call’d Address; and to seize on Provinces unjustly, to make Conquests.”
  • “‘Tis easier to appear worthy of the Employments we have not, than of those we have.”
  • “‘Tis difficult to love those we don’t esteem; but ’tis no less difficult to love those we esteem much more than ourselves.”
  • “Every body speaks well of his Heart, but no body dares speak well of his Head.”
  • “Flattery is a sort of bad Money to which our Vanity gives Currency.”
  • “Those who are incapable of great Crimes don’t readily suspect others of them.”
  • “Fortune breaks us of many Faults, which Reason cannot.”
  • “We easily excuse in our Friends the Faults that don’t affect us.”
  • “None are so happy, or unhappy, as they imagine.”

No Answer

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In 1890 the editor of the New York World invited Mark Twain to offer a message of holiday goodwill to its readers. He sent this:

It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us — the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage — may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss — except the inventor of the telephone.

Mark Twain
Hartford, Dec. 23

Taber Bills

In 1799, Massachusetts passed a law restricting private banking companies from issuing their own currency notes without the consent of the legislature. This was well intended: If unlimited paper money were allowed to circulate, the resulting inflation would play havoc with the finances of ordinary people.

Unfortunately, the result was that legitimate currency became harder and harder to find. In Maine, where only a single bank existed, people were increasingly desperate for currency, and so the Portland merchant John Taber began to circulate notes for 1, 2, 3, and 4 dollars, payable to the bearer in silver on demand, despite the law:

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This worked for a while, propped up by Taber’s reputation. But Taber’s profligate son Daniel began to print bills for his own use as he needed them, and when Massachusetts repealed its law John Taber and Son were forced into bankruptcy.

When it was over, Taber approached his old partner Samuel Hussey, who owed him $60. Hussey invited him into his counting room, counted out the amount in Taber’s own now-worthless bills, and asked for a receipt.

Taber said nervously, “Now, thee knows, friend Hussey, this money is not good now.”

“Well, well, that is not my fault,” said Hussey. “Thee ought to have made it better.”

(From the Collections and Proceedings of the Maine Historical Society, 1898.)

Unquote

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“Happiness, whether consisting in pleasure or virtue, or both, is more often found with those who are highly cultivated in their minds and in their character, and have only a moderate share of external goods, than among those who possess external goods to a useless extent but are deficient in higher qualities.” — Aristotle

“Money only appeals to selfishness and always tempts its owners irresistibly to abuse it. Can anyone imagine Moses, Jesus, or Gandhi armed with the money-bags of Carnegie?” — Albert Einstein, The World As I See It, 1949

Where wealth and freedom reign, contentment fails,
And honour sinks where commerce long prevails.

— Oliver Goldsmith, The Traveller, 1764

“The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.” – Epictetus

“The most necessary disposition to relish pleasures is to know how to be without them.” — Marquise de Lambert, A Mother’s Advice to Her Son, 1726

“It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly.” — Bertrand Russell

“Who is rich? He that is content. Who is that? Nobody.” — Benjamin Franklin

Food Fight

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W.S. Gilbert’s neighbor in the country was a partner in a firm that was famous for its relishes, pickles, jams, jellies, and preserves. He had been made a baronet but “had grown very touchy about the source of his wealth and his title,” recalled DeWolf Hopper, “and was rather a hoity-toity neighbor.”

One day Gilbert’s dogs killed some pheasants on the man’s property, and he wrote a curt note of protest to the author. Gilbert wrote back:

Dear Sir Alfred:

I am extremely sorry about the loss of your pheasants, and I am taking steps to prevent my dogs from trespassing on your preserves in the future.

Sincerely,

W.S. Gilbert

P.S. You will pardon my use of the word ‘preserves,’ won’t you?

In his 1927 autobiography, Hopper also recalls:

Someone once challenged Gilbert to make up a verse offhand riming the words ‘Timbuctoo’ and ‘cassowary’. He studied for a moment and recited:

If I were a cassowary in Timbuctoo,
I’d eat a missionary and his hymn book too.

Practical Politics

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On May 22, 1856, South Carolina representative Preston Brooks approached Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner as he sat writing at his desk in the U.S. Senate chamber. “Mr. Sumner,” he said, “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” Then he began to beat Sumner savagely with his gold-headed walking cane. Blinded with blood, Sumner at first was trapped under the desk, which was bolted to the floor, but he wrenched it free and staggered up the aisle, Brooks raining blows on his head until the cane snapped and Sumner collapsed unconscious. Even then Brooks held him by the lapel and continued to beat him with half the cane until the two were separated.

Sumner had denounced South Carolina senator Andrew Butler in a speech two days earlier in a dispute over slavery in the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Brooks was convicted of assault and fined $300, but he received no prison sentence, and his constituents returned him to office. Pro-slavery Southerners sent him hundreds of new canes, one inscribed “Hit him again.”

On Nov. 9, 1889, Col. A.M. Swope encountered Col. William Cassius Goodloe in the corridor of the Lexington, Ky., post office. The two had been battling for control of the state Republican party, and tragically they had adjoining mailboxes.

“You obstruct the way,” said Goodloe.

“You spoke to me,” said Swope. “You insulted me.”

Goodloe drew a knife. Swope drew a Smith & Wesson .38. Goodloe stabbed Swope 13 times, piercing his heart and nearly cutting off his hand. Swope shot Goodloe twice, tearing up his belly and setting his clothes afire. Swope died on the post office floor, and Goodloe staggered to a doctor’s office. He died two days later.

One witness said he never thought he would witness “such a magnificent display of manly courage and bravery.” Goodloe’s uncle, Cassius M. Clay, said of his nephew’s conduct, “I couldn’t have done better myself.”

Observations

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More maxims of La Rochefoucauld:

  • “We endeavour to get Reputation by those Faults we won’t amend.”
  • “We never desire vehemently what we desire rationally.”
  • “Whatever Distrust we may have of People’s Sincerity, we always believe they are more ingenuous with us than with any body else.”
  • “We promise according to our Hopes, and perform according to our Fears.”
  • “Repentance is not so much Remorse for what we have done, as Fear of its Consequences.”
  • “Our Enemies come nearer the Truth in their Judgment of us, than we do ourselves.”
  • “We don’t despise all those who have Vices, but we despise all those who have no Virtues.”
  • “None but such as are contemptible are apprehensive of Contempt.”
  • “That Conduct often seems ridiculous the secret Reasons of which are wise and solid.”
  • “Censorious as the World is, it oftner shews Favour to false Merit, than it does Injustice to true.”
  • “Our Fancy sets the Value on all we receive from Fortune.”

And “We take less Pains to be happy, as to appear so.”