To Whom It May Concern

Visiting France in 1777, Benjamin Franklin received hundreds of inquiries from ardent Frenchmen seeking to join the American army. Finally he penned a “model of a letter of recommendation of a person you are unacquainted with”:

Sir.–The bearer of this, who is going to America, presses me to give him a letter of recommendation, though I know nothing of him, not even his name. This may seem extraordinary, but I assure you it is not uncommon here. Sometimes, indeed, one unknown person brings another equally unknown to recommend him; and sometimes they recommend one another! As to this gentleman, I must refer you to himself for his character and merits, with which he is certainly better acquainted than I can possibly be; I recommend him however to those civilities which every stranger, of whom one knows no harm, has a right to, and I request you will do him all the good offices and show him all the favour that, on acquaintance, you shall find him to deserve. I have the honour to be, &c.

See Backhanded Letters of Reference.

PG Profanity

In October 1921, Rep. Thomas L. Blanton (D-Texas) was nearly expelled from the House of Representatives for inserting “grossly indecent and obscene language” into the Congressional Record.

Blanton opposed unions; he was quoting an argument between a union and a non-union printer. The offensive passage was called “foul,” “disgusting” and “derogatory to the dignity” of the House; the New York Times reported that it “contained matter so indecent as to cause criminal prosecution if it had gone through the mails in an ordinary way.” Brace yourself — here it is:

G__d D___n your black heart, you ought to have it torn out of you, you u____ s_____ of a b_____. You and the Public Printer has no sense. You k_____ his a____ and he is a d_____d fool for letting you do it.

The expurgations are in the original.

Blanton kept his seat but was censured unanimously by his colleagues. “In the corridor he fell exhausted, striking his head on the marble floor. He rested a few minutes on a couch, refused medical aid, and shuffled to his office, tears running down his face as he forced his way between spectators and members who were leaving the session.”

Stepping Down

In certain professions there is no shortage of new applicants but, on the contrary, many people who are waiting to enter …; half of the people currently employed are below average, and for each of them leaving their job would not cause enormous hardship. … [Therefore] Half of the people should each consider giving up their place for such a newcomer. … If I am correct, a great many people have a substantial moral and personal reason to retire, even if it were thought too morally demanding to expect them to do so. To put it bluntly: for a great many people, the best professional action that they can currently take is to leave their profession.

— Saul Smilansky, Ten Moral Paradoxes, 2007

“Equal to the Occasion”

A couple were going to be married, and had proceeded as far as the church door: the gentleman then stopped his intended bride, and thus unexpectedly addressed her:–

‘My dear Eliza, during our courtship I have told you most of my mind, but I have not told you the whole: when we are married, I shall insist upon three things.’

‘What are they?’ asked the lady.

‘The three things are these,’ said the bridegroom: ‘I shall sleep alone, I shall eat alone, and find fault when there is no occasion: can you submit to these conditions?’

‘O yes, sir, very easily,’ was the reply, ‘for if you sleep alone, I shall not; if you eat alone, I shall eat first: and as to your finding fault without occasion, that I think may be prevented, for I will take care you shall never want occasion.’

The conditions being thus adjusted, they proceeded to the altar, and the ceremony was performed.

The Knot Tied: Marriage Ceremonies of All Nations, 1877

A Ghoul and His Money

In 1771, two heirs, a Mr. Pigot and a Mr. Codrington, made a wager as to whose father would die first. A friend computed the odds based on each father’s age, and when Codrington objected that these were unfair, the Earl of March agreed to stand in his place. They agreed that Pigot would pay March 500 guineas if his own father died before Sir William Codrington, and March would pay Pigot 1,600 guineas if Codrington died first.

Unfortunately, old Pigot was already dead — he had died at 2 a.m. that very morning. On learning this, his son refused to pay the wager, contending that the contract was void, “for there was no possibility of the defendant’s winning, his father being then actually dead, and therefore he ought not to lose.” But March sued him and won.

“It was sneakingly mean and inconsiderate in the old man to die in this underhand way, and thus subject his son, the companion of young noblemen, to the mortification of having bet against a dead certainty,” writes Irving Browne in Humorous Phases of the Law (1876). “But it was what you might expect of old Pigot, for the record does not show that he was of noble blood, and so we infer he was plebeian, and knew no better.”

Such, Such Were the Joys

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“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

“My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school.” — Margaret Mead

“My schooling not only failed to teach me what it professed to be teaching, but prevented me from being educated to an extent which infuriates me when I think of all I might have learned at home by myself.” — George Bernard Shaw

Get Your Own

A petition submitted to the governor of the province of South Carolina by 16 maids of Charleston on March 1, 1733, “the day of the feast”:

To His Excellency Governor Johnson.
The humble petition of all the Maids who names are underwritten:–

Whereas we, the humble petitioners, are at present in a very melancholy disposition of mind, considering how all the bachelors are blindly captivated by widows, and our more youthful charms thereby neglected; the consequence of this, our request, is, that your Excellency will for the future order that no widow shall presume to marry any young man till the maids are provided for; or else to pay each of them a line for satisfaction, for invading our liberties; and likewise a fine to be laid on all such bachelors as shall be married to widows, etc.

I can’t find a record of the outcome.

Risqué Business

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In 1969, convinced that anything prurient would sell in the era of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady decided to manufacture his own bestseller. He asked 24 colleagues to write a chapter apiece, following two rules: They had to write badly, and there had to be an “unremitting emphasis on sex”:

In the darkened room, now thirstier than ever, Gillian was suddenly aware of the presence beside her of Mario Vella. He had allowed his left elbow to brush gently against her. In any other surrounding, in any other circumstances, Gillian Blake would have gracefully withdrawn. She didn’t. She held her ground and his elbow became more persistent.

Sadly, McGrady was right. With two sex scenes per chapter, Naked Came the Stranger quickly became a national bestseller, ending the year at number 7 on the fiction charts, five slots behind The Godfather.

“Penelope Ashe’s scorching novel makes Portnoy’s Complaint and Valley of the Dolls read like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” wrote the Long Island Press. And the Asheville, N.C., Citizen-Times said it was “witty and written in good taste, and brings out many new angles in man-woman relationships.”

“These are the kind of people,” McGrady told Life, “who are running around setting literary standards.”

The Price

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Aristippus passed Diogenes as he was washing lentils.

He said, “If you could but learn to flatter the king, you would not have to live on lentils.”

Diogenes said, “And if you could learn to live on lentils, you would not have to flatter the king.”

Wedding Belles

Mary Hamilton invented a new crime in 1746 — transvestite bigamy. Dressing as a man and calling herself Charles and George, she convinced no fewer than 14 women to marry her. At a trial in Somersetshire, the 14th wife testified against her “female husband”:

She swore that she was lawfully married to the prisoner, and that they bedded and lived together as man and wife for more than a quarter of a year; during all which time, so well did the impostor assume the character of man, she still actually believed she had married a fellow-creature of the right and proper sex.

The justices found Mary “an uncommon, notorious cheat” and sentenced her to six months in prison and three whippings. “And Mary, the monopoliser of her own sex, was imprisoned and whipped accordingly, in the severity of the winter of the year 1746.”