The American Joe Miller: A Collection of Yankee Wit and Humor

The American Joe Miller: A Collection of Yankee Wit and Humor


Author: Kempt, Robert
American wit and humor
The American Joe Miller: A Collection of Yankee Wit and Humor


A Collection of Yankee Wit and Humour.


“I love a teeming wit as I love my nourishment.”—Ben Jonson.
“Oh, you shall see him laugh till his face be like a wet cloak ill laid up!”






So far as the Compiler is aware, no good collection of American wit and humour exists on this side of the Atlantic; certainly, no collection worthy to be considered as the American Joe Miller. In the well-known “Percy Anecdotes,” in the numerous English Joe Millers, and other jest-books, a few of Brother Jonathan’s good things are to be found, in company with the rich and genial wit of John Bull, the pawky humour of the Scotch, and the exuberant mirth of Paddy; but it is believed that the present is the first attempt to present anything like a complete collection of American witticisms to English readers. While every justice has been done in this matter to Scotland by Dean Ramsay’s inimitable “Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character;” and while a kindred service has been performed for England by Mr. John Timbs, and still more recently by Mr. Mark Lemon, not to mention others, no one, seemingly, has bethought him of gathering together the happy scintillations of Brother Jonathan’s intellect. The Compiler trusts that he may have undertaken this task with at least some success.
No one at all familiar with the periodical literature of America will deny that the Americans are a witty people. Whether their native wit be so intellectual and refined as the English, so quaint and subtle as the Scotch humour, or so strong and hearty as the Irish, or, again, whether it be so keen and compact as the French esprit, may be reasonably questioned; but that it is a straw that can tickle, and therefore, according to Dryden, an instrument of happiness, all must admit. In considering the nature of American humour, it is obvious that broad exaggeration is its great characteristic. It is essentially outré. No people seek to raise the laugh by such extravagant means as the Yankees. Their ordinary speech is hyperbole, or tall talk. They never go out shooting unless with the long bow. Again, their humour comes from without, rather than from within, and is less a matter of thought than of verbal expression. It deals with the association of ideas rather than with ideas themselves. Transatlantic wit is not as a rule terse, epigrammatic, pungent, like the wit of Lamb, Hood, or Jerrold, which often lies in a single sentence or even word. The humour of Sam Slick or James Russell Lowell, for instance, lies as much in accessories as in the thing itself. It is nothing unless surrounded by circumstantial narrative. But in this it must be confessed the Americans are great masters. The humour of a people always reflects the character of that people, and character, as we all know, is influenced in no small measure by country and climate. Our American brethren are born, or as they themselves say “raised,” in a country whose physical features have been planned on a scale far surpassing in magnitude—not unfrequently in beauty also—those of every other country in the world. The Americans feel this, and are justly proud of the extent and magnificence of America. It leads them to compare it with other countries, and the comparison is certain to result in favour of their own. Theirs is the country of Lake Superior. Columbia is a Triton among the minnows. Into this Brobdignag of our cousins Munchausen emigrated early, and the genius of the celebrated German Baron still continues to control its people. Only in America will you find a man so tall that he is obliged to go up a ladder in order to shave himself, or so small that it requires two men and a boy to see him; only in America do the railway trains travel so fast that the train often reaches the station considerably in advance of the whistle; only in America are the fogs so thick that they may be cut with a “ham knife.” It is only an American artist who can paint a snow-storm so naturally that he catches cold by sitting near it with his coat off; it is only in America that sportsmen are such dead shots that the birds when they see the gun “come down,” rather than abide the consequences of remaining “up;” and it is only in America that every man is “one of the most remarkable men in the country.” It must be said of American humour, that you can always, and at once, “see the joke.” Its meaning is never hidden, and it seldom, if ever, takes the form of the double entendre. To borrow an idea from Elia, there is no need to grope all over your neighbour’s face to be sure that he appreciates a genuine Yankee joke. The grins it causes are the very broadest, and the laughter it evokes is the very loudest.
While the Compiler hopes that all his readers may find something to laugh at in the wise saws of Sam Slick, the broad grins of Artemus Ward and Joshua Billings, the marvellous (impossible?) feats of the renowned Major Longbow, and the cute remarks of those notorious personages, the Down Easter and the Western Editor, which he has here collected, he also trusts that none of them may find anything to regret. Care has been exercised to exclude everything of an objectionable character from the collection.
Since his elevation to the presidential chair, Mr. Lincoln has acquired the reputation of being a good story-teller, and a number of the best things attributed to “honest old Abe” have been included in the collection, which will also be found to contain many of the humorous stories and incidents to which the present unhappy war has given rise. “Honest good humour,” says Washington Irving, one of America’s greatest sons, “is the oil and wine of a merry meeting.” It is the earnest wish of the Compiler that the following pages may serve to convince every reader of the truth of the remark.
R. K.
January 2, 1865.




The editor of the Eglantine says that the girls in Connecticut, who are remarkable for their industry, drink about a pint of yeast before going to bed at night, to make them rise early in the morning.


A half-famished fellow in the Southern States tells of a baker (whose loaves had been growing “small by degrees, and beautifully less,”) who, when going his rounds to serve his customers, stopped at the door of one and knocked, when the lady within exclaimed, “Who’s there?” and was answered, “The baker.” “What do you want?” “To leave your bread.” “Well, you needn’t make such a fuss about it; put it through the keyhole.”


At a christening, while a minister was making the certificate, he forgot the date, and happened to say: “Let me see, this is the 30th.” “The thirtieth!” exclaimed the indignant mother; “indeed, but it’s only the eleventh!”


The following dialogue on “sharp shooting” is reported to have taken place between a Virginee and a Yankee picket:—”I say, can you fellows shoot?” “Wall, I reckon we can some. Down in Mississippi we can knock a bumble-bee off a thistle bow at three hundred yards.” “Oh, that ain’t nothing to the way we seewt up in Varmount. I belonged to a military company ther’, with a hundred men in the company, and we went out for practice every week. The capt’n draws us up in single file, and sets a cider-barrel rolling down the hill, and each man takes his shot at the bung-hole as it turns up. It is afterwards examined, and if there is a shot that didn’t go in the bung-hole the number who missed it is expelled. I belonged to the company ten years, and there ain’t been nobody expelled yet.”


An Eastern editor says that a man in New York got himself into trouble by marrying two wives. A Western editor replies by assuring his contemporary that a good many men in that section had done the same thing by marrying one. A Northern editor retorts that quite a number of his acquaintances found trouble enough by barely promising to marry, without going any further. A Southern editor says that a friend of his was bothered enough when simply found in company with another man’s wife.


A celebrated American judge had a very stingy wife. On one occasion she received his friends in the drawing-room with a single candle. “Be pleased, my dear,” said his lordship, “to let us have a second candle that we may see where the other stands.”


There is a young man in the U. S. army, who was born July 4, at 4 o’clock, p.m., at No. 44, in a street in Boston, is the 4th child, has 4 names, enlisted in the Newton company, which joined the 4th battalion, 44th regiment, and on the 4th of August was appointed 4th corporal, and is now gone to defend his country.


Elbow-room has been quite scarce in Nashville during the past week. Such scrouging, gouging, turning in and turning out, has seldom before been witnessed. Instance the following:—Traveller dismounts at a tavern. “Hallo, landlord, can I get lodgings here to-night?” Landlord: “No, sir; every room in the house is engaged.” Traveller: “Can’t you give me a blanket and a bunch of shavings for a pillow in your bar-room?” Landlord: “No, sir; there’s not a square foot of space unoccupied anywhere in the house.” Traveller: “Then I’ll thank you, sir, to shove a pole out of your second-floor window, and I’ll roost on that.”


The Providence Journal is accountable for the following: A drafted man in this State called upon one of our lawyers, and desired to have papers prepared claiming exemption from the military service for the several reasons which he named. 1. That he was the only son of a widow depending upon him for support. 2. That his father was in such infirm health as to be unable to get his own living; and 3, that he had two brothers already in the service. All of which facts Patrick desired then and there to verify by affidavit. The lawyer, who had travelled in Illinois and learned the knack of introducing apropos anecdotes, reminded the drafted man of a little story of the maple-sugar man in Vermont who was sued for returning a borrowed sap-kettle in a damaged condition, and pleaded in defence—first, that the kettle was sound when he returned it; secondly, that it was cracked when he borrowed it; and thirdly, that he never had the sap-kettle. Patrick grinned a ghastly smile, such as sometimes illumines the countenance of a man before the Board of Enrolment when the doctor blandly assures him that he has not got the liver complaint or the kidney disease, and withdrew his papers.

EGG “BROF.”—10.

“Well, Sambo, how do you like your new place?” “Oh, very well, massa.” “What did you have for breakfast this morning?” “Why, you see, missus biled three eggs for herself, and gib me de brof.”


The editor of the Southbridge Journal was set all aback the other day, when he asked a farmer’s wife how she made sausages, and received for answer—”Take your in’ards, scrape ’em, scald, and stuff ’em.”


“Mother,” said a little girl, seven years old, “I could not understand our minister to-day, he said so many hard words; I wish he would preach so that little girls could understand him. Won’t he, mother?” “Yes, I think so, if we ask him.” Soon after her father saw her going to the minister’s. “Where are you going, Emma?” said he. “I am going over to Mr. ——’s, to ask him to preach small.”


There lives in New Hampshire a man called Joe, a fellow noted for the tough lies he can tell. A correspondent informs us that Joe called in at Holton’s lately, and found him almost choked with smoke, when he suggested, “You don’t know as much about managing smoky chimneys as I do, squire, or you’d cure ’em.” “Ah!” said Holton, with interest, “did you ever see a smoky chimney cured?” “Seen it?” said old Joe, “I think I have. I had the worst one in Seaboard county once, and I cured it a little too much.” “How was that?” asked Holton. “Why, you see,” said Joe, “I built a little house out yonder, at Wolf Hollow, ten or twelve years ago. Jim Bush, the fellow that built the chimneys, kept blind drunk three-quarters of the time, and crazy drunk the other. I told him I thought he’d have something wrong; but he stuck to it and finished the house. Well, we moved in, and built a fire the next morning to boil the tea-kettle. All the smoke came through the room and went out of the windows; not a bit went up the flues. We tried it for two or three days, and it got worse and worse. By and by it came on to rain, and the rain began to come down the chimney. It put the fire out in a minute, and directly it came down by the pailful. We had to get the baby off the floor as soon as we could, or it would have been drowned. In fifteen minutes the water stood knee-deep on the floor. I pretty soon saw what was the matter. The drunken cuss had put the chimney wrong end up, and it drawed downwards. It gathered all the rain within a hundred yards, and poured it down by bucketfuls.” “Well, that was unfortunate,” remarked Holton, “but what in the world did you do with the house? Surely you never cured that chimney?” “Didn’t I, though?” answered old Joe; “yes, I did.” “How?” asked Holton. “Turned it the other end up,” said the incorrigible, “and then you ought to have seen it draw. That was the way I cured it too much.” “Drew too much?” asked Holton. “Well, squire, you may judge for yourself,” said old Joe. “Pretty soon after we got the chimney down the other end up, I missed one of the chairs out of the room, and directly I see’d another of ’em shooting towards the fireplace. Next the table went, and I see the back log going up. Then I grabbed the old woman under one arm and the baby under t’other and started; but just as I got to the door I see’d the cat going across the floor backwards, holding on with her claws to the carpet, yelling awfully. It wasn’t no use. I just see her going over the top of the chimney, and that was the last of her.” “Well, what did you do then?” asked Holton; “of course you could not live in such a house?” “Couldn’t I, though?” said Joe; “but I did; I put a poultice on the jamb of the fireplace, and that drawed t’other way, so we had no more trouble.” This is what we call hard lying.


Curious combinations are oftentimes found in the advertising columns of newspapers. The following is the announcement made by a lately bereaved wife:—”Died, on the 11th inst., at his shop, No. 20, Greenwich Street, Mr. Edward Jones, much respected by all who knew and dealt with him. As a man he was amiable; as a hatter, upright and moderate. His virtues were beyond all price, and his beaver hats were only three dollars each. He has left a widow to deplore his loss, and a large stock to be sold cheap for the benefit of his family. He was snatched to the other world in the prime of life, just as he had concluded an extensive purchase of felt, which he got so cheap that his widow can supply hats at more reasonable rates than any house in the city. His disconsolate family will carry on business with punctuality.”


In the Justice’s Court in New Orleans the judge was in a quandary the other day. A coat was in dispute; the parties were Irish, and the evidence was direct and positive for both claimants. After much wrangling, Patrick Power, one of the parties, proposed that he and his opponent, Timothy Maguire, should see whose name was on the coat. Timothy searched in vain, and the coat was handed to Pat, who immediately took his knife, opened a corner of the coat, and out dropped two small peas. “There, d’ye see that, now!” “Yes; but what of that?” said Timothy. “A dale it has to do wid it; it is my name to be sure—pea for Patrick, and pea for Power, be jabers!” He got the coat, he did.


When young Jeff. first came up to town, his father told him that it would be polite, when being helped at dinner, to say to the host, “Half that, if you please.” It so happened that at the first dinner to which he was invited a sucking-pig was one of the dishes. The host, pointing with his knife to the young porker, asked, “Well, Mr. Jeff., will you have this, our favourite dish, or haunch of mutton?” Upon which, recollecting his first lesson, he replied, “Half that, if you please,” to the consternation of all present.

MY PEW, SIR!—17.

While the Convention which nominated General Taylor was in session at Philadelphia, a somewhat noted local politician from Pickaway county, Ohio, was in the city mingling in the muss. As the Convention adjourned over Sunday, he concluded to go to church. “I mounted my best regalia,” he says, “and looked fine; stopped at the door, and asked the sexton for a seat; was shown a very good one, entirely unoccupied, in the back part of which I seated myself. In a very short time a decent-looking man, plainly dressed, entered and took the front of the pew. I held my head reverently, and looked pious. He glanced at me several times, then took out a white handkerchief; looked at me again, then took out a card, drew his pencil, wrote ‘This is my pew, sir,’ and tossed the card to me. I picked it up, and immediately wrote on it, ‘It is a very good one; what rent do you pay?’ and tossed it back.”


An amusing thing occurred in the 24th Ohio. A few days since, a soldier, passing to the lower part of the encampment, saw two others from his company making a rude coffin. He inquired who it was for. “John Bunce,” said the others. “Why,” replied he, “John is not dead yet. It is too bad to make a man’s coffin when you don’t know if he’s going to die or not.” “Don’t you trouble yourself,” replied the others; “Dr. Coe told us to make his coffin, and I guess he knows what he give him.”


A fellow was kicked out of an editorial room the other day for impudently stating “that he had seen in Germany a fiddle so large that it required two horses to draw the bow across the strings, which would continue to sound six weeks!”


I soon had an opportunity to judge for myself, having accepted an officer’s invitation to take coffee in his tent. Captain H. was very proud of his table. His cook was said to be the best in the camp, his only fault being a disposition to a careless mixture of ingredients. “There, sir,” said the captain, handing me a brimming cup, “I’ll warrant you’ll find that equal to anything you ever drank in Paris.” I tasted. The captain saw something was wrong. He tasted. His countenance assumed a stern and mortified expression. John was called and ordered to investigate the cause of the villanous taste of the coffee. The next moment he reappeared, holding the coffee-pot in his hand. “Och, be jabers, captain,” said he, “it’s meself that’s mortified to death. I cooked the bowl of me ould pipe in your coffee this morning, and that’s the innocent cause of the bad taste intirely!”


As Jonathan Dodge reel’d home one night,
Tight as a brick in a prison wall,
Beneath a gas-lamp’s brilliant light
His eye on a something bright did fall.

He steadied himself to know the cause,
And eyed it long with inquiring gaze,
Wondering much what the deuce it was

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The American Joe Miller: A Collection of Yankee Wit and Humor
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