Idaho History

19th century humorists had Idahoans’ attention, horrible spelling and all

Josh Billings, Mark Twain and Vesuvius Nasby.
Josh Billings, Mark Twain and Vesuvius Nasby. Provided by Arthur Hart

When Boiseans opened their Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman on July 24, 1864, they were treated to these quips by Josh Billings, one of the country’s best-loved humorists:

“Marry young, and if circumstances require it, often.”

“If you Kant git gud cloathes and edication too, git the cloathes.

“Kultivate modesty, but mind that you keep a gud stock of impudence on hand.”

“Bee charitable. Three-cent pieces war made on purpose.”

“If a man flatters yu, yu ken kalkerlate that he’s a rogue or yure a fule.”

Josh Billings, humorist and lecturer, was the pen name used by Henry Wheeler Shaw, born April 23, 1818, in Lanesborough, Massachusetts. He died in Monterey, California, on Oct. 14, 1885.

Readers of Billings’ humor must have enjoyed his tortured spelling, but I suspect that today’s readers only find it annoying.

The Idaho World of Idaho City also quoted Billings. This from 1865: “It is highly important that when a man makes up hiz mind to bekum a raskal, that he should examine himself closely, and see if he aint better konstrukted for a phool.”

Nineteenth century readers especially enjoyed humor that explored the relationships and contrasting viewpoints of men and women. This is from the World in January 1867: “At a ‘spiritual circle’ the other evening a vinegar lady asked: ‘Is the spirit of my husband present?’ When an answer came ‘He is’ she asked ‘John, are you happy without me?’ ‘Very happy.’ ‘Where are you, John?’ ‘In hell.”

The Statesman of April 23, 1868, printed this: “A young girl who had become tired of waiting for the return of her absent sweetheart, wrote him as follows: “Deer Jim__ Cum rite orf if yu are a cumin et awl. Ed Collins is insistin I shal hev him; and he hugs and kisses me so kontinnerly that I kant hold owt much longer, but will have to Kave in.”

In December that year these two ads appeared in the Statesman: “NOTICE Is hereby given that my wife, M.A. Stringham, has left my bed and board and threatened my financial ruin without any cause or provocation whatever. All persons are hereby notified not to harbor or trust her to any amount on my account, Signed, T.H. Stringham.”

This ad appeared next day: “CONTRADICTION. I hereby give notice that the advertisement T.H. Stringham has put in the paper saying that I left his bed and board and threatened his financial ruin, is false; but with threats and blows have had just cause had my will been such. But if I am driven from my home by unfair treatment I shall maintain my right. M.A. Stringham.”

“False Report.” noted the Idaho World in July, 1869. “The Oregonian says J.A. Abbott shot his wife and a man in Idaho City on July 5. The Oregonian has been duped. No such occurrence took place in Idaho City or elsewhere on July 5 or any other day. Mr. Abbott lives in Upper Payette Valley in this county, owns the largest and best farm in the Valley, and shooting his wife is not a habit to which he is seriously addicted.” The style of humor employed here is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s famous “The report of my death is greatly exaggerated.”

Twain, along with Billings, was another of the three most famous and popular humorous writers and lecturers of the 19th Century. Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby was the third. Nasby was the pen name of David Ross Locke, born September 20, 1833, in Binghamton, New York. He died Feb. 15, 1888, in Toledo, Ohio.

That the three men knew each other well is suggested by the photograph shown here today.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email