Tag Archives: humor

“The Best of the Season:” Mark Twain’s Indiana Lectures

"America's Best Humorist," Mark Twain. Lithograph by Joseph F. Keppler, 1885. Library of Congress.
“America’s Best Humorist,” Mark Twain. Lithograph by Joseph F. Keppler, 1885. Library of Congress.

From James Whitcomb Riley to Kurt Vonnegut, Indiana is well-known for its literary heritage. This heritage developed, in-part, through personal appearances, where authors read from their works and shared new material with audiences. Of the lecturers, one of the most successful during the Gilded Age was Mark Twain. Born in Missouri as Samuel L. Clemens, Mark Twain became one of the late-19th century’s most popular and acclaimed authors. Alongside his successful career as a novelist and cultural critic, Twain crisscrossed the country, regaling packed theaters with stories, readings from new written material, and plain-old good jokes.

Map highlighting Mark Twain's lectures in the Midwest. Mark Twain Project.
Map highlighting Mark Twain’s lectures in the Midwest. Mark Twain Project.

One of his first visits to Indiana as a lecturer was January 4, 1869, when he performed a reading of “The American Vandal Abroad.”  As reported by the Indianapolis Daily Sentinel:

We caution our readers not to forget the treat prepared for them this evening by the Library Association. Mark Twain, one of the real humorists of the day, will deliver his lecture entitled “The American Vandal Abroad,” and his merits entitle him to a large audience. The lecture will be delivered at Metropolitan Hall, and reserved seats may be secured without extra charge at Bonham’s Music Store.

Mark Twain, circa 1860-1880. Indiana Memory,
Mark Twain, circa 1860-1880. Indiana Memory,

While the exact content of his performance from that night was not reported, he had repeatedly given the lecture through 1868-69, and a compiled version was published by literature scholar Paul Fatout, in his book, Mark Twain Speaking. In this lecture, Twain referred to the “American Vandal” as someone who “goes everywhere and is always at home everywhere . . . His is proud and looks proud. His countenance is beaming. He does not fail to let the public know that he is an American.” Twain’s lecture, like his broader work, represents an American voice that spoke to the Midwest, especially places like Indiana.

Indianapolis News, January 1, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, January 1, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1872, Twain returned to Indiana and gave a lecture sharing snippets from his then-upcoming work, Roughing It. According to the Indianapolis News, Mark Twain gave his lecture at the Y.M.C.A. Association hall on January 1, 1872, at a cost of 50 cents at the door, 75 cents for reserved seats (what a bargain!).  As the News reported:

Mark Twain, the noted humorist and author, lectures here to-night [sic] on “Passages from Roughing It.” Mr. Twain has a national reputation and should appear before a hall of people; besides the Y. M. C. A., under whose auspices he lectures, are in absolute want through lack of means. Let Association Hall be crowded to-night [sic].

This lecture was a marked departure from “Vandal,” both in style and in subject. Twain shared with audiences his experiences out west, from camping in the outskirts of Carson City, Nevada to riding colt horses and getting in duels.

Terre Haute Evening Mail, January 6, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Terre Haute Evening Mail, January 6, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Twain’s stories were printed in newspapers during his time in Indiana in 1872 as well. For example, the Terre Haute Evening Mail published an article entitled “Mark Twain on His Travels.” Among the witty stories than were shared by the Mail, this one is golden:

When we got to Rochester I called for a bowl of bean soup. I send you the receipt for making it: “Take a lot of water, wash it well, boil it until it is brown on both sides; then very carefully pour one bean into it and let it simmer. When the bean begins to get restless sweeten with salt, then put it in air-tight cans, hitch each can to a brick, and chuck them overboard, and the soup is done.”

The above receipt originated with a man in Iowa, who gets up suppers on odd occasions for Odd Fellows. He has a receipt for oyster soup of the same kind, only using twice as much water to the oyster and leaving out the salt.

However, not everyone was taken with Twain’s sardonic lectures. The Indianapolis People wrote that “It is the decided opinion of all we heard speak of Mark Twain’s lecture that it read better than it was spoken.”

George W. Cable. Library of Congress.
George W. Cable. Library of Congress.

When Twain returned to Indiana in 1885, he came with a traveling lecture partner. George W. Cable, novelist of the southern-creole experience and an influence on William Faulkner, shared selections from his novels while Twain shared early pages from Huckleberry Finn as well as stories like “The Golden Arm.” Twain and Cable couldn’t have been more different. Twain was described by the Indianapolis Sentinel as “awkward and lanky” whereas Cable was more reserved. As Fatout observed, Twain often bristled as Cable’s religiosity and rigorous commitment to formality while Cable scoffed at Twain’s unorthodox and scattered disposition. To get a sense of their differences, review this blurb from the Indianapolis News: “Mr. Cable eats chocolate ice cream at midnight, after his readings, and still lives. His yoke-fellow, Mark Twain, hurls his bootjack at St. John, and uncorks a bottle or so of pale ale.”

Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 7, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 7, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Nevertheless, their joint appearance at Plymouth Church in Indianapolis, Indiana on January 7, 1885 was greatly lauded. The Indianapolis Sentinel reported that their performances was “the best of the season” and the Indianapolis News wrote that it was “one of the finest audiences that could be gathered.” The Greencastle Times even reported that efforts were underway to bring the two over to Greencastle to perform (alas, it was not to be).

Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 8, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 8, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

That evening, Twain shared with the audience his short story, “Dick Baker’s Cat,” a short tale about a special cat who had a propensity for mining. Here’s a short snippet from the story:

‘Gentlemen, I used to have a cat here, by the name of Tom Quartz, which you’d ‘a’ took an interest in, I reckon—, most anybody would. I had him here eight year—and he was the remarkablest cat I ever see. He was a large grey one of the Tom specie, an’ he had more hard, natchral sense than any man in this camp—’n’ a power of dignity—he wouldn’t let the Gov’ner of Californy be familiar with him. He never ketched a rat in his life—’peared to be above it. He never cared for nothing but mining. He knowed more about mining, that cat did, than any man I ever, ever see. You couldn’t tell him noth’n’ ’bout placer-diggin’s—’n’ as for pocketmining, why he was just born for it.’

The rest of story involves a hilarious scenario where the mining-savvy cat gets stuck in a quartz shaft, which explodes, and he flies out of there all covered in soot and his whiskers burned off. It was exactly the kind of zany, improbable yarn that Twain was so gifted at and the audience at Plymouth Church agreed.

Twain’s and Cable’s appearance would be the last time they would appear together in Indiana and Twain’s last lecture in the state. Over the next 20 years, Twain continued to travel the county and the world, going so far as India and New Zealand, to share his lectures and stories. His last known lecture, according to the Mark Twain Project, was a reading for Mary Allen Hulbert Peck on the Island of Bermuda on March 27, 1908. Mark Twain died on April 24, 1910 at the age of 74 from heart failure, at his home near Redding, Connecticut. An obituary in the Plymouth Tribune complimented Twain’s success as a novelist, humorist, and lecturer. It also cited the loss of much of his family, particularly his daughter, and friends as one of the main reasons for his passing.

Plymouth Tribune, April 28 1910. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, April 28 1910. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Reflecting on what was referred to as the “American style” of humor, Mark Twain shared his thoughts to a reporter from the Detroit Post, later reprinted in the Terre Haute Express:

“Is the American taste for humor still growing, in your opinion?”

“Yes, I think so. Humor is always popular, and especially so with Americans. It is born in every American, and he can’t help liking it.”

“Is it true that the American style of humor is becoming very popular in England?”

“Yes, the liking of American humor over there has become immense. It wakens [sic] the people to new life, and is supplanting the dry wit which formerly passes for humor. American humor wins its own way, and does not need to be cultivated. The English come to like it naturally”

In his lectures in Indiana and elsewhere, Twain exhibited the type of natural humor “born in every American” that characterizes the American cultural identity.

Mark Twain, 1907. Library of Congress.
Mark Twain, 1907. Library of Congress.

The Swearing o’ the Green?

Lake County Times, March 8, 1920

Hoosier State Chronicles is about to fix one big gap in our online newspaper archives — the absence of northwestern Indiana, that colorful region of steel mills and dunes beaches and the pulse of Chicago throbbing out there in the distance.  In the next few months, we’ll bring you a long run of Hammond’s Lake County Times from 1906 into the early days of Prohibition.

Hammond’s proximity to the Windy City means that its reporters covered plenty of stories from America’s Jazz Age — the heady days of flappers, gangsters, speakeasies, marriage mills, divorce courts, and the rise and fall of Indiana’s powerful Ku Klux Klan. You’ll see how the Roaring Twenties played out in towns like Hammond, Gary, Crown Point, East Chicago, Hobart and Munster.  But until we’re done digitizing, we’ll just tantalize you with a story here and there.

Here’s a funny clip about the history of impatience… on both ends of the line.  Published in the Lake County Times on February 10, 1923, this story is from Whiting, a Lake Michigan town right on the Illinois state line.

Irish eyes might be smiling.  But you’ve been forewarned: never swear at an Irish “hello girl.”


telephone 1920s 2


Lake County Times, February 10, 1923 (1)

Lake County Times, February 10, 1923 (2)

Lake County Times, February 10, 1923 (3)

Lake County Times, February 10, 1923 (4)


telephone 1920s 4


telephone 1920s 5

The Where and the What of The When

THE WHEN (3)

Hoosier State Chronicles is getting ready to upload a large run of issues of the Indianapolis Journal from the mid-1890s.  Dominating the front page of Sunday editions in those days are massive, elephantine ads for one of the most colorful clothing stores ever to exist anywhere in the U.S.  This was downtown Indy’s great shopping emporium, The When.

In the days before parking garages and flight to the suburbs plunged downtowns into decline, urban cores all over America were a fascinating architectural wonderland.  Panoramic images of Indianapolis 120 years ago often leave me wondering if I live in the same town, so devastating has been the toll of the wrecking ball, the termite, and (yes) bad urban planning.  Before the auto, pedestrians walked or were funneled down to the business district on trolleys or carriages from neighborhoods not very far out.  And amid the amazing visual spectacle that met shoppers’ eyes at the turn of the century, there stands the ingenuity, humor, and incredible marketing smarts of John Tomlinson Brush.

Born in upstate New York in 1845 and orphaned at age four, Brush was raised by his grandfather, went to business college, then served in the 1st New York Artillery during the Civil War.  Moving from Troy to Indianapolis in 1875 at age thirty, he purchased a brand new, Napoleon the Third-style building at 36 N. Pennsylvania St. and planned to open a branch store of a New York City clothing wholesaler there.

Brush kept changing the opening date.  Probably as a tease to drum up interest, in February 1875 he hung a huge sign outside the store with the simple word (more an exclamation than a question) “WHEN?”  Advertisements in the local newspapers also carried just that one-word tease.  The name stuck, and the lavishly decorated clothing outlet became an instant consumer hit, soon ranked as the biggest of its kind in Indiana.


When Building

(Bass Photo Company.)


the when November 23 1890

(Ads for The When dominated the front page of the Indianapolis Sunday Journal for over two decades.)


2163764238_f458a71d30_o

(New York native John Tomlinson Brush, 1845-1912, was a savvy salesman, razor-sharp humorist, and baseball magnate.)


John T. Brush (some thought his name was John “Tooth” Brush) was gifted with an ample sense of humor and, I hear, was also a clever cartoonist, though I haven’t seen any of his illustrations.  His knack for marketing was far-reaching.  Not only did he see The When “elegantly appointed” with iron balustrades, gas lighting, and a courtyard, he also outfitted it with an array of unusual attractions meant to lure shoppers.  The When had a baseball team, called The When Store team, and a resident brass band, The When Band.  Brush’s musicians played in a second-floor band shell and gave Saturday evening concerts outside on the street and even up on the roof.  As we’ll see below, other colorful attractions also greeted shoppers.

Brush got rich quick in Indianapolis, but unlike many capitalists with Eastern roots, he stuck around for good.  And in the 1880s, The When’s owner became a prominent pioneer of baseball both in the Hoosier State and around the country.

Originally conceived to drum up business for the store, the Indianapolis Hoosiers were a short-lived local baseball team bankrolled by the clothing merchant.  In 1882, he financed the creation of a ball park, Seventh Street Park, also called Tinker Park, at a site now occupied by Methodist Hospital.  The Hoosiers played in the National League from about 1885 to 1889, when they folded.  Brush later bought the St. Louis Maroons, the Cincinnati Reds, and eventually the great New York Giants, which he owned from 1902 until his death in 1912.

Baseball historian Bill Lamb writes:

Local legend has it that Brush first became enthusiastic about the game after reading a Spalding Guide confiscated from an idle store clerk. Or that Brush’s interest stemmed from acceptance of stock in an Indianapolis ball club as payment for a debt. The facts are more prosaic. Brush was first exposed to baseball while working at company stores in upstate New York, a hotbed of the early game. Later he seized upon baseball as a vehicle for advertising The When Store. In 1882 Brush organized a municipal baseball league, building a diamond with a grandstand in northwestern Indianapolis for league games and engaging Jack Kerins as player-manager of the When Store team.


1888_Indianapolis_Hoosiers

(The Indianapolis Hoosiers at Tinker Park, 1888.  I assume Jack Kerins is the man in the center.)


hoosiers 1


As a kind of New Year’s gift to his loyal shoppers in 1895, Brush helped bring a clever attraction to downtown Indy:  a pair of leopard cubs.  The adorable creatures, named Carl and Amanda, were loaned from the great Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which wintered in its home base of Peru, Indiana.  The cubs spent about a week as a window attraction at Brush’s store while the circus performed at English’s Opera House nearby.


the when january 6 1895


the when january 8 1895


On January 9, the baby leopards got a letter from a bear — and from their mother down the street.  (Mrs. Puss Leopard was quite the gossiper.) The feline correspondence was featured on the front page, in The When’s usual space:

the when january 10 1895


the when january 11 1895


the when january 12 1895


chad ballard

(Chad Ballard, son of Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus owner Ed Ballard, around 1915, possibly in French Lick, Indiana.  French Lick West Baden Museum.)


john t. brush (2)

John Brush lived to see the New York Giants play in three World Series and was married to stage actress Elsie Lombard. Suffering from a nerve ailment after 1902, he died in his private railroad car near Louisiana, Missouri, in 1912.  He came home to a lavish funeral in Indianapolis, attended by many of the greats of the baseball world.

The When Building, which also housed Indianapolis Business College, was sold off to C.S. Ober in the 1940s and came to be known as the Ober Building.  Like much of the city’s former architectural splendor, it was demolished by a wrecking ball and is now the site of a parking garage.


WHEN building


30 N. Pennsylvania St


When Building 2

(Bass Photo Company.)


Though the When is “Gone With the When,” it’s worthy of our deepest praise.  Here are some of my favorite advertisements from Way Back When.


the when December 25 1892 (2)


the when November 9 1890


the When November 22 1891


the when May 20 1888


the when january 14 1895


the when january 22 1895


THE WHEN (4)

(The When Clothing Store stands in the right foreground in this panoramic image of Indianapolis from 1907.)


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

In X L N C U X L: Text Speak Arrived in Indiana in a Love Poem Back in 1849

Well, gentle readers, if u r like me, u r probably annoyed @ the terrible vocab skills of the txt generation.

But W8 just a second.  Txtspk isn’t new.  It got 2 to the Hoosier St8 B4 U.

In one of the last issues of Indiana’s oldest newspaper, the Vincennes Western Sun, editor John Rice Jones excerpted a clever love poem addressed “To Miss Catherine Jay of Utica.”

Written by an unknown author around 1832 and previously printed in literary magazines back East, “KTJ of UTK” (for short) is probably the earliest example in a Hoosier newspaper of what we now call “text speak.”

Most of the poetry and fiction printed in antebellum Indiana papers was copied out of Eastern journals carried west by riverboat or stagecoach.  Samuel Morse invented his own “abbreviated” form of communication around 1844, but the telegraph didn’t come into common use until the 1850s.   Early trains often traveled at a speed that we would find maddeningly slow today — sometimes running at less than 20 mph, hardly faster than a horse at a gallop or a steamboat going downriver.  (In fact, due to safety concerns over wandering children and livestock, trains were nearly even banned in Indiana before the Civil War.)

John Jones probably saw “Katie Jay of Uticay” in a copy of Dwight’s American Magazine, published in New York in February 1847.  An even earlier “cousin” of this amazing poem was printed in the Utica Organ in upstate New York, the Columbia (Penn.) Spy, and Atkinson’s Casket, a popular Philadelphia literary journal, as far back as 1832.

The original “KTJ,” in turn, might have been inspired by two incredible British “text-speak” dirges published in The New Monthly Magazine in London in 1828.  Katie Jay’s trans-Atlantic cousins were no less than the unfortunate “Miss LNG of Q” (Ellen Gee of Kew, blinded by a “B” sting in the “I”) and “MLE K of UL” (Emily Kay of Ewell, burned to death while putting “:” [coal on] a kitchen fire grate.)  Sad nymphs and “SX” (Essex) maids, these.  Hark, friends, gather round and listen 2 their f8, and please 4C:  1 day U 2 shall cease 2B an N.TT!

A 2010 article in the New Yorker mistakenly identifies the anonymous poet who wrote “Katie Jay” as Charles Carroll Bombaugh.  In fact, Bombaugh, a medical examiner who died in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1906, only anthologized this clever piece, which came out in his 1867 book Gleanings for the Curious from the Harvest-Fields of Literature.  (The popular anthology of literary witticism was republished in 1890.)

On September 22, 1849, “KTJ” appeared on the front page of the Vincennes Western Sun.  Like this poem, most of what was printed in the Vincennes paper over the years wasn’t local news or literature, and rarely featured much writing by Hoosier wags.  In fact, most of the paper in the late 1840s was taken up with news from Europe, the East Coast, Texas and Mexico.

KTJ shows up next to the latest news from the packet “Europa,” just docked at Halifax, Nova Scotia: Louis Kossuth’s Hungarian Revolution is still being fought.  Kossuth’s revolution against the Austrians eventually failed.  A few years later, in the winter of 1852 (“cold as cold can B?”), the defeated Hungarian patriot sailed over “the Atlantic C” and toured Indiana, coming on the steamboat Wisconsin from Cincinnati.  Kossuth was hailed as a hero of democracy in the Indiana State Sentinel and the Terre-Haute Journal, among other papers.  A small town in Washington County in southern Indiana was named after him.  Alas, “Kossuth, Indiana” has now almost vanished.  We mourn its DK.

With news sometimes traveling west at a great time-lag, people were always eager for entertainment in the meantime.  Sometimes printers like Elihu Stout and John Jones had no news to print, so they regaled readers with whatever they could find.  And unlike the news, poetry — even when written in “text speak” — can occasionally be timeless.

Txtspeak 3


Hoosier State Chronicles is currently collating issues of the Western Sun from 1837 to 1849 for possible inclusion online later this year.  Here’s some other entertaining excerpts from the Vincennes paper in those days.  (And if you’re in Vincennes, you can visit a reconstructed version of Elihu Stout’s print shop, originally built in 1808, at Vincennes State Historic Site, the location of the old territorial capitol.)

VWS 1844-08-24


Capture


1837-03-04


enigma acrostic - VWS Oct 8 1849


ohio speaks


Taylor


wolf scalps