J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, September 07, 2013

“This is, unquestionably, very funny”

The Rev. Dr. Mather Byles (shown here) was one of those historic figures who becomes a magnet for witty quotations. In America our primary examples are Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain; any untethered funny remark can be attached to one man or the other, depending on whether it’s also optimistic (Franklin) or pessimistic (Twain).

Back in eighteenth-century Boston, Byles was known for his puns and other jokes. People liked to retell those jokes. And I suspect that some people attributed wordplay to Dr. Byles that he never actually spoke: “As Dr. Byles would have said…” became “As Dr. Byles said…” So which of the surviving stories are most likely to be authentic?

Here’s an anecdote that appeared in the Boston Transcript in 1850 and was then reprinted in a supplement to the Hartford Courant along with a bunch of other examples of Dr. Byles’s puns:
Tho first story that I ever heard, of Mather Byles was related, at my father’s table, by the Rev. Dr. [Jeremy] Belknap, in 1797, the year before he died. It was upon a Saturday; and Dr. John Clarke and some other gentlemen, among whom I well remember Major General [Benjamin] Lincoln, ate their salt fish there, that day.

I was a boy; and I remember their mirth, when, after Dr. Belknap had told the story, I said to our minister, Dr. Clarke, near whom I was eating my apple, that I wished he was half as funny a minister, as Dr. Byles.

Upon a Fast Day, Dr. Byles had negotiated an exchange, with a country clergyman [i.e., they agreed to preach in each other’s pulpits]. Upon the appointed morning, each of them—for vehicles were not common then—proceeded, on horseback, to his respective place of appointment. Dr. Byles, no sooner observed his brother clergyman approaching, at a distance, than he applied the whip; put his horse into a gallop; and, with his canonicals flying all abroad, passed his friend at full run.

“What is the matter?” he exclaimed, raising his hand in astonishment—“Why so fast, brother Byles?”

to which the Dr. without slackening his speed, replied, over his shoulder—“It is Fast day!”

This is, unquestionably, very funny—but it is surely undesirable for a consecrated servant of the Lord, thus lavishly to sacrifice, upon the altars of Momus.
Six years later that newspaper story was republished in the second volume of Dealings with the Dead, by Lucius Manlius Sargent (1786-1867). Thus, for this Byles pun we have a clear provenance: from Belknap, who knew many fellow ministers, to eleven-year-old Lucius in 1797, and to the world fifty-three years later.


Anonymous said...

This use of the literal interpretation for comedic effect is most fun when it is naturally and spontaneously spoken as immediate wit between friends. It is also well done by the more recent Burns and Allen team with Gracie as the star. Nice to know that there is actual documentation of a clergy of that time sporting mirth.


Joe Bauman said...

You might be interested in this selection from my book,DON'T TREAD ON ME: Photographs and Life Stories of American Revolutionaries, which you kindly reviewed. This is about Dr. Aeneas Munson, a founder of the Yale Medical School and the father of the subject of the chapter, Dr. Eneas Munson, who was a surgeon in Washington's army. (Dr. Eneas Munson was the assistant to the famous Dr. James Thatcher, who says what he and Munson were doing day by day). Anyway, here's the selection:

Friends loved to repeat stories about the ender Munson’s quips: As he prepared to extract a tooth from a woman with a large mouth, she threw her jaws open impressively, and he remarked, “Madame, you need not open your mouth so wide, I shall stand outside.” There was the time an annoying drunk, Isaac Doolittle, decided to commit suicide by gulping down an ounce of laudanum. Dr. Æneas Munson gave him an emetic, relieving Doolittle of the deadly opium. As Dr. Henry Bronson told it in a series of 1870s papers concerning the local medical establishment, “The next day, finding his patient sober, he admonished him in the most solemn manner of the error of his ways, saying he had rescued him from a horrible death. ‘I do not thank you for what you have done,’ Doolittle replied. ‘Well, I am sure your neighbors won’t,’ responded the doctor.”

So saucy was the father that he dared to twit Yale’s august president, Timothy Dwight IV. A large man called “Pope Dwight” for the way he dominated every gathering, the college president was shoveling in the food at a commencement dinner. Dwight was about to make some comment about diet, starting, “You observe, gentlemen, that I eat a great deal of bread with my meat.” Professor Munson interrupted: “Yes, and we notice that you eat much meat with your bread.”

He once excused a student from an activity because of illness but Dwight refused to accept Dr. Munson’s note, saying the student’s tongue was not discolored so he could not be sick. The student returned to the doctor, who gave him coloring extract to chew; he went back to Dwight, who again consulted the tongue, and decided the youth was ill after all.

-- Best wishes, Joe