Groucho Marx? Ed Wynn? Jimtown Weekly? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Groucho Marx was the host of a quiz show called “You Bet Your Life” during the 1940s and 50s. Sometimes when a contestant did poorly Groucho would ask an easy question so that the person could win a prize or some money. For example:
Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?
This question refers to the mausoleum in New York City that contains the remains of Ulysses S. Grant and his wife. The simple answer that Groucho expected to hear was “Grant”, and this allowed him to award a prize. Was Groucho the original creator of this absurdist question?
Quote Investigator: This query was explored by the New York Times journalist Michael Pollak in an article that was part of an ongoing series answering questions about the megacity New York [NYGT]. Top researcher Barry Popik and QI were able to help Pollak respond successfully to this query, and he kindly acknowledged our aid.
The earliest evidence of this humorous question appeared in a syndicated newspaper column by the comedian and actor Ed Wynn who often used the persona of “The Perfect Fool”. In September 1925 the column “Ed Wynn’s Question Box: He Knows All – He Sees All” printed several interrogatives with a comic edge. Here are three of them [EWGT]:
Do you know that a female “moth” is called a “myth?”
Do you know where your lap goes to when you stand up?
Do you know the name of the general who is buried in Grant’s tomb? If you don’t know, ask me.
This version of the Grant query even includes a hint that the answer is a general. The show “You Bet Your Life” with Groucho started broadcasting in the 1940s, so the joke was not constructed for that show. Here are additional selected citations.
It is not clear whether Wynn originated the quip since his newspaper column contained many older jokes. For example, the two other jokes listed above had already appeared in print.
In 1920 a Colorado newspaper published a collection of gags titled “Laughs in Vaudeville” that included this exchange [DCLV]:
“You are a myth. Do you know what a myth is?”
“Sure. A myth is a female moth.”
“I suppose you would say an epistle is a sister to an apostle.”
In 1908 the novelist and future politician Nellie McClung published her first book and achieved popular success. The work “Sowing Seeds in Danny” contained the following passage [NMSD]:
She told me the other day she was sure Danny was going to be a doctor. She bases her hopes on the questions that Danny asks. How do you know you haven’t got a gizzard? How would you like to be ripped clean up the back? and Where does your lap go to when you stand up?
In June 1927 the question about Grant’s tomb was printed in a newspaper as part of a quiz with fourteen items. All the questions in the parody quiz were comical [HDGT]:
Practically every newspaper and magazine carries an article asking questions on general information that you might score yourself and obtain an intelligence quotient, so why not us? …
Who said, “Give me Liberty or give me The Saturday Evening Post or give me Colliers. I’ve only got a nickel.” …
What great general was buried in Grant’s tomb?
In August 1927 a syndicated newspaper column called “Now You Ask One” presented a quiz that included a non-humorous question on the subject of Grant’s tomb. QI believes that it was this type of question that was being parodied when the absurdist query was crafted [SPGT]:
Anyone should be able to do fairly well on this quiz, for the answers are practically given with the questions. Correct replies are on page 6: …
5.—Is General Grant buried in Washington, Cairo, Ill., or New York city? …
8.—Who said, “Give me liberty or give me death,” Benjamin Franklin, Barbara Frietche, or Patrick Henry?
5.—General Grant’s body lies in Grant’s tomb, New York city. …
8.—Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death,”
Sticklers for accuracy have noted that the bodies of Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia Dent Grant, are not actually below ground in the mausoleum. Hence, strictly speaking, no one is buried in Grant’s tomb. Perhaps responses of this type may have inspired humorists to create absurdist questions.
In conclusion, the question about the contents of Grant’s tomb was being asked before Groucho’s show “You Bet Your Life” hit the airwaves. QI thinks the quip probably predated 1925 when Ed Wynn published a version in his column.
(This question and investigation were inspired by an inquiry from the journalist Michael Pollak relayed by Barry Popik.)
[NYGT] 2011 October 9, New York Times, F.Y.I.: Answers to Questions About New York: Unearthing the General by Michael Pollak, Section MB, Page MB.4, New York. [Online publication date is 2011 October 7] (ProQuest; Also Online New York Times archive; Accessed 2011 November 10) link
[EWGT] 1925 September 13, Ed Wynn’s Question Box: He Knows All – He Sees All by Ed Wynn “The Perfect Fool” [The Bell Syndicate, Inc.], Section: Sunday World-Herald Magazine, Page 1, [GNB Page 73], Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank) [The question about Grant's tomb ends with a period in the newspaper image, and not a question mark. A question mark is used above.]
[DCLV] 1920 August 29, Denver Post, Laughs in Vaudeville: Yates and Reed, Section 3, Page 9, [GNB Page 39], Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)
[NMSD] 1908, Sowing Seeds in Danny by Nellie L. McClung, Page 141, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. [Google Books contains a 1909 edition of this work that is an image-based reprint from Forgotten Books; Front material says Copyright 1908 By Doubleday, Page & Company; Published, March, 1908] (Google Books full view)
[HDGT] 1927 June 24, The Hearne Democrat, Ask Me Another, Page 4, Column 2, Hearne, Texas. [Label indicates that the quiz was reprinted from Jimtown Weekly] (NewspaperArchive)
[SPGT] 1927 August 16, The Evening Independent, Now You Ask One, Page 14 and Page 6, St. Petersburg, Florida. [The answer 8 was mislabeled 7 in the newspaper image] (Google News Archive)