Bigamy Is Having One Spouse Too Many. Monogamy Is the Same

Erica Jong? Oscar Wilde? Robert Webster Jones? H. L. Mencken? Anonymous?

oscar07

Dear Quote Investigator: As a single person I enjoy the following joke about bigamy. Here are two versions:

(1) Bigamy is having one husband too many. Monogamy is the same.

(2) Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.

The first has been attributed to the best-selling novelist Erica Jong, and the second has been credited to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. I haven’t been able to find this remark in the works of Wilde. Are these ascriptions accurate?

Quote Investigator: In 1973 Erica Jong published a scandalous blockbuster titled “Fear of Flying” and the first chapter used the following as an epigraph: 1

Bigamy is having one husband too many. Monogamy is the same.
—Anonymous (a woman)

Note that Jong did not credit herself indicating that the joke was already in circulation.

QI has found no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde wrote or said this joke. The variant using “wife” instead of “husband” does have a long history. In 1922 the book “Light Interviews with Shades” by Robert Webster Jones included a quip that displayed several points of similarity including the use of matching vocabulary terms “bigamy” and “monogamy”: 2

They say bigamy means one wife too many; but so does monogamy sometimes.

Precursor jokes on this theme were being disseminated by 1841 as shown below. QI believes that the modern quip evolved from these antecedents.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1841 a prose portrait titled “The Greenwich Pensioner” was included as a chapter in a book published in London. The fictional pensioner employed a jest comparable to the one under investigation though it did not use the words bigamy or monogamy. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

He is not very brilliant in his conversation on these occasions, for it runs invariably upon his many wives, and their few virtues; for, although he is such a polygamist himself, he lays it down as law, and profanely adds, as gospel too, that every man takes one wife too many whenever he is such a fool as to marry the first.

In 1885 “The Australian Journal: A Family Newspaper of Literature and Science” printed the following item on a page dedicated to humor: 4

“Mother, what’s a Mormon?” “A Mormon, son, is a person who has more wives than one.” “Then I don’t think there is any danger of pap bein’ a Mormon.” “Why, son?” “‘Cause I heard him say this mornin’ when he was goin’ out of the house that he found one wife too many for him.”

In 1897 the book “Reflections of a Bachelor” included a compact instance of a similar joke though it did not use the word monogamy: 5

Lots of men who aren’t bigamists have one wife too many.

In 1898 the “New-York Observer” printed a precursor jest in dialog format: 6

“Alfonso,” said Mrs. Midas, “here is a heading in this paper that says ‘Had One Wife Too Many.’ The rest of the article is torn off. How many wives do you think the brute had?”
“One, probably,” was Midas’s prompt reply.—(Detroit Free Press

In 1916 “Our Paper” published by a Massachusetts reformatory printed a similar joke that used the word “bigamist”: 7

“One wife too many!” exclaimed Mrs. Wederly, as she glanced at the headlines of her husband’s paper. “I suppose that is an account of the doings of some bigamist?”
“Not necessarily, my dear,” replied her husband, without daring to look up.

In 1922 the book “Light Interviews with Shades” contained an instance of the quip as noted previously in this article:

They say bigamy means one wife too many; but so does monogamy sometimes.

An even closer match to the modern joke was published in “The Literary Digest” of New York in 1929 with an acknowledgement to a London periodical: 8

Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy, in certain instances, is the same thing.—London Opinion.

In 1942 H. L. Mencken placed the saying in his massive dictionary of quotations, but he did not specify an originator. In September 1942 “The Reader’s Digest” reprinted the saying and acknowledged Mencken’s tome: 9 10

Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same. Author unidentified

In 1969 “A Treasury of Humorous Quotations” compiled by Herbert V. Prochnow and his son attributed the gag to Oscar Wilde. This was the first linkage to Wilde known to QI: 11

Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.
Oscar Wilde

In 1970 a newspaper in Omaha, Nebraska ascribed the saying directly to H. L. Mencken: 12

Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.—H. L. Mencken

In 1973 Erica Jong employed the variant joke with “husband” as an epigraph in her novel “Fear of Flying” as noted previously:

Bigamy is having one husband too many. Monogamy is the same.
—Anonymous (a woman)

In conclusion, the quip evolved over decades and early instances were anonymous. The connection to Oscar Wilde was unsupported. H. L. Mencken included the quip in his compilation of quotations; hence, he helped to popularize it, but he did not craft it. Erica Jong used a variant in her most popular novel; hence, she also helped to popularize an instance of the expression.

Image Notes: Illustration of Elkanah and his two wives returning to Ramah; cropped image via Wikimedia Commons. Oscar Wilde; cropped image; Boston Public Library Flickr; Lithographer: John H. Bufford & Sons; Composer: Carl Uschman. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license via Wikimedia Commons. Reduced resolution cover of novel Fear of Flying; fair use illustration.

(Thanks to the anonymous individual who inquired about this saying.)

Notes:

  1. 1973, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, (Epigraph of Chapter 1), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. (Verified on paper in 3rd printing July 1974)
  2. 1922, Light Interviews with Shades by Robert Webster Jones, Chapter 1: Bluebeard Tells Why He Killed Wives, Quote Page 18, Published by Dorrance & Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1841, Heads of the People: Portraits of the English Drawn by Kenny Meadows with Original Essays by Distinguished Writers, The Greenwich Pensioner by Edward Howard, Start Page 348, Quote Page 350 and 351, Published by Robert Tyas, Paternoster Row, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1885 June, The Australian Journal: A Family Newspaper of Literature and Science, Volume 20, Fun and Fancy, Quote Page 580, Column 1, Melbourne, Australia. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1897, Reflections of a Bachelor by P. W. (Post Wheeler), Quote Page CLXI (161), J. S. Ogilvia Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1898 October 6, New-York Observer, Odds and Ends, Quote Page 463, Column 2, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1916 September 9, Our Paper, Volume 32, Sense and Nonsense, Quote Page 444, Column 2, Massachusetts Reformatory, Concord Junction, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1929 June 22, The Literary Digest, The Spice of Life, Quote Page 62, Column 1, Funk & Wagnalls, New York. (Unz)
  9. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Quote Page 765, Column 1, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1942 September, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 41, The Cynic Looks at Marriage, Quote Page 108, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1969, A Treasury of Humorous Quotations: For Speakers, Writers, and Home Reference, Compiled by Herbert V. Prochnow and Herbert V. Prochnow Jr., Topic: Bigamy, Quote Page 35, Harper & Row Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1970 November 23, Omaha World Herald, So They Said, Quote Page 30, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)