Mark Twain? Clarence Darrow? Overland Monthly? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: I saw the quotation below when it was tweeted a few days ago. It was credited to Mark Twain, but apparently he never said it:
I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.
Later I read news reports claiming that the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow said something similar. Could you explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: Clarence Darrow did deliver a similar quip on several occasions. The earliest instance located by QI occurred during a speech in 1922. He also spoke a version during congressional testimony in 1926. The remark was popular, and he included another version in his autobiography “The Story of My Life” in 1932.
In 1922 Darrow addressed the “Illinois Conference on Public Welfare” with a speech simply titled “Crime”. He described candidly his feelings about reading obituaries, but the prolixity of his remark reduced its wittiness. In later versions Darrow presented more concise statements [CDPW]:
One reason why we don’t kill is because we are not used to it. I never killed anybody, but I have done just the same thing. I have had a great deal of satisfaction over many obituary notices that I have read. I never got into the habit of killing. I could mention the names of many that it would please me if I could read their obituaries in the paper in the morning.
In Darrow’s 1932 memoir he wrote a short version that decades later would be suitable for tweeting [CDSL]:
I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Before Darrow discussed reading obituaries with contentment the general topic was broached by others. For example, in 1908 a reviewer who was antagonistic to some characters who died in a book wrote the following [OMRB]:
But they all died, as far as we got, and we can’t recall when perusing any other obituary afforded us so much pleasure.
Yet, this sentence does not contain the comical contrasting elements that appear in the epigram constructed by Darrow.
In 1922 Darrow used the expression under investigation in a speech at a conference as noted above. In February of 1926 Darrow testified before a committee of the United States House of Representatives in a hearing about capital punishment. He argued in favor of abolishing the death penalty [CDUS]:
If a man can think of how often he has been a murderer himself, he would have some sympathy with other fellows who are legally killed; and, of course, we are all murderers at heart—that is, I never killed anybody, but I often read an obituary notice with great satisfaction, which means that I approve of it all right, and everybody else does the same.
On February 2, 1926 the New York Times reported on Darrow’s congressional testimony. The dateline for the story was February 1, yet the words presented differ somewhat from the government transcript [CDNY]:
“We’re all killers at heart,” he said. “Of course, I have never taken anybody’s life, but I have often read obituary notices with considerable satisfaction. It just happens that circumstances have favored me.”
The Yale Book of Quotations, a key reference work, also lists Darrow’s statement as given in the New York Times [CDYQ]. In 1932 Darrow published his autobiography and he included an expression of the sentiment [CDSL]:
All men have an emotion to kill; when they strongly dislike some one they involuntarily wish he was dead. I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.
In 2007 a variant of the quip was published in the collection “The Big Curmudgeon”. This instance used the word “pleasure” instead of “satisfaction” and was attributed to Darrow [CDBC]. This form is closer to the version tweeted in 2011 and credited to Mark Twain:
I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.
In conclusion, Darrow began to express his satisfaction about reading death notices in 1922 or earlier. He refined his words over time and that led to a humorous one-liner that is now swapped in the 21st century. Thanks for your timely query.
Image Notes: Photographic portrait of Clarence Darrow from U.S. Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division via Wikimedia Commons. Obituaries text constructed with Gimp.
[CDPW] 1922, The Institution Quarterly, Volume 13, Number 3 and 4, Proceedings of the Illinois Conference on Public Welfare; Held at East St. Louis, Illinois on November 12-14, 1922, [The Proceedings begin on Page 92 of Institution Quarterly], [Address titled “Crime” by Attorney Clarence S. Darrow, Chicago. Delivered on Evening of Monday, November 13, 1922] (Article Start Page 231), Quote Page 239, Published by the Department of Public Welfare by Authority of the State of Illinois. (Google Books full view) link
[CDSL] 1996 [Reprint of 1932 edition], The Story of My Life by Clarence Darrow, Page 86, Da Capo Press Inc., New York. (Google Books preview) link
[OMRB] 1908 July, The Overland Monthly In the Realm of Bookland: Review “Stories of Struggles”, Page 92, Column 1, The Overland Monthly Co., San Francisco, California. (Google Books full view) link
[CDUS] 1926, United States Congressional Serial Set: 8533, House of Representatives, 69th Congress: 1st Session: Report No. 876, To Abolish Capital Punishment in District of Columbia, Further Testimony of Clarence Darrow of Chicago, Illinois, Page 4, United States Government Printing Office. (HathiTrust) link
[CDNY] 1926 February 2, New York Times, Says Death Penalty Does Not Stop Crime, Page 18, New York. (ProQuest)
[CDYQ] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Clarence S. Darrow, Page 186, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
[CDBC] 2007, The Big Curmudgeon by Jon Winokur, Page 457, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., New York. (Google Books preview)