I Did Not Attend the Funeral, But I Sent a Nice Letter Saying I Approved of It

Mark Twain? James Wayle? Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar? Walter Winchell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: In the past few days several phony quotations were widely disseminated on the internet; in other words, they went viral. My question is about a saying that might be genuine. A CNN article contains the following expression attributed to Mark Twain:

I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.

Do you think this is correct?

Quote Investigator: The author of the CNN article carefully refrained from definitively crediting the words to Twain [CNMT]. Instead, he said that the phrase had “long been attributed to Twain”.

This saying has not been found in Twain’s writings, and it is not included in the TwainQuotes.com repository. Website editor Barbara Schmidt states that currently “there is no evidence that links Mark Twain to the funeral quote” [TQMT].

Indeed, the basic joke was credited to Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar in 1884 and this ascription was mentioned in news reports for decades afterwards. During his long career, Hoar was a lawyer, a Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge, and an Attorney General of the United States.

The funeral referred to in the jest was for the prominent abolitionist and orator Wendell Phillips who died in Boston on February 2, 1884 according to Encyclopedia Americana and Encyclopedia Britannica [EAWP] [EBWP]. Later that month on the 29th a newspaper report was published presenting a joke credited to Hoar of the type that was later attributed to Twain [CCEH]:

Boston Post.—The Hon. E. R. Hoar did not love Phillips over much in his later years. It is now reported of him that while the remains of the great agitator were awaiting the final ceremonies a distinguished Cambridge gentleman asked him if he was going to attend Wendell Phillips’s funeral. “No,” was the reply, “but I approve it!”

In 1895, after the death of Hoar, the New York Times printed “Anecdotes of the Late Judge Hoar”. A version of the tale was included, and the newspaper indicated that Hoar’s memorable jibe at Phillips was his “best-known remark” [NYEH]:

Out of this feeling between the Judge and the agitator came what is, perhaps, Judge Hoar’s best-known remark, and the one that has oftenest been seen in print. After Phillips’s death, some one met Judge Hoar and asked him if he intended to attend the funeral. “No,” answered the Judge, “I don’t; but I approve of it.”

The earliest instance located by QI with an attribution to Mark Twain appeared in a humor magazine called “The Judge” in 1938. A reader identified as “James Wayle, of Milwaukee” wrote a letter to the editors of the periodical recounting a story about Twain [TJMT]:

… he writes to remind us that Mark Twain once refused to attend a noted politician’s funeral. “But then,” adds Mr. Wayle, “he wrote them a very nice letter explaining that he approved of it.”

In 1943 this story appeared in a volume titled “The Speaker’s Notebook” with an acknowledgment to “The Judge” magazine [SHMT]:

Mark Twain once refused to attend a noted politician’s funeral. But he wrote a very nice letter explaining that he approved of it.


Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In the earliest known citation for this jape Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar was commenting about the funeral of Wendell Phillips. The details for this cite dated February 2, 1884 have already been listed above [CCEH]. In 1885 the anecdote was published in Ohio and North Dakota, but the wording of this instance of Hoar’s jest was changed significantly. Instead of saying “I approve it” or “I approve of it” Hoar is reported to have said “I don’t object I am sure” [CREH] [GFEH]:

Judge Rockwood Hoar, of Massachusetts, writes a correspondent, has a neat way of saying sharp things, and at the proper time, too—a gift not possessed, I believe, by his brother, the senator. His bon mots make their way to Washington quicker, it seems, than they travel about in dignified Boston. He was met by a friend of his in Tremont street on the day of Wendell Phillip’s funeral, when nearly all Boston had turned out to do honor to the great orator. “What!” exclaimed his friend, “you here, judge, and Mr. Phillips’ funeral taking place?”

“I don’t object, I am sure,” remarked Judge Hoar, as he walked quietly on without saying another word. He and Mr. Phillips had been enemies for a number of years.

In 1887 the jibe was deemed notable enough that a version was included in a compendium called “Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men” where it was credited to Hoar [FSEH]:

Judge Hoar, being asked if he should attend Mr. Wendell Phillips’s funeral, replied, “No, I am not invited, but I approve of it nevertheless.”

In 1893 the joke appeared in a newspaper in New Zealand far from its origin. This statement of the quip refrained from providing the names of the participants [NZME]:

A certain Judge and a certain politician were bitter enemies. The politician died, and on the day the politician’s remains were borne to the tomb some one met the Judge and inquired :— ‘Aren’t you going to the funeral?’ ‘No,’ was the reply; ‘but I approve of it.’

In 1895, after the death of Hoar, the New York Times printed “Anecdotes of the Late Judge Hoar” as mentioned above. Here is a longer excerpt from the article discussing the friction between Hoar and Benjamin F. Butler [NYEH]:

Judge E. Rockwood Hoar was always an earnest opponent of Gen. Butler, and this opposition was one of the reasons for his dislike for Wendell Phillips, outside of his disapproval of attacks that Phillips made in his speeches on Lincoln and other public men, whom Judge Hoar respected. Because of Hoar’s opposition to Butler, Phillips at one time made a bitter attack upon the Judge. …

Out of this feeling between the Judge and the agitator came what is, perhaps, Judge Hoar’s best-known remark, and the one that has oftenest been seen in print. After Phillips’s death, some one met Judge Hoar and asked him if he intended to attend the funeral. “No,” answered the Judge, “I don’t; but I approve of it.”

In 1901 Mountstuart E. Grant-Duff published an installment of his multi-volume diary that included an entry dated March 12, 1889 describing the conversation at a dinner party. An anecdote told about William M. Evarts at the social event showed that the joke was already being reattributed to him [MDWE]:

On being asked whether he would go to the funeral of a man whom he very much disliked, Evarts replied:–“No, I shall not attend; but I quite approve of it.”

The diary was reviewed in the periodical “The Academy” and the funeral joke was repeated and attributed to Ewart, an alternate spelling for Evart [TAWE]. An assortment of jokes from the diary was also reprinted in the New York Times, and the funeral joke was credited to Evarts [NYWE].

In 1904 a newspaper article changed the target of the jest from Phillips to Benjamin Butler. Given the known animosity toward Butler by a member of the Hoar family this modification is not too surprising [BBEH]:

Senator Hoar hated Benjamin Butler—he was the one man that Hoar could not abide—and his son inherited the feeling, as witness this remark made when asked if he were going to attend Butler’s funeral: “No; I’m not going; but I approve of it.”

Thanks to top-flight researcher Victor Steinbok for helping to establish the variability of the anecdote by locating versions that named William M. Evarts as the speaker and also versions with Benjamin Butler as the target. In 1920 the jape was still being retold. Here is an example in the Wall Street Journal with Butler again the focus of the barb [WJEH]:

This almost recalls the reply of Senator Hoar when he was asked if he would attend Ben Butler’s funeral. He said: “No, but I approve of it.”

In 1938 a letter writer to the magazine “The Judge” linked Mark Twain to the funeral joke as described earlier in this post. In 1943 the linkage of Twain and the jest was repeated in “The Speaker’s Notebook” with an acknowledgment to “The Judge” magazine as mentioned earlier.

In 1946 the influential and widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell told the tale. This is the earliest instance that QI has located that used quotation marks around the phrase and credited the words to Twain. Previous instances described the supposed actions of Twain, but did not attempt to present his exact words [WWMT]:

Mark Twain used his pungent pen to attack the shady schemes of Tammany. The death of a Tammany leader inspired one of Twain’s famed quips: “I refused to attend his funeral. But I wrote a very nice letter explaining that I approved of it!”

Yet, the connection of the joke to Hoar was not forgotten. In 1947 a Texas newspaper discussed Benjamin F. Butler in an editorial. The funeral joke was retold, and it was attributed to Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar. Thus, the jibe was still being actively propagated with the same identity given for the speaker as in 1884. Yet, the target was again shifted from Phillips to Butler [BBRH]:

Everywhere Butler left a trail. He enriched himself as general, headed a corrupt political machine in Massachusetts and later became the worst governor that that state had had up to then. When he died in 1893 the highly respected ex-attorney-general, Rockwood Hoar, was asked if he were going to the funeral. “No,” he replied, “but I approve of it.”

In 1948 the collection of Mark Twain quotations “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” included the text of the Walter Winchell column given above together with the following annotation: “From an unidentified newspaper clipping” [MTAF]. The editor may have believed this was an old clipping, but QI believes it was composed by Winchell in 1946.

In 1959 “Mark Twain Tonight: An Actor’s Portrait” was published. This volume recorded text that was used to create the very popular and award-winning one-man show of actor Hal Holbrook in which he portrayed Mark Twain. The book was extensively footnoted to demonstrate that the words used by Holbrooke were based on material written or spoken by Twain. Here is the instance of the funeral jibe in the book [MTHH]:

I did not attend his funeral; but I wrote a very nice letter saying that I approved of it.

Unfortunately, the footnote for this passage points to “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips”, and as shown above that compilation cites a flawed “unidentified newspaper clipping.”

Also in 1959 a Wisconsin newspaper printed the following nearly identical version crediting Twain [MSMT]:

… we recalled reading of the great American humorist’s statement after a notoriously shady political figure died in New York City. Twain said, “No. I did not attend his funeral. But I wrote a very nice letter saying that I approved it.”

More recently, in 2007 “The Big Curmudgeon” printed the following saying and credited Twain [BCMT]:

I did not attend his funeral, but I wrote a nice letter saying I approved it.

In 2008 the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations presented this version attributed to Twain [OHMT]:

I refused to attend his funeral, but I wrote a very nice letter explaining that I approved of it.

on hearing of the death of a corrupt politician

In conclusion, the crux of the joke appeared by 1887, and it was initially ascribed to Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar. Both the speaker and the target of the jibe varied over the years as the tale was retold. By 1938 the joke was reattributed to the famed humorist Mark Twain. Twain is known as a quotation magnet, and many clever sayings are reassigned to him over time. The ascription to Twain is almost certainly inaccurate. Thanks for your question.

Update History: On May 17, 2011 more than ten citations were added, and the article was expanded. One of the newly added citations was also the earliest with a date of February 29, 1884.


[CNMT] 2011 May 3, CNN [CNNTech], “MLK, Mark Twain quotes go viral — and are wrong” by Doug Gross, Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., Atlanta, Georgia. (cnn.com website accessed 2011 May 7)

[TQMT] 2011 May 4, Personal communication between Garson O’Toole and Barbara Schmidt concerning a quotation attributed to Mark Twain.

[EAWP] Entry for “Phillips, Wendell (1811–1884)” by Irving H. Bartlett, Encyclopedia Americana, Part of Grolier Online. (Accessed 2011 May 15)

[EBWP] Entry for “Phillips, Wendell”, Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica Online Library Edition. (Accessed 2011 May 15)

[CCEH] 1884 February 29, Cincinnati Commercial Gazette (Cincinnati Commercial Tribune), Approving of the Funeral, Page 2, Column 5, Cincinnati, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

[NYEH] 1895 February 5, New York Times, Anecdotes of the Late Judge Hoar, Page 4, [Reprinted from The Boston Herald], New York. (ProQuest)

[TJMT] 1938 January, The Judge magazine, Page 11, Column 2, Volume 114 [Jubilee Number], Judge Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books snippet, Verified visually on paper with special thanks to a librarian at the University of Michigan) link

[SHMT] 1943, The Speaker’s Notebook by William G. Hoffman, Page 309, Whittlesey House, A Division of McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. (Google Books snippet, Verified visually on paper with special thanks to a librarian at the University of South Florida) link

[CREH] 1885 February 2, The Canton Daily Repository (Repository), Hoar and Wendell Phillips, Page 6, Column 3, Canton, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

[GFEH] 1885 February 26, Grand Forks Daily Herald, Hoar and Wendell Phillips, Page 4, Column 2, Grand Forks, North Dakota.(GenealogyBank)

[FSEH] 1887, Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men by Samuel Arthur Bent, [Fifth Edition, Revised and Enlarged] Page 581, Ticknor & Company, Boston. (Google Books full view) link

[NZME] 1893 May 5, Mataura Ensign, Funnyisms, Page 8, Column 1, Gore, Otago, New Zealand (Google News archive)

[MDWE] 1901, “Notes from a Diary: 1889-1891: Volume 1” by Mountstuart E. Grant Duff, Diary entry dated: March 12, 1889, Page 31, John Murray, London. (Google Books full view) link

[TAWE] 1901 May 18, The Academy: A Weekly Review of Literature and Life, Anecdotage, Page 422, Column 2, Publishing Office: Chancery Lane, London. (Google Books full view)

[NYWE] 1901 May 19, New York Times, Some of Mr. Evarts’s Jokes: From the Diary of Mountstuart E. Grant-Duff, Page 25, New York. (ProQuest)

[BBEH] 1904 November 9, Oakland Tribune, Stories of Senator Hoar, Page 7, Column 7, Oakland, California. (NewspaperArchive)

[WJEH] 1920 May 31, Wall Street Journal, A Means Not an End, Page 1, New York. (ProQuest)

[WWMT] 1946 July 18, Daytona Beach Morning Journal, Walter Winchell, Page 4, Daytona Beach, Florida. (Google News archive)

[BBRH] 1947 December 30, Galveston Daily News, Editorial: Damaged Soul, Page 4, Column 1, Galveston, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)

[MTAF] 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Page 363, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)

[MTHH] 1959, Mark Twain Tonight!: An Actor’s Portrait by Mark Twain and edited by Hal Holbrook, Page 125, Washburn, New York. (Special thanks to the librarian of Saint Petersburg College [Gibbs Campus] in Florida for verifying this information on paper)

[MSMT] 1959 August 21, Milwaukee Sentinel, Houdini Club Gets Safe Ad by Buck Herzog, Page 15 [GNA Page 8], Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)

[BCMT] 2007, The Big Curmudgeon by Jon Winokur, Page 179, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., New York. (Google Books preview)

[OHMT] 2008, Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations edited by Ned Sherrin, Category Death, Page 87, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper)



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