You Shall Either Die Upon the Gallows or of the Pox

Samuel Foote? 4th Earl of Sandwich? James Quin? John Wilkes? William Gladstone? Benjamin Disraeli?

Dear Quote Investigator: The sharpest and funniest retort I know of was said in response to a harsh insult:

You, sir, will certainly either die upon the gallows or of a social disease.

That depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.

Can you tell me who spoke these lines?

Quote Investigator: Many versions of this dialog have been presented in books and periodicals over a span of more than two hundred years. In addition, the participants in this verbal thrust and parry have varied in different renditions. Here are five pairs of antagonists that have been proposed:

(1) 4th Earl of Sandwich and Samuel Foote.
(2) A Nobleman and James Quin.
(3) 4th Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes.
(4) William Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli.
(5) 4th Earl of Sandwich and Charles James Fox.

The earliest evidence located by QI was published in a London periodical called “The European Magazine” in 1784. A bracing encounter between Lord Sandwich and Samuel Foote was described. Boldface has been added to excerpts below:[ref] 1784 January, The European Magazine: and London Review, Bon Mot of the late Sam. Foote, Quote Page 16, Column 2, Philological Society of London, Printed for John Fielding, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Bon Mot of the late Sam. Foote—Sam. was invited to a convivial meeting at the house of the late Sir Francis Blake Delaval. Lord Sandwich was one of the guests upon the same occasion. When the Comedian entered, the Peer exclaimed, “what are you alive still?” “Yes, my Lord,” replied Foote. “Pray Sam,” retorted his Lordship, “which do you think will happen to you first, the experience of a certain disease, or an intimate acquaintance with the gallows?” “Why,” rejoined the Comedian, “that depends upon circumstances, and they are these, whether I prefer embracing your Lordship’s mistress, or, your principles.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The story above was reprinted in a collection of humor titled “The Banquet of Wit; Or, A Feast for the Polite World” circa 1790.[ref] 1790 [Estimated date given by WorldCat], The Banquet Of Wit; Or, A Feast For The Polite World, Quote Page 39, Printed for R. Randall, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

By 1809 another version of the anecdote was in circulation. In the following excerpt “p-x” referred to “pox” which historically was used to designate the venereal disease syphilis. The term “halter” referred to a rope with a noose used for hanging. The setting of the tale was moved from the house of Francis Blake Delaval to an eating establishment in the Convent Garden district of London. The rivals were unchanged: Lord Sandwich versus Samuel Foote:[ref] 1809, The Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Percival Stockdale by Percival Stockdale, Volume 1 of 2, Quote Page 317 and 318, Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref][ref] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Samuel Foote, Quote Page 281, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

Foote was a good scholar, and a man of the most lively, and poignant convivial humour. A striking instance of this talent, at this moment occurs to me.—My lord Sandwich had dined, one day, in Foote’s company, in covent-garden, at the famous beef-steak club.—The glass had gone profusely round; and at the unguarded time, when the bold idea of the moment sallies forth, without any regard to good manners;—”Foote,” (said lord Sandwich) “I have often wondered what catastrophe would bring you to your end; but I think, that you must either die of the p-x, or the halter.”—“My lord,” (replied Foote instantaneously) that will depend upon one of two contingencies;—whether I embrace your lordship’s mistress, or your lordship’s principles.”

A collection of jokes and anecdotes called “The Actor’s Budget of Wit and Merriment” named James Quin as a participant in the repartee together with an unidentified nobleman. Quin was a famous actor who died in 1766. The humor book was released in multiple editions, and the publication date was uncertain. The HathiTrust catalog lists an estimate of 1816 for one edition:[ref] 1816 (Estimated date from HathiTrust catalog),The Actor’s Budget of Wit and Merriment, Consisting of Monologues, Prologues, Epilogues, Tales, Comic Songs, Rare and Genuine Theatrical Anecdotes and Jests, Collected by W. Oxberry of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Quote Page 306, Published by W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link [/ref]


A nobleman, who was not famous for his private or public morality, was joking with Quin, who was then in a moralizing strain of talking. “Come, Quin,” said his lordship,” push about the bottle. I know what your end will be—you will either be hanged, or die of the p—.” “That depends, my lord,” retorted Quin, “whether I embrace your lordship’s mistress or your principles.”

In 1825 a compilation titled “The Laughing Philosopher” included an account similar to the version in the 1784 citation; however, the text had been streamlined:[ref] 1825, “The Laughing Philosopher; Or, Fun, Humour and Wit”, FOOTE, Quote Page 49, [Originated in or about “The Literary Emporium”], Printed for the Publisher, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link link [/ref]

Lord Sandwich said to Foote, “which do you think will happen to you first, disease or acquaintance with the gallows.” “That depends upon circumstances, which are these, whether I embrace your Lordship’s mistress, or your principles.”

In 1828 a version of the story with Lord Sandwich that replaced Samuel Foote with John Wilkes was presented in a book about the social clubs of London. Because the anecdote was deemed too ribald by the author it was only partially described. The punchline was stated but the setup was not given:[ref] 1828, “The Clubs of London; with Anecdotes of Their Members, Sketches of Character, and Conversations”, [WorldCat lists author: Charles Marsh], Volume 2 of 2, Quote Page 17, Henry Colburn, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

It must be remembered, that convivial societies then were less restrained in particular points than at present. Coarseness of expression was no objection to a witty saying, provided it was witty. It was at one of these Saturnalia that Lord Sandwich received Wilkes’s answer to the indecent alternative he had put to him. “That depends,” replied Wilkes, “upon this—whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress.” We cannot now detail the whole anecdote; it is, however, so well known, that a slight allusion will recall it.

An instance of the anecdote with Lord Sandwich and John Wilkes was printed in the October 1839 issue of “The Edinburgh Review”. This account was reprinted in the 1844 book “Historical Sketches of Statesmen Who Flourished in the Time of George III” by Henry Brougham who stated that he had been told about the sharp dialog by the Duke of Norfolk who had been present when the words were spoken. But Brougham expressed doubt about whether the words of Wilkes had been accurately transmitted:[ref] 1839 October, The Edinburgh Review, Or Critical Journal, (Book Review of “Correspondence of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham”), Start Page 90, Quote Page 106, Printed by Ballantyne and Hughes, Edinburgh. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref][ref] 1844, “Historical Sketches of Statesmen Who Flourished in the Time of George III” by Henry, Lord Brougham [Baron Brougham], Third Series, Section: John Wilkes, Start Page 141, Quote Page 146, Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Of his wit and drollery some passages are preserved in society; but of these not many can with propriety be cited. We doubt if his retort to Lord Sandwich be of this description, when being asked, coarsely enough, “Whether he thought he should die by a halter or by a certain disease?” he quickly said, “That depends on whether I embrace your Lordship’s principles or your mistress.” We give this, in order to contradict the French anecdote, which ascribes the mot to Mirabeau as a retort to Cardinal Maury, while sitting by him in the National Assembly. I heard it myself from the Duke of Norfolk, who was present when the dialogue took place, many years before the French Revolution.

Multiple versions of the tale continued to circulate for many decades. Lord Sandwich was usually named as the initiator of the exchange. Finally, by 1950 a novel instance emerged in a book by George E. Allen. The political rivals William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli were substituted into the roles of the jousters in the anecdote:[ref] 1950, Presidents Who Have Known Me by George E. Allen, Chapter 17, Quote Page 237, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

Infuriated by Disraeli in Parliamentary debate, Gladstone said: “Mr. Disraeli, you will probably die by the hangman’s noose or a vile disease.” Disraeli replied: “Sir, that depends upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”

In 1968 the story was alluded to in the Parliament of the United Kingdom, but only the first line of the exchange was given. The adversaries were specified as Lord Sandwich and the politician Charles James Fox:[ref] 1968 May 24, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons, Complaint of Privilege, Speaking: Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon North), HC Deb, volume 765, cc1093-117. (Accessed on January 26, 2014) link [/ref]

I always think that the greatest thing about the House is that it is fairly magnanimous. It is also pretty thick-skinned we are not as thick-skinned as in the days when Lord Sandwich would ask Charles James Fox whether he would die of the pox or the rope. If I had the courage of Mr. Leslie Hale, the former Member for Oldham, West, I would carry on and give the reply. But we are at any rate pretty thick-skinned.

In conclusion, the earliest citations specify that this dialog occurred between the 4th Earl of Sandwich and Samuel Foote. Thus, Foote is the leading candidate for coiner of this clever riposte. The version with John Wilkes was published a few decades later. It is unlikely that Lord Sandwich would facilitate this retort twice. The ascription to James Quin appeared many years after his death; therefore, its credibility is significantly reduced.

Image Notes: Portrait of Samuel Foote by Jean-François Gilles Colson. Engraving of John Wilkes after William Hogarth. Portrait of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich by Thomas Gainsborough. Wikimedia Commons images have been cropped.

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