Winston Churchill? Nancy Astor? Marshall Pinckney Wilder? Patrick O’Dowd? David Lloyd George? George Bernard Shaw? Groucho Marx? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous anecdote in which an exasperated individual fantasizes aloud about giving poison to another person. The sharp rejoinder is surprising and hilarious. Usually the two named participants are Nancy Astor and Winston Churchill. Are you familiar with this story? Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI of a strongly matching jest was published in November 1899. The excerpt below from an Oswego, New York newspaper acknowledged a source called the “Listener”. Neither participant was identified. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
The “Listener” reports the following from the subway: On one of the recent warm days a sour-visaged, fussy lady got on one of the smoking seats on an open car in the subway.
Next her sat a man who was smoking a cigar. More than that, the lady, sniffing, easily made out that the man had been eating onions. Still more than that, she had the strongest kind of suspicion that he had been drinking beer. The lady fussed and wriggled, and grew angrier, and looked at the man scornfully. Presently she could endure it no longer. She looked squarely at him and said:
“If you were my husband, sir, I’d give you a dose of poison!”
The man looked at her. “If I were your husband,” said he, “I’d take it!”
The popular story above was reprinted with minor alterations in multiple newspapers in the following days, months, and years. An early instance in the “New York Tribune” acknowledged “The Boston Transcript”. 2 3 Top researcher Barry Popik identified this primordial version of the repartee and located other valuable citations. 4
This joke has been evolving for more than one hundred years. In March 1900 the humorist Marshall Pinckney Wilder asserted authorship of the gag. By April 1900 a version with a comical Irishman was circulating. In 1902 a theatrical production switched the roles of the husband and wife.
In 1949 an instance with Winston Churchill delivering the punchline to an unnamed woman was printed in “The New York Times”. The story with Nancy Astor and Winston Churchill was recounted in a 1952 book called “The Glitter and the Gold”. It is conceivable that Churchill employed this line, but he would have been knowingly or unknowingly re-enacting a joke that had been circulating for many years.
In 1962 the legendary comedian Groucho Marx presented the gag, but he credited the prominent playwright George Bernard Shaw with the punchline. The details for all these citations are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In January 1900 “The Chicago Tribune” presented a version with a train setting in which the person causing offense was not smoking a cigar or consuming onions, but he was drunk: 5
“I say I think it’s a shame for a man like you to come into a car and seat himself among decent people!”
“Think ’tis, ma’am?”
“I do, sir! You are drunk. You are offensive! I say it’s a shame for such a man to thrust himself in among respectable people!”
“Beg y’r pardon, ma’am, but I didn’t thrust myself in here by you. I w’s already here w’en you came in.”
“If I had a husband like you,” she said, with concentrated scorn, “I’d give him poison!”
“Mad’m,” he replied, looking her over with a feeble sort of smile, “If I had a wife like you I’d take it.”
In March 1900 the actor and humorist Marshall Pinckney Wilder was interviewed by a reporter for the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” in Ohio. Intriguingly, Pinckney asserted that he had created the joke: 6
Jokes travel faster than anything else I ever knew—beat bad news all hollow. Now, there’s that one about the old lady who tells her next door neighbor that if he was her husband she’d give him poison, and he returns by saying that if she was his wife he’d take it. That isn’t an old joke at all. I just made it a little while ago. But it’s traveled so much it’s pretty well worn already.
In October 1900 the retort was ascribed to a stereotypical Irishman in the pages of a medical journal: 7
Patrick O’Dowd had purchased a mandolin, and in order to learn it quickly, practiced early and late. This so exasperated an old maid next door that she concluded to give Patrick a piece of her mind, which she did in the following manner:
Leaning out of the window and shaking her fist at the offending musician, she said—“If I was your wife I’d give you poison.”
“Begorry,” said Pat, “if yez were me wife I’d take pizen meself.”
In September 1902 “The New York Times” included the punchline in a collection of humor culled from stage productions that had opened recently in New York. Interestingly, the roles of husband and wife were reversed: 8
These lines are saved from “Captain Molly,” in which Elizabeth Tyree appeared at the Manhattan:
Bunner—If I were your husband I’d give you poison.
Molly—If I were your wife I’d take it.
In 1913 an extraordinary news report in “The Milwaukee Sentinel” told of a local man who heard the comical repartee during a show and laughed so intensely he was hospitalized: 9
“If you were my husband, I’d give you poison.”
“And if you were my wife I’d take it.”
Is there anything so comical in this veteran vaudeville joke that should make its hearer convulse with mirth for more than three consecutive seconds? Everybody who has heard it will probably answer “no”.
But the quip found a real victim in Julius Jeswein, 34 years old, 292 Hanover street, Saturday night. For Jeswein laughed for sixteen consecutive hours after hearing it.
…he let out a roar that shook the building. The calloused audience imagined it would cease, but it did not. Jeswein kept on laughing until the act was forced to discontinue…
Finally it was seen that he could not stop and he was removed to Emergency hospital.
Jeswein was given morphine injections which ultimately induced sleep, and he survived the ordeal.
In 1924 the barbed interaction was printed in a humor column called “Roundabouts” in a California newspaper. The setting was moved to the political sphere: 10
A woman in a political audience lost patience with the speaker on the platform and shouted: “If you were me husband I’d give you poison.”
“Madame, if I were your husband,” replied the speaker, cooly, “I’d take it.”
In 1932 an article titled “Art of Public Speech” in a Montreal newspaper recounted an anecdote featuring David Lloyd George, a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom: 11
Of this a good illustration is the case of the woman who heckled Lloyd George by shouting out, while he was speaking: “Say, if I was your wife I’d give you poison,” to which Lloyd George, like a flash, replied, “Madam, if I were your husband I’d take it quickly.”
In 1935 the movie “Bright Lights” depicted a vaudeville show during which the joke was employed: 12
Patricia Ellis: If you were my husband, I’d give you poison.
Joe E. Brown: Yes, and if I was your husband I’d take it.
In 1949 “The New York Times” relayed an instance with Winston Churchill responding to an unnamed antagonist: 13
Winston Spencer Churchill has been the subject of many a piquant anecdote based on his personality, robust wit and felicity of phrase. The story is being told of his encounter with a politically minded lady who, after failing to shake him in an argument, broke off with the petulant remark, “Oh, if you were my husband, I’d put poison in your tea.” “Madame,” Winston responded, “if I were, I’d drink it with pleasure.”
In 1952 an autobiography titled “The Glitter and the Gold” was published by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan who was the former Duchess of Marlborough. Balsan stated that there was “a strong antipathy” between Churchill and Nancy Astor. In the following rancorous dialog the hypothetical poison was placed in coffee instead of tea: 14
It was therefore unfortunate that on one of Lady Astor’s visits to Blenheim when my son was host Winston should have chosen to appear. The expected result of their encounter was not long in coming; after a heated argument on some trivial matter Nancy, with a fervor whose sincerity could not be doubted, shouted, “If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee!” Whereupon Winston with equal heat and sincerity answered, “And if I were your husband I would drink it.”
In 1962 Groucho Marx wrote about the jest in his newspaper column, and he credited the words to the prominent playwright George Bernard Shaw: 15
One night the red-bearded literary giant was pouring out some vitriolic Shavian opinions on a subject dear to the heart of a woman in the lecture-hall audience. Suddenly she stood up and shouted.
“If you were my husband I’d poison you.”
“Madame, if I were your husband,” roared Shaw, “I’d take poison!”
That toxic squelch has since been attributed to a whole gaggle of wags, including Bill Summers, an American League umpire, who is reputed to have yelled it at a bumptious shrew at Yankee Stadium.
In conclusion, in the earliest known instance of this joke the participants were anonymous. In addition, many of the later tales appeared to be fictional scenarios constructed by modifying pre-existing anecdotes. The claim of Marshall Pinckney Wilder to authorship was fascinating but uncertain. The evidence that Winston Churchill employed this line was entertaining but not very persuasive.
Image Notes: Winston Churchill in 1942 from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons. Poison bottle from OpenClips on Pixabay. Detail of portrait of Nancy Astor by John Singer Sargent via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Earl Blacklock whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration, and special thanks to correspondent Rose Anne Ost for identifying the 1935 movie citation.)
Update history: On October 31, 2016 the 1935 “Bright Lights” citation was added.
- 1899 November 18, Oswego Daily Times, Right and Left, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 2, Column 4, Oswego, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1899 November 19, Colorado Springs Gazette, Tales of the Town, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Colorado Springs, Colorado. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1899 November 19, New York Tribune, Section: Illustrated Supplement, Well Agreed, (Acknowledgement to The Boston Transcript), Quote Page 19, Column 3, New York, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “‘If you were my husband, I’d poison your coffee’ (Nancy Astor to Churchill?)”, Date on website: February 09, 2009, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik com on August 26, 2014) ↩
- 1900 January 3, Chicago Tribune, In A Minor Key: Scored Last, Quote Page 12, Column 5, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1900 March 1, Cleveland Plain Dealer, At The Hotels, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1900 October, Journal of Medicine and Science: The Official Organ of the Maine Academy of Medicine and Science, Volume 6, Number 11, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 402, Column 2, Portland, Maine. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1902 September 28, New York Times, In New Plays: Where the Laughs Come by “A.K.”, Quote Page 27, Column 7, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1913 June 2, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Laughs 16 Hours at Ancient Joke, Quote Page 1, Column 5, (Continuation Page 4), Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1924 June 14, San Diego Union, Roundabouts, Edited by A Roundabouter, (Note from I. W. P.), Quote Page 4, Column 7, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1932 January 4, The Montreal Gazette, Art of Public Speech by Rev. R. G. Burgoyne, Quote Page 12, Column 4, Montreal, Canada. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1935, Movie: Bright Lights, Director: Busby Berkeley, Screenplay by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, Lines spoken by Patricia Ellis as Claire Whitmore and Joe E. Brown as Joe Wilson, Location: Spoken at 49 minutes, Warner Bros. (Turner Classic Movies at tcm.com, Movies on Demand, Seen on Oct 31, 2016) link ↩
- 1949 February 6, New York Times, Europe Laughs, Quote Page SM2, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1952, The Glitter and the Gold by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan (formerly Duchess of Marlborough), Chapter: Deed of Separation, Quote Pages 204 and 205, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1962 March 11, Omaha World Herald, Section: This Week Magazine, Groucho’s Who’s Who of Great Ha-Ha’s by Groucho Marx with Leslie Lieber, Quote Page 15, Column 1, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank) ↩