Henry Ward Beecher? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Are you familiar with the amusing anecdote about an “April Fool” letter sent to the famous orator Henry Ward Beecher. Would you please examine the tale’s provenance?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI was published on April 27, 1870 in the “Daily Evening Traveller” of Boston, Massachusetts. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
SIGNING ONE’S NAME.—Mr. Beecher sends the following note to the N. Y. Ledger:
“MY DEAR MR. BONNER, —I have just received a curious letter from Michigan, and I give it to you verbatim:
“OWASSO CITY, Mich., 1870.
I have heard of men who wrote letters and forgot to sign their name, but never before met a case in which a man signed his name and forgot to write the letter. H.W.B.
Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located the citation above.
The text indicated that the tale was reprinted from “The New York Ledger”; hence, an earlier instance exists, but QI has not located it. The database GenealogyBank includes digital scans of “The New York Ledger” from 1856 to 1868. But the target date of 1870 lies outside of this range. Some future researcher may find an earlier instance.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The anecdote from the “The New York Ledger” was reprinted widely in 1870. For example, closely matching passages appeared in “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of Brooklyn, New York; 2 the “Cleveland Leader” of Cleveland, Ohio; 3 and the “White Cloud Kansas Chief” of White Cloud, Kansas. 4
In 1871 a textbook titled “A Manual of Composition and Rhetoric” by John Seely Hart included the following rephrased account: 5
Henry Ward Beecher once, on the 1st of April, received a letter containing simply the words “April Fool.” He enclosed it to Bonner, with a note, saying, “I have often heard of people’s writing letters and forgetting to sign their name, but I never before heard of a man’s signing his name and forgetting to write the letter.”
Henry Ward Beecher died in 1887, and the tale was retold in the biography “Life and Work of Henry Ward Beecher” by Thomas W. Knox which was released in the same year: 6
One of the almost countless instances of Mr. Beecher’s readiness at repartee occurred a few years ago on the first of April. Some would-be wag sent him a letter containing on a sheet of paper only the words, “April Fool.” Mr. Beecher opened it, and then a delighted smile beamed over his face as he exclaimed: “Well! I’ve often heard of a man writing a letter and forgetting to sign it; but this is the first case of a man signing his name and forgetting to write the letter!”
In 1896 a variant of the anecdote was printed in “The Wichita Daily Eagle” of Wichita, Kansas. The only words on the letter were “You Old Villain”. The joke was oddly ineffective because this phrase was an implausible signature: 7
Judge Campbell yesterday received a letter at the postoffice and on opening it found only the words: “You Old Villain.” He put the letter in his pocket saying: “I have frequently received letters before when the writer forgot to sign his name, but this is the first instance where the writer signed his name and forgot to write the letter.”
In 1899 Justin McCarthy who was a Member of the UK Parliament from Ireland published “Reminiscences” in two volumes. McCarthy presented a different version of the Beecher anecdote in which the letter contained a single word instead of two words: 8
He had a way when he entered his church on the Sunday of taking up any letters which might be addressed to him there; and he sometimes opened one of these and read it out to the congregation, and made it a text on which to hang a discourse. One day he opened such a letter and he found that it contained the single word ‘Fool.’ He mentioned the fact to his congregation, and then quietly added, ‘Now I have known many an instance of a man writing a letter and forgetting to sign his name; but this is the only instance I have ever known of a man signing his name and forgetting to write the letter.’
In 1902 a poem titled “An April Fool” with five stanzas appeared in several periodicals. The poem recounted a version of the anecdote in which “Uncle Robert” was the recipient of the letter. The final three stanzas were the following: 9
It took but little time to read—
A moment but to con it;
The two words “April Fool” were all
That could be found upon it.
Then Uncle Robert laughed and said:
“I’ve heard of funny blunders
In superscriptions and address,
And many puzzling wonders,
“And seen epistles left unsigned.
This goes them all one better;
For here’s a man who signed his name
And forgot to write the letter!”
In conclusion, Henry Ward Beecher can be credited with the humorous response reported in the April 1870 anecdote. The variant tales featuring Judge Campbell or Uncle Robert were probably derived from the 1870 account. Also, the variant tale with the letter containing “Fool” instead of “April Fool” was probably derived from the 1870 tale.
Image Notes: Illustration of Henry Ward Beecher from the 1807 book “American Eloquence: Studies In American Political History”, Volume 4 of 4, accessed via Project Gutenberg; Image of The Fool from AnnaER at Pixabay. Images have been retouched, cropped, and resized.
(Great thanks to Fred R. Shapiro whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to Katie who suggested that I should post an entry related to April 1. Many thanks to Barry Popik for locating early instances of the anecdote.)
- 1870 April 27, Daily Evening Traveller (Boston Traveler), Section: Supplement, Article: Signing One’s Name, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1870 May 10, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Miscellaneous Items, Quote Page 1, Column 9, Brooklyn, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1870 April 28, Cleveland Leader, Clippings From Exchanges, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1870 May 26, White Cloud Kansas Chief, (Filler Item), Quote Page 1, Column 5, White Cloud, Kansas. (Chronicling America) ↩
- 1871, A Manual of Composition and Rhetoric by John Seely Hart, Quote Page 204, Eldredge & Brother, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1887, Life and Work of Henry Ward Beecher: An Authentic, Impartial, and Complete History of His Public Career and Private Life from the Cradle to the Grave by Thomas W. Knox (Thomas Wallace Knox), Quote Page 448, Park Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1896 February 9, The Wichita Daily Eagle, City in Brief, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Wichita, Kansas. (Chronicling America) ↩
- 1899, Reminiscences by Justin McCarthy M.P., Volume 1 of 2, Chapter 13, Quote Page 232, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1902 March 29, The Evening Star, Poem: An April Fool by Abby F. C. Bates, (Acknowledgement to magazine St. Nicholas), Quote Page 29, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (Chronicling America) ↩