Helen Castle? Charley Prentice? Walt Mason? Kenneth Richards? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Noah collected and placed pairs of living creatures onto the ark he constructed according to the famous biblical tale. But not all creatures are looked upon favorably by humankind. The following comical couplet chides Noah for missing a rare opportunity:
If Noah had been truly wise,
He would have swatted those two flies.
Several websites credit these words to a person named Helen Castle. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: In June 1982 “The Reader’s Digest” printed a dozen miscellaneous sayings under the title “Quotable Quotes”. The couplet about Noah was attached to a name and a periodical. Emphasis added by QI: 1
If Noah had been truly wise, he would have swatted those two flies.
—Helen Castle in National Enquirer
Perhaps Castle was a writer for the “National Enquirer”, or she was simply mentioned in the magazine. In any case, she did not create this quip which has a very long history.
In 1879 the “Delphos Weekly Herald” of Delphos, Ohio published a filler item without attribution that presented a version of the joke although the proposed method of annihilation was flypaper instead of swatting: 2
What a pity that old man Noah did’nt set fly paper for the two flies that sailed with him in the ark.
The odd placement of the apostrophe in the word “didn’t” above reflects the original text. The advice offered in the gag will strike some modern readers as humorous but questionable. Many species are called flies, and there would be significant unintended ecological consequences upon their termination.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1901 the “Cynthiana Argus” of Cynthiana, Indiana printed a different jest about the two flies that emphasized preserving the insects: 3
Probably Noah had to keep his wife locked up all the time of the flood for fear she would forget and shoo the two flies off the ark.
In August 1909 the gossip column of a newspaper in Lawrence, Kansas credited the quip to a local man: 4
Charley Prentice has discovered another side to the “Swat the Fly” crusade. Charley says it is too late to begin the work now. “If Noah had only swatted those two flies that came into the ark, what a relief it would be to mankind now,” says the police force sage.
Also, in August 1909 the theme was discussed by an unnamed columnist under the title “Musings of the Village Deacon” in a Hutchinson, Kansas newspaper: 5
I still think the most famous illustration of being asleep at the switch was the case of Old Noah, who was captain of the ark. There were but two flies in the ark and Noah had forty days and nights in which to swat them, but he overlooked it. Now we are paying the penalty for his carelessness.
In 1911 a filler item in a Bryan, Texas newspaper suggested predation by spiders: 6
The Alpine Avalanche says Noah missed his chance when he didn’t let the two spiders catch the two flies aboard the ark. This reminds us that “of all sad words,” etc.
In 1913 several newspapers in Indiana printed an instance of the quip: 7
PEPPER AND SALT
How much happier we would be today if Noah had swatted two flies.
Also, in 1913 the widely syndicated writer Walt Mason tackled the topic, and he employed the rhyme “wise” and “flies”: 8
Had Father Noah been quite wise he would have killed the pair of flies that roosted in the ark; he let that pressing duty slide while he and Shem and Japhet tried to navigate their bark. Two flies were all there were, all told! And Noah might have knocked them cold with one good husky swat; he had the chance—he let it slip while he went mooning round his ship—the knowledge makes me hot!
And ever since the sons of men have toiled and wrought and toiled again, to kill the measly flies; the more we kill the more we find, the more we knock the blamed things blind, the more their legions rise.
In 1944 the collection “What Is Truth” by Henry Powell Spring included a concise instance: 9
Great opportunities missed seldom come again. As someone has said: If Noah had only swatted those two flies!
In 1955 the joke was sent to “Boys’ Life” magazine by a reader, and it was printed in the “Think and Grin” section: 10
64 Dollar Question: Why didn’t Noah swat those two flies when he had the chance? — Kenneth Richards, Decherd, Tenn.
In 1982 an instance appeared in “The Reader’s Digest” as mentioned previously. In 1990 the quotation collector Robert Byrne included the quip in his fourth book in the series “637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said”: 11
If Noah had been truly wise
He would have swatted those two flies.
In conclusion, there was evidence in 1982 that Helen Castle wrote the couplet under examination. But the joke was already in circulation by 1879. The phrasing evolved over time, and the rhyme of “wise” and “flies” was printed by 1913.
Image Notes: Picture of Noah’s Ark circa 1846 by the American folk painter Edward Hicks accessed via Wikimedia Commons. The picture has been cropped and resized. Image of fly from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Margaret Adam whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1982 June, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 120, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 51, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1879 September 11, Delphos Weekly Herald, (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 1, Delphos, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1901 June 1, Cynthiana Argus, (Filler item), Quote Page 16, Column 2, Cynthiana, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1909 August 2, Lawrence Daily World, Picked Up On the Streets, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Lawrence, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1909 August 23, The Hutchinson News, Musings of the Village Deacon, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Hutchinson, Kansas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1911 May 26, The Bryan Daily Eagle, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Bryan, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1913 May 27, The Evening Republican, Pepper and Salt, Quote Page 7, Column 5, Columbus, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1913 July 30, The Boston Post, Stitches in Time: Uncle Walt Says (Column from Walt Mason), Quote Page 10, Column 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1944, “What Is Truth” by (Henry) Powell Spring, Quote Page 97, The Orange Press, Winter Park, Florida. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1955 October, Boys’ Life, Think and Grin, Quote Page 98, Column 1, Published by Boy Scouts of America, Inc. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1990, The Fourth—and by Far the Most Recent—637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said by Robert Byrne, Quote Number 562, Page not numbered, (Quotations are numbered, but pages are not numbered), Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩