Oscar Wilde? Sign in Leadville? Minister in Pooleville, Arkansas?
Dear Quote Investigator: When Oscar Wilde was touring the United States he apparently saw a sign in a saloon requesting goodwill for the keyboardist. Here are three versions:
- Please do not shoot the piano player; he is doing his best.
- Please don’t shoot at the pianist; he’s doing his best.
- It is requested that you will not shoot at the organist. He does his best.
Would you please explore the provenance of this appeal?
Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this comical and plaintive request located by QI appeared in a newspaper in Northamptonshire, England in August 1879. The short item referred to a religious service in faraway Arkansas. The instrument was an organ instead of a piano, and the entreaty was spoken instead of written. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
The minister, during a service at Pooleville, Arkansas, some years ago, said: “I have again to apologise for the absence of the newly-engaged tenor for the choir. He is expected on the next train, however, and will be at his post next Sunday without fail. And while I think of it, I would suggest that the present practice of shooting at the organist during the service be discontinued. It is a ridiculous habit, and annoys the congregation by filling the church with smoke. The poor man has his faults, but he does the best he can. Besides, it chips the new organ.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The same tale appeared on the same day in a newspaper in Hertfordshire, England. The words ascribed to the minster were identical, but the prefatory passage indicated that the writer had directly witnessed the event: 2
This reminds us of some remarks made by the minister during a service the writer attended in Arkansas, some years ago. He said: “I have again to apologize for the absence of the newly engaged tenor for the choir . . .
In November 1879 a newspaper in South Yorkshire, England printed a version of the tale in which the entreaty appeared on a sign: 3
A recent traveller in California describes the social condition of the country as slightly anarchical. Not only does everyone do what is right in his own eyes, but expresses himself very strongly—and generally in bullets—against whatever displeases him that is done by others. In a church—for there are churches—which our traveller chanced to visit, he noticed this touching appeal printed in large type upon the organ loft. “It is requested that you will not shoot at the organist. He does his best.”
In July 1882 “The Washington Post” printed a short item that placed the sign in Leadville which is a town in Colorado: 4
A Springfield Republican man has discovered a Leadville church, in which is conspicuously displayed the legend: “Please do not shoot at the organist; he does his best.”
The item above appeared in multiple newspapers. Sometimes the text of the sign was altered slightly with the omission of word “at”: 5
. . . displayed the legend: “Please do not shoot the organist, he does his best.”
In October 1882 “The New York Mirror” shared a version of the tale with an endangered pianist instead of an organist. Billy Florence who was the new head of a prominent social organization called “The Lambs Club” addressed a dinner meeting: 6
Apologizing meekly for his diffidence in occupying a station filled before him by many clever men, Billy craved the indulgence, of his flock, whose attention he entreated to the device of a Colorado variety manager, who had a large sign painted over his piano bearing the legend: “Please don’t shoot at the pianist. He is doing the best he knows how.” Billy wanted a similar leniency extended to himself; but the Lambs agreed that such a demand was uncalled for and unnecessary.
In March 1883 “The Gloucester Citizen” of Gloucestershire, England reported on a speech by Oscar Wilde that mentioned a sign in Leadville: 7
At a recent meeting of the Paris Pen and Pencil Club, Oscar Wilde said that when he was at Leadville, at a miners’ hall, he noticed a placard over the piano to the following effect: “Please don’t shoot at the pianist, he is doing his best.”
Also in March 1883 “The Pall Mall Gazette” of London mentioned Wilde’s remarks: 8
THE BEST CANON OF AMERICAN ART CRITICISM.
When Mr. Oscar Wilde was at a miners’ ball in Leadville he saw a notice over the piano to the following effect: “Please don’t shoot at the pianist, he is doing his best.” Mr. Oscar Wilde adds that, considering the amount of bad painting that shocks our eyes, and the quantity of bad music that tortures our ears, that was one of the best canons of art criticism he had ever met with.
A more extensive report on Wilde’s commentary delivered in Paris appeared in the “Isle of Wight Observer”: 9
Generally speaking, Mr Wilde told us, while in America he had to converse on art with people who derived their notions of painting from chromo-lithographs, and their notions of sculpture from the figures in front of the tobacconists’ shops. In Colorado, however, and the Rocky Mountains, Mr Wilde was agreeably surprised by the aesthetic predispositions of the natives, and at Leadville, in particular, he found some of his own theories on art police fully accepted.
“When I arrived at Leadville,” Mr Wilde said, “in the evening I went to the Casino. There I found the miners and the female friends of the miners, and in one corner a pianist—the typical pianist—sitting at a piano over which was this notice: ‘Please do not shoot at the pianist; he is doing his best.’ I was struck with this recognition of the fact that bad art merits the penalty of death, and I felt that in this remote city, where the aesthetic applications of the revolver were already admitted in the case of music, my apostolic task would be much simplified, as indeed it was.”
In 1885 a Tennessee newspaper printed a variant story with a sign referring to a female piano player: 10
According to Senator “Joe” Blackburn, the California theatre manager who put up a sign, saying: “Please do not shoot the pianist, she is doing the best she can,” expressed the feelings of the Democrats towards Cleveland exactly.
In conclusion, in August 1879 a newspaper in England reported that a minister in Pooleville, Arkansas had made a humble request to ensure the safety of a church organist. Citations in November 1879 stated that the appeal was printed in large type on a sign. In July 1882 a newspaper said that a sign of this type was located in Leadville, Colorado. Early instances referred to organists, but by October 1882 some signs referred to pianists. Oscar Wilde delivered a speech in Paris that was reported in English newspapers in March 1883. Wilde said he saw the sign in a Leadville casino.
Image Notes: Keyboard from Clker-Free-Vector-Images at Pixabay. Image has been cropped, resized, and retouched.
(Thanks to Barry Popik for his pioneering research on this topic. He located an early citation dated December 20, 1879. Thanks also to Fred Shapiro who presented a helpful entry in “The Yale Book of Quotations”.)
- 1879 August 2, The Northampton Mercury, Untitled short item, Quote Page 7, Column 6, Northamptonshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1879 August 2, The Hemel Hempstead Gazette and West Herts Advertiser, Cuttings from American Papers, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Hertfordshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- November 6, 1879, Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, Chit-Chat [By Our Gossip], Quote Page 5, Column 2, South Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1882 July 31, The Washington Post, Current Comment, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1882 August 03, The Macon Telegraph and Messenger, Brevities, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Macon, Georgia. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1882 October 28, The New York Mirror: A Reflex of the Dramatic Events of the Week, The Usher, Quote Page 7, Column 1, New York, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1883 March 3, The Gloucester Citizen, General Intelligence, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Gloucestershire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1883 March 9, The Pall Mall Gazette, The Best Canon of American Art Criticism, Quote Page 11, Column 1, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1883 March 10, Isle of Wight Observer, Gossip, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Isle of Wight, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1885 December 24, Herald and Tribune, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 3, Column 1, Jonesborough, Tennessee. (Chronicling America) ↩