If I Owned Hell and Texas, I Would Rent Texas and Live at the Other Place

Philip Sheridan? H. L. Mencken? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Texas is a beloved state to many, but it also has detractors. One comical remark compares the state unfavorably to Hades:

If I owned Hell and Texas, I’d rent out Texas and live in Hell.

Would you please explore the provenance of this joke?

Quote Investigator: Philip Sheridan was a General in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. In February 1866 a newspaper in Mobile, Alabama reported on a remark he made about Texas. The word “hell” was sanitized via the omission of two letters to yield “h—l” which fit contemporary sensibilities. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

So Gen. Sheridan, who was obliged to stop in Texas awhile on duty, said if “he owned Texas and h—l both, he would rent Texas and live in h—l!”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The quotation above was not direct; it used the pronoun “he”. In March 1866 “The Pittsburgh Gazette” printed a version of the tale with a direct phrasing: 2

General Sheridan recently finished a tour of Texas. He was asked how he liked the State, and said in reply, “If I owned h—l and Texas, I would rent Texas and live at the other place.”

Later in March 1866 a newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee followed the quotation with a humorous riposte: 3

Gen. Sheridan after his recent Texan tour, stated his opinions succinctly and forcibly, as follows: “If I owned h—l and Texas, I would rent Texas, and live at the other place.”

Whether Gen. Sheridan made this remark or not, a man certainly has a right to live in the country that suits him best.

Some newspapers did print all the letters of “Hell”. For example, in April 1866 “The Daily Free Press” of Atchison, Kansas printed the following: 4

But these States are not yet reduced to civil behavior. As an illustration, Gen. Sheridan sends word up from New Orleans, saying, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell.” This is the opinion of a department commander.

In May 1866 a newspaper in Charles City, Iowa printed the quip and then praised Sheridan’s pugnacity: 5

Gen. Sheridan, after his recent Texas tour, stated his opinions succinctly and forcibly, as follows: “If I owned hell and Texas I would rent Texas and live at the other place.” Just like him. Always running into the hottest fire.

In July 1866 a newspaper in Wheeling, West Virginia printed a version of the quotation with “Tophet” instead of “Hell”. The paper included a reaction from a Texas paper. The word “damn” was printed as “d—n”: 6

The correspondent says that General Sheridan appeared to highly enjoy the repartee of a Texas paper, which quoted his often copied jest that “if he owned Texas and Tophet, he would rent the former and live in the latter place,” and curtly added, “d—n a man that wouldn’t stand up for his own country.”

In 1873 a newspaper in Leavenworth, Kansas printed a variant with “inferno” instead of “hell” and “sell” instead of “rent”: 7

General Sheridan is touring around Texas. He once said if he owned the Inferno and Texas he would sell Texas.

In 1880 Sheridan visited Galveston, Texas together with former President Ulysses S. Grant, and they both delivered speeches. “The Galveston Daily News” reported on the event. Sheridan described the exasperating circumstances that led to his famous remark: 8

I remember that I hired relays and coaches from San Antonio to Galveston, so that I had only to hitch on the wagon and go speedily. I traveled day and night. It was in August and very warm, the dust being about as deep as it is in Mexico, where it has not rained for several months.

When Sheridan finally arrived in Galveston he was covered in dust:

My eyes and ears and throat were filled with it; and I think I had about as much of the soil of Texas on me as would have raised a cotton crop. I went to a little hotel (a voice: the Washington); and in that condition, as I went up to register, one of these newspaper mem rushed up to me and said he: “How do you like Texas?” I was mad, and I said if I owned Texas and all hell, I would rent out Texas and live in hell. [Applause.] Now I want to assure you that by that expression I only meant to convey how much I was disgusted with that newspaper man. It did not represent my opinion of Texas . . .

A couple days after Sheridan’s speech a humorist in “The Galveston Daily News” presented an exaggerated account of the genesis of the remark: 9

You see, Sheridan had the prickly heat and several boils at the time, and had been riding in the sun for several thousand miles, without any regular relays of refreshments, and just as he was about to register at the hotel in Galveston, a bandy-legged reporter with a wild look in his eye, rushed at him and said: “General; what do you think of the beautiful climate and wonderful natural resources of our great state, and have you a cigar about you?” Sheridan was not mad at Texas, but at the reporter, and then he blurted out, with the rude impetuosity of a soldier, that historic remark about Texas and h—l.

In July 1883 several newspapers printed a profile of Sheridan from the “Chicago News”. The piece included a description of the circumstances behind the remark: 10

He never forgot Texas. “I had been bumped over its sterile plains,” he said, in explaining it, “for a week in an ambulance. I was tired and dusty, and worn out. When I got to my destination I found some people there who wanted me to talk, and be received, and all that sort of thing, before I had a chance to get the sand out of my face.

One fellow was persistant. He asked me with pure American curiosity, what I thought of Texas. In a moment of worry and annoyance I said if I owned hell and Texas I would live in the former and rent out the latter. The fellow who asked me the question was a reporter. The next day it was in print and I never could stop it.”

In 1888 the “Laredo Daily Times” of Texas published a note from John Highland, a citizen of Galveston who knew Sheridan well: 11

At the time Generals Grant and Sheridan came here I was frequently with General Sheridan, and while we were together on one occasion the general remarked:

“Did you ever hear of anything in your life there was more talk made about than the simple remark I happened to make about hell and Texas? What was the name of the hotel we went to—I forget?” I told him it was the Washington.

“Yes, yes,” replied the general, “the Washington hotel. Do you remember the fellow that walked up to me and asked me how I liked Texas? I took him to be one of the guests of the hotel. I found out afterward he was a newspaper reporter. I never meant the remotest harm in saying what I did about Texas. I was covered with mud and dirt which you know, and almost worn out. Just on the impulse of the moment I answered him so.

An entertaining variant barb aimed at England appeared in “The Cornhill Magazine” of London in 1898: 12

That most choleric of tragedians, Edwin Forrest, who, on account of his unpardonable conduct towards Macready, could never make friends with an English audience, once declared that ‘if he owned England and hell, he’d rent England and live in hell.’

In 1938 Sam Acheson published “35,000 Days in Texas: A History of the Dallas News and Its Forbears”. Acheson included a germane excerpt from a speech delivered by Sheridan in Galveston, Texas in 1880. The text was largely similar to that presented in the March 25, 1880 citation listed above: 13

In 1942 H. L. Mencken’s “A New Dictionary of Quotations” included an entry for the remark. Oddly, Mencken specified a date of 1855: 14

If I owned Hell and Texas I’d rent out Texas and live in Hell.
P. H. SHERIDAN: Speech at Fort Clark, Texas, 1855

In 1948 “The Macmillan Book Of Proverbs” edited by Burton Stevenson also specified a date of 1855 and printed additional details: 15

If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.
General Philip Henry Sheridan, at the officers’ mess of the Fourth Infantry, at Fort Clark, Texas, in 1855. Sheridan was at that time a second lieutenant.

Yet, the 1855 date appears to be incorrect because Sheridan himself specified an 1866 date during his 1880 speech.

In conclusion, QI believes that Philip Sheridan did craft this zinger. He received credit in many newspapers in 1866. Also, Sheridan’s 1880 speech provides strong support for the ascription. The precise phrasing has evolved over time. The version in the 1880 speech is based on Sheridan’s memory, but it might be the best.

QI has not yet found any solid evidence that Sheridan used the expression in 1855. Mencken and Stevenson expended considerable efforts to achieve accuracy in their quotation books. Yet, QI prefers the 1866 date based on current knowledge.

Image Notes: Flames from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Bruce Bartlett whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Bartlett located a 1941 article in “The Southwestern Historical Quarterly” that pointed to the illuminating 1888 piece in the “Laredo Daily Times”. Many thanks to John Baker who found the crucial citation for Sheridan’s speech dated March 25, 1880. Also, thanks to Stephen Goranson who pointed to the variant about England attributed to Edwin Forrest. In addition, thanks to Barry Popik for his pioneering research on this topic. He located citations beginning on April 14, 1866, and he located an instance of the Sheridan testimony dated December 19, 1883. Further, thanks to discussant Dan Goncharoff for raising an interesting question.)

Update History: On July 3, 2021 citations dated March 25, 1880; March 26, 1880; August 14, 1888; and June 1898 were added to the article and it was partially rewritten.

Notes:

  1. 1866 February 22, The Mobile Daily Times, Communicated from TRAVELER to the Editor of Mobile Times, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Mobile, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1866 March 19, The Pittsburgh Gazette, General News, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1866 March 30, Public Ledger, (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 3, Memphis, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1866 April 25, The Daily Free Press, A Plan of Reconstruction, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Atchison, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1866 May 3, Hildreth’s Charles City Intelligencer, (Filler item), Quote Page 1, Column 5, Charles City, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1866 July 18, The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, General Sheridan’s Opinions, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Wheeling, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1873 May 7, Leavenworth Daily Commercial, Personal Points, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Leavenworth, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1880 March 25, The Galveston Daily News, Gen. Grant and Party: Entertainment at the Tremont Hotel Last Night, Quote Page 4, Column 2 and 3, Galveston, Texas. (Gale Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers)
  9. 1880 March 26, The Galveston Daily News, Galveston Siftings: That Little Story About Phil Sheridan’s Preferences, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Galveston, Texas. (Gale Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers)
  10. 1883 July 8, The Courier-Journal, Celebrities at Home: Gen. Sheridan Out of the Saddle, (Acknowledgment to the Chicago News), Quote Page 15, Column 2, Louisville, Kentucky. (ProQuest)
  11. 1888 August 14, Laredo Daily Times, Hell or Texas: Some Explanation of the Famous Remark Made by the Late General Sheridan, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Laredo, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  12. 1898 June, The Cornhill Magazine, Volume 4, Number 24, Humours of the Theatre by Robert M. Sillard, Start Page 818, Quote Page 828, Smith, Elder, & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  13. 1938, 35,000 Days in Texas: A History of the Dallas News and Its Forbears by Sam Acheson, Quote Page 93, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books Restricted Access; text visible in snippets)
  14. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Texas, Quote Page 1186, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  15. 1948, The Macmillan Book Of Proverbs, Maxims, And Famous Phrases, Selected and Arranged by Burton Stevenson, Topic: Hell, Quote Page 1127, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with scans)