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.
- 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) ↩