Mark Twain? James Wayle? Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar? Walter Winchell? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: In the past few days several phony quotations were widely disseminated on the internet; in other words, they went viral. My question is about a saying that might be genuine. A CNN article contains the following expression attributed to Mark Twain:
I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.
Do you think this is correct?
Quote Investigator: The author of the CNN article carefully refrained from definitively crediting the words to Twain [CNMT]. Instead, he said that the phrase had “long been attributed to Twain”.
This saying has not been found in Twain’s writings, and it is not included in the TwainQuotes.com repository. Website editor Barbara Schmidt states that currently “there is no evidence that links Mark Twain to the funeral quote” [TQMT].
Indeed, the basic joke was credited to Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar in 1884 and this ascription was mentioned in news reports for decades afterwards. During his long career, Hoar was a lawyer, a Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge, and an Attorney General of the United States.
The funeral referred to in the jest was for the prominent abolitionist and orator Wendell Phillips who died in Boston on February 2, 1884 according to Encyclopedia Americana and Encyclopedia Britannica [EAWP] [EBWP]. Later that month on the 29th a newspaper report was published presenting a joke credited to Hoar of the type that was later attributed to Twain [CCEH]:
Boston Post.—The Hon. E. R. Hoar did not love Phillips over much in his later years. It is now reported of him that while the remains of the great agitator were awaiting the final ceremonies a distinguished Cambridge gentleman asked him if he was going to attend Wendell Phillips’s funeral. “No,” was the reply, “but I approve it!”
In 1895, after the death of Hoar, the New York Times printed “Anecdotes of the Late Judge Hoar”. A version of the tale was included, and the newspaper indicated that Hoar’s memorable jibe at Phillips was his “best-known remark” [NYEH]:
Out of this feeling between the Judge and the agitator came what is, perhaps, Judge Hoar’s best-known remark, and the one that has oftenest been seen in print. After Phillips’s death, some one met Judge Hoar and asked him if he intended to attend the funeral. “No,” answered the Judge, “I don’t; but I approve of it.”
The earliest instance located by QI with an attribution to Mark Twain appeared in a humor magazine called “The Judge” in 1938. A reader identified as “James Wayle, of Milwaukee” wrote a letter to the editors of the periodical recounting a story about Twain [TJMT]:
… he writes to remind us that Mark Twain once refused to attend a noted politician’s funeral. “But then,” adds Mr. Wayle, “he wrote them a very nice letter explaining that he approved of it.”
In 1943 this story appeared in a volume titled “The Speaker’s Notebook” with an acknowledgment to “The Judge” magazine [SHMT]:
Mark Twain once refused to attend a noted politician’s funeral. But he wrote a very nice letter explaining that he approved of it.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.