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.