[The most amusing writings of the humorist from whom our present selection is taken are to be found in the political diatribes emanating from the “Confedrit Cross Roads“ during the civil war period. His “Swingin’ Round the Cirkle” and similar sketches are full of humorous satire, but have the defect of being one-sided politically and of referring to passing circumstances. From a work less amusing, yet at the same time less localized in interest, “The Morals of Abou Ben Adhem,” we select a chapter in which the crude form of fun native to weak intellects and unfeeling dispositions known as practical joking is sarcastically handled. The author was born at Vestal, New York, in 1833, and became a journalist in Ohio.]
THERE came to Abou Ben Adhem one day a young man who insisted on being put in the way to the achievement of distinction. Abou looked the young man over with great care, and proceeded to give him a description at once.
“There are various kinds of fame, my son,” said the sage, “but to attain any one of them requires an adaptability to that particular one, and much labor. It takes a great many years to attain eminence at the bar, — that is, a lawyer; political distinction is attained only by years of labor; and the same may be said of the pulpit and the tripod. From the size and peculiar shape of your head, I should say that your shortest cut to fame is via the practical joke. It is not the best reputation to have and to hold, but it will answer you, because it strikes me you are fitted for it. The practical joker may, in a year’s time, become sufficiently famous to have the town all speaking of “Jones’s last good thing,” if Jones gives his whole mind to it and has nothing else to take his attention.
“A few plain directions are all that are necessary.57
“In the first place, a practical joker should have a good income; indeed, he ought to be rich. If he is rich enough to be always able to order and pay for wine, dinners, and carriages, he can always be sure of having in his train a regiment of ‘good fellows,’ who will repeat his good things, and who will frown down the sober people who, if left to themselves, would howl down the fountain of all their joys as an unmitigated nuisance and a pest only a trifle less terrible than a mad dog.
“Secondly, the practical joker must give his entire attention to the pursuit, for one effort, though it be successful, will not hold permanent distinction. It must be repeated daily, till the public shall hear as regularly of ‘Jones’s (we shall say) last’ as they do of bank-defalcations.
“Thirdly, the practical joker must have no weak scruples. The feelings of others must not affect him, nor must any earthly consideration turn him from his purpose.
“He need not have wit or originality; all that is necessary is stolidity, and money enough to keep his corps of followers to applaud and repeat.
“Having designated the qualities necessary for success in this pursuit, I shall suggest a few practical jokes which have done good service in their day, and will do to use again.
“We will suppose that A., the practical joker, has a friend, B., who lives during the summer at Staten Island. B. has a brother in Chicago. What more exquisite piece of fun could there be than to have A. forge a telegram to B., in the name of the clerk of, say the Fifth Avenue Hotel, to the effect that his brother fell with a stroke of paralysis in the corridor of the hotel, just as he was registering his name, and was at the point of death? B., seeing the name all right, and not suspecting that that funny dog 58 A. had anything to do with it, would be greatly distressed. He would tear away from table, throw himself on the ferry-boat, frantically call a carriage, ride like a madman to the Fifth Avenue, and rush to the office and excitedly demand the room where his brother was dying. At this point A. and his crowd should appear, and, laughing till their sides aches at the blank wonderment of the clerk and the distressed expression of B., should shout, ‘Sold!’ Nothing could be more exquisitely humorous than this. Every practical joker should thank me for the suggestion. I do not say that it is above the average of practical jokes, but it is a trifle different from the usual run. Then it is capable of infinite variety. A man has many relatives, and it could be run on him for all of them. Thus, it might be telegraphed that his wife was dying, his father, his mother, his son at West Point, his daughter in Vassar, and so forth.
“If a man has a maiden aunt, from whom he has expectations, what would be better than to telegraph him of her death, and let things go to the length of ordering mourning? How glorious it would be to have the pleasure of poking him in the ribs for a month, with the query, ‘How is your aunt? Ha! ha! ha!”
“Another good thing is to issue tickets of invitation to an amateur performance at some hall for the benefit of a charity, and to prescribe full dress for the occasion. It is better always to select for such a ‘rig’ a rainy season, that the victims of the ‘sell’ may be put to as much trouble and expense as possible. If three thousand invitations are issued, and the printing is well done, it is safe to assume that two thousand five hundred will attend. What rare sport to see two thousand five hundred ladies and gentlemen get out of carriages only to find a dark hall! This was done in New York once, but the joke was not carried 59 half far enough. The joker was a poor one, and did not extract half the juice from it that was possible. To have made it complete he should have employed boys to stand in the dark and bespatter the ladies’ dresses with mud as they alighted from their carriages and got back into them. To have armed the boys with squirt-guns, that they might shower the ladies with water from the gutters, would have been a positive triumph of genius. But to have simply thrown the mud would have been a proper and sufficiently humorous finish.
“The trick of advertising a ‘dog wanted’ at the house of a friend is very good. But few things can be funnier than the perplexity of the lady of the house indicted in the advertisement, as the regiments of ragamuffins came with dogs in their arms. So, likewise, is the advertising that a man will fly from the top of Trinity Church, particularly if you designate the man funnily, as, for instance, ‘Herr Sellemall,’ or ‘Monsieur Foolemall,’ or any appellation of the kind. These names are easy of construction, as will be seen, and when the first works through the heads of the expectant crowd that the German ‘Herr Sellemall’ is in English ‘sell-’em-all,’ the way they shout, ‘Sold, by Jove!’ is a reward that practical jokers always appreciate.
“Another exceedingly pleasant practical joke is to stretch a cord across a gateway to a church, Sunday night, at an elevation of say five feet eight inches. As the congregation pass under the cord, it neatly takes off and ruins the hats of all under that height, and rasps the faces of all over that altitude. The fright of an ancient maiden lady of attenuated proportions, as the cord strikes her face and breaks the skin on her nose and cheeks, is very amusing. The effect of this is immensely heightened by stretching another stout cord across the gateway at an 60 elevation from the ground of say a foot, just high enough to trip them as they pass. Nothing can be more exquisitely funny than to see their consternation at the first cord, unless it is to see them sprawling in the mud over the second.
“There are other jokes fitted to all, but there is a class on which only medical students should venture. For instance, it is a ‘big thing’ to invite a party of friends to drink, and dexterously to get into their glasses a few drops of croton oil, or to substitute tartar emetic for cream of tartar in the kitchen of a friend, that it may get into the cake served for refreshments at a party. One rare wag, whom I knew once, in the most dexterous manner put some coal-oil in the lemonade, at a little gathering given by a clergyman’s wife, and he and the few choice spirits who were ‘in it’ got no end of fun out of the distress of the hostess and the disgust of the guests. The circumstance created trouble in the parish, which resulted in the dismissal of the minister; but that was nothing: the faces of the people who got a taste of that coal-oil were ludicrous beyond description.
“A pin stuck in the bottom of a chair, in which a precise old lady is to sit down, is a good thing, as is also the tying of two cats and slinging them across your neighbor’s fence, under his window.
“In fact, there is no limit to the amusement that can be got out of this kind of thing. Sewing up the sleeves of a friend’s coat, when he is in a hurry to get to a train, is a most exquisite performance; and to blacken the face of a sleeping man is a piece of humor that always affords the liveliest satisfaction.
“And the beauty of this kind of humor, the great advantage in it, is it is as applicable to animals as to men. A dog may be made the source of much amusement. It 61 is the nature of dogs when they approach each other to put their noses together, which is equivalent, we presume, to the hand-shaking of humans. Now, the practical joker who inserts a pin in the muzzle of his dog does a very bright thing. The dog will run the pin into the noses of all the dogs who salute him, and the howls of the punctured canines, and the look of blank astonishment on the face of the innocent cause of the trouble, afford amusement beyond expression. Tying a tin kettle to a dog’s tail is another good thing. The frightened dog, at full speed, will charge into a crowd of persons and scatter them in a highly amusing manner. I have known ladies to faint, and horses to be frightened so that they ran away, and an immense number of exceedingly ludicrous incidents to happen in consequence.
“Another amusing trick may be played with a dog. Buy a large Newfoundland, — a very shaggy one, whose coat of hair will hold a barrel of water; then invite a party of friends to the water-side. The ladies should be dressed in white, and the gentlemen, also, in light pantaloons. Throw a stick into the water, and say, ‘Get it, Nero!’ Then get into the centre of the group. The sagacious dog will swim out and get the stick, and will rush back to you, and rub against all who stand in his way; and when he gets to you he will shake himself, and completely drench the whole party, and soil their clothes. If the water is muddy the effect of the joke will be heightened very much.
“In short, there are a thousand ways of doing this sort of thing, and the advantage is that anybody can do it. And it is safe, too; for you do not practise it on anybody but your friends. If you should ‘get off’ a practical joke on a stranger he might knock you down; but your friend, no matter how much annoyed he might be, would never 62 do it. He will swear and howl about it; but you laugh at him, and get mirth even out of his anger.
“Some people are unreasonable enough to speak of practical jokers as ‘nuisances’, as ‘pests,’ and so forth, and possibly they are right. There are those so utterly devoid of the sense of fun that they object to be put to serious inconvenience, or to bodily hurt, or to be made to appear ridiculous, for the sake of making amusement for others. But such people should not be regarded. The practical joker has his point to make, — he wants to rise a little above the level, and this is the only way in which he can do it. Therefore it should not be barred to him, and those who growl should be frowned down. But one who has nothing else to do can well afford to bear this stigma for the amusement and reputation he gets.
“I have shown you, my ambitious young friend, how you may attain distinction. Go and attain it! Be bold and merciless. The few who have sought to climb to eminence and have failed have fallen because they were not bold and had scruples. Go, my son, go!”
The young man left the presence, and Abou reclined on his divan and laughed heartily.
“By the bones of the Prophet!” he chuckled to himself, “this morn have I done humanity some service. That young man will attempt this kind of thing in his native State of New Jersey, whose people will refuse to see anything good in it. His eyes will be blackened on his first attempt, his second will procure his being dragged through a horse-pond, and his third will be the means of his dying prematurely. Then will the world be the better for my advice. Bismallah, it is good!”
And the Sage laughed himself to sleep.