Ambrose Bierce

The Wasp/September 18, 1886

As it has become generally customary among people opposed to “the dollar limit” to call their opponents “Silurians,” it seems pertinent to ask them what they mean by it. So far as our knowledge goes, there is no such thing in the heavens, nor on the earth, nor in the waters under the earth as a “Silurian.” The various members of the catfish (silurits) family are known to science as “siruridans.” They are fond of living in the muds and oozes of sluggish rivers and stagnant pools. In the matter of physiognomy they bear (with fortitude) a strong resemblance to Deacon Fitch. The character of their movements nearly allies them to the Rev. Mr. Pickering—they display his kind of vivacity. Their skin is distinguished for its glabrous lubricity, begetting a doubt of whether you have hold of them where they are or where they are not; and in the matter of that they are not altogether unlike Gram’ther Bartlett. From these typical peculiarities we venture to infer that it is their name which is thought that the Dollarwumps are worthy to wear; but a catfish is a siluridan. The difference may seem trivial, but it should be remembered that in rearing that airy monument to unworth, a nickname, one builds for all time if he builds well, and it is important to start right.

The cat-o’-nine-tails instigates a nicer torment if artistically wielded, and there is no reason to doubt that Hercules performed contortions of superior complication because of the fact that the insalubrious Nessian shirt fitted him “like de paper on de vail.” The sailor who objected to being both preached at and rope’s-ended for the same offense was wiser than he knew. He considered only the injustice of the double punishment; but in fact when preaching is one of the two penalties for a single fault the arithmetic of the situation is that twice one are more than two. If the preaching precedes or accompanies the other moral exercise the latter is of augmented intensity. By oral admonition the chap at the amiable end of the whip stimulates his energies to a severer exertion—he cheers himself on. The important truth herein and for the first time expounded received, last week, an illustration of uncommon lucidity in the action of Judge Murphy, who for the crime of purse-snatching—a first offense—sentenced a young rascal to fifty years’ imprisonment. The significant fact is that in passing this monstrous sentence he preached at the prisoner for half an hour. In all probability when he got upon his legs to stand-and-deliver his sermon he had made up his mind (for he is a truly humane man) to fix the inferior portion of the penalty at about five years imprisonment; but the longer he dwelt on the fellow’s depravity the more he was inspired to punish it. If he had talked another ten minutes he would probably have evolved a life, possibly a death, sentence. The prisoner may congratulate himself, however; matters might have been a good deal worse. Half an hour’s imprisonment in the penitentiary, followed by fifty years of Judge Murphy’s preaching, would indeed have been a sore affliction.

We observe that with regard to this matter Judge Murphy appears in a daily newspaper as counsel in his own defense. His plea is hardly worth reading; it certainly was not worth writing. That the man “deserved” his sentence may be readily admitted. It is as easy to obey the law against stealing a jackknife as the law against murdering your mother; it follows that, in so far as the mere criminality of an infraction of the law is concerned, one offender is as bad as another, and none is morally entitled to lenity; to put all to death would be absolutely just. But it is expedient to have degrees of punishment. For illustration, if you make robbery a capital offense you offer the strongest temptation to the robber to remove witnesses by murdering his victims—you can no more than hang him if he do or do not. Judge Murphy says: “I now do, and always have, looked upon this class of crime as the very worst that can be committed.” Then we can only say that his understanding is no better than his English. Knocking down a woman and robbing her is most unbecoming conduct, certainly, but we could go on mentioning less worthy actions as long as Judge Murphy’s fingers and toes would hold out to count them on.

The campaign orator is operating his chin and fanning himself with his tongue. Out of the mouth of him rolls a majestic outpush of blue bosh and saliva, carefully compounded. His arms afflict the innocent air, he stamps with needless vigor, and his right forefinger commits itself trustfully to the palm of his left hand. Anon his forearm forsakes the gay world and retires beneath the tails of his coat, and a moment later his thumbs are hooked into the arm-holes of his waistcoat. These various rites are as convincing as a brass band—which, also, is to the fore, brassbanding. Throughout the performance the extrusion of salivate of bosh goes on, unceasing, attesting the wisdom, virtue and invincible power of the Dernublican party—the ignorance, depravity, treason and weakness of the Repocrats. He is a great man, the campaign orator; but that the dominance of any policy of government over any other should be in any way dependent on the contractions and dilatations of his larynx, the motions of his tongue and the activity of his limbs is one of the mysteries in the penetration whereof a man may grow as old as he likes. That great concerns of state should be affected by the quality of the noises issuing from this person’s throat, and by his postures, attitudes and gestures, is the most astonishing and alarming of all facts. One would rather lean on Providence.

Really the time would seem to be ripe for our esteemed contemporaries to “dropout” their columns of “society personals.” It is conceded that the news therein contained is of a singularly lurid and exciting character, but unfortunately it is never true. We have recently taken the trouble to investigate this matter by personal inquiry among those of whom something is affirmed in the “personals” of the “society” columns. In no case were the facts accurately stated. For instances of this blundering the following will serve: The Morning Call says that Mr. and Mrs. Jonesmith are summering in San Juan Doe. Met in Kearny street, they reluctantly confess that they are summering in San Francisco. They did go as far as San Ricardo Roe, but it was only to purchase a cow, and they returned the same evening. Through the Barnacle we are apprised that the charming Miss Mucket was present at the Yumyum-Tweetness “nuptials” in a burlap costume. Miss Mucket explains that she was invited, but preferred to go slumming in a costume of shot silk, disastered with impediments and cut curvy. The Hexameter assures you that Mrs. B. O’Flaherty is visiting at your house, whereas you happen to know that your wife discharged her two weeks ago. In short, if any human being has ever ascertained that a statement contained in the “society personals” of any newspaper in the world was true you may cook us in pitch. In order to assure the truth of the stuff that he publishes in that abominable department of his journal an editor would have to employ not fewer than one thousand reporters. Possibly he would say in defense that we mistake his aim.

If the gentlemen of the Grand Army who were charged with the duty of expending the seventy-odd thousand dollars contributed by our citizens for the recent encampment have made a public statement showing how they discharged their trust it must have been published while the Wasp was out of town. Not foreseeing that we might someday wish to demand an accounting, we neglected to subscribe to this fund, but in behalf of the estate of a deceased friend who did subscribe, we venture to suggest that the gentlemen show their books. There are people who say they don’t see where the money went; and although ourselves convinced that all is as straight as a string, our duty to our dead friend’s estate compels us to urge the nose of curiosity through the door-crack of the financial dormitory and explode our little “Ah there!” in the cobwebbed ear of a trusteeship that has forgotten something.


O Abner Doble—whose “catarrhal name”

Budd of that ilk might envy— ’tis a rough,

Rude thing to say, but it is plain enough

Your name is to be sneezed at: its acclaim

Will “fill the speaking trump of future fame”

With an impeded utterance—a puff

Suggesting that a pinch or two of snuff

Would clear the tube and somewhat disinflame.

Nay, Abner Doble, you’ll not get from me

My voice and influence: I’ll cheer, instead,

Some other man; for when my voice ascends a

Tall pinnacle of praise, and at high C

Sustains a chosen name, it shan’t be said

My influence is naught but influenza.


On Tuesday last the names of sixty-six aspirants for the unsalaried office of School Director were submitted to the Republican municipal convention, and still the Bulletin swears in its wrath that the party is tainted with incivism. We should like to know what, besides a candidate’s whisky, Mr. Fitch would regard as public spirit.

It is to be hoped that our esteemed contemporary the editor of the Attica (Ohio) Journal may be able to prove that the business of purveying dead bodies for a medical college is within the lines of legitimate journalism. We have ourselves very seldom engaged in it, and are not desirous of doing so; but Brother Blaine of the Journal appears to have carried it on with diligence for many years, and his professional interests are doubtless involved in it. Abruptly to terminate by law his connection with mortuary moonshining might do incalculable injury to a worthy and industrious man, and we cannot but regard his arrest as in some sense an outrage upon the liberties of the press. The authorities of Attica must be aware that many of the leading organs of public opinion are published at a distinct pecuniary loss to their public-spirited proprietors. To compel these gentlemen to give up the business of bodysnatching is practically to force their newspapers out of the field of journalism. We believe that this community would not hold that officer of the law guiltless who should wantonly deprive General Sheehan, Jesse D. Carr and Senator Hearst of the means of publishing the excellent journals which their fearlessness and enterprise enable them to keep alive. Compared with the unthinkable calamity which the extinction of these great beacon-fires of popular liberty would entail, what is the plundering of a few graves? We do not discern any inherent relation and necessary connection between the sanctum and the sepulcher, but if a connection originally accidental has been sanctified by immemorial custom it should not be lightly and thoughtlessly severed in obedience to a mere sentiment. To a dead body it is of small importance whether it is dissected or decomposed, but it is the universal testimony of failing newspapers that their demise covers the land with a pall of gloom.


Moses Isaac Swift (handing down a suit of party livery): Now, mine vrient, here ve are, all so nice and new — zhoost vot you vant for a goot eferyday peesness suit and for dress occasions ven you go to de opera in de efening.

Voter (holding his nose): Phew! What the devil makes it stink that way? Somebody died in that!

Moses Isaac Swift: Got in Himmel! Dot bootiful suit, vich I makes mit mine own hants and geeps in lafender—and de shentleman says it shtinks! Father Abraham! Vy did I efer lif to oxberience dis? Look here, mine vrient (confidentially)—dot’s me you shmell.

Ambition’s young dream being broken, Mr. George Hearst has returned to his newspaper and settled down to hard, honest writing, with such noble effect that in time he will doubtless elevate his great journal to the level of our best comic weeklies, such as the Christian Advocate, the Herald of Zion and the Oakland Tribune. To show that the great man is not cast down by misfortune, and that the soul truly inspired is inaccessible to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (as Mr. John P. Irish has so happily expressed it) Mr. Hearst’s last week’s work is here quoted entire. To those who are imperfectly acquainted with his literary work this will be a revelation and a delight. It will serve to show, too, that even the most eminent writer may fail to make himself understood; many people have long been accustomed to consider Mr. Hearst too brilliantly and erratically original to be trusted; in the article hereto appended he shows himself in a softer light, respectfully regardful of literary traditions and piously reverent of the jokes of our fathers—a safe man!

People who eat shad resemble the French republicans in this: They are mutually anxious to get rid of the bonyparts.

We do fervently trust that when the Millennium gets fairly going newspaper reporters in relating a “shooting scrape” will cease using the technical term “point blank” as if it meant “close to” — “he aimed a pistol at her breast and fired point blank,” etc. If they would really like to know what “point blank” means before using it any more, we don’t mind explaining that it is the second point of intersection of the line of sight and the trajectory. It may be and commonly is a long way from the muzzle of the piece. Another irritating error almost invariably entertained by writers is the deep and abiding conviction that when troops are about to fire they “present arms.” To “present arms” is to salute; preparatory to firing, troops are commanded (rather naturally) to “aim.” It is important that our newspaper writers be accurately instructed in military matters. The intrepidity of their opposition to public opinion’s tyrannous sway encourages the hope that in case this city is attacked by the barbarous hordes of Oakland the members of the press will flock to General Turnbull’s battle-banner and go out of town.

A good many close observers and trained naturalists have long entertained the secret conviction that Frank Pixley endured the misfortune of seeing John F. Swift die on his hands, but that by medical attendance and careful nursing his famous mule was pulled through.

The foremost “pledger” of this age is the man who wrote the “platform” presented for adoption to the Republican municipal convention. In nearly every clause of it the candidate for some particular office is “pledged” to a certain course; and these special “pledges” are all sandwiched between two general and comprehensive “pledges,” like the leaves of a book between the covers. These “pledges” were all made before it was known who would be nominated for any office. A question of capital importance in connection with the subject is this: If the load of obligation so imposed upon the candidates break their backs, and they die in the bloom of their ambition, can the Chairman of the convention be prosecuted for murder?

The important question whether Consul Greenebaum is expected to resign is now complicated by a doubt whether he knows it if he is. He sailed for Samoa some time ago, and is by this time in the middle of the Pacific, where Secretary Bayard’s expectations cannot reach him. If he doesn’t incautiously remain too long at Apia before sailing for home again, and if he will be content with a short vacation when he gets back here, he may reasonably hope to enjoy a pretty long “lease of power.” Incumbents of appointive offices are too likely to overlook the advantages of inaccessibility. When finally caught, and like Queen Elizabeth’s contumacious prelate, “unfrocked,” he may find that his salary did not follow him on the high seas; but he can console himself with the reflection that he was more useful there than anywhere else. In truth, the only place in which an American consul is really mischievous is at his post of duty. Even there he is not without a certain utility as an awful example.


They sat in their overcoats, muffled

In comforters up to the nose;

Their feet they uneasily shuffled —

The frost was at work on their toes.


They spoke at long intervals—slowly,

Sepulchrally, hollowly spoke—

And then fell a silence as holy

As wails for the dead ever broke.


The new-comer found no greeting,

The orator lost his gift —

Twas a ratification meeting

In honor of John P. Swift.


Persons who for the past quarter of a century have been hearing about “the Maine liquor law” will learn with interest that Prohibition was one of the “leading issues” in the recent election in that state. Oddly enough, the issue was not made on a proposal to repeal the “liquor law,” but on a proposal to enact one. Have we been fooled about Maine? Have we, all these years, been erroneously believing her assurance that “I’m all righ’, ole fel’ —never shoberer ’n all ni’ life; ain’ thasho?”

Through the enterprise of a reporter for a daily newspaper, the public is permitted to read Mr. C. P. Huntington’s opinion of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s competition with the transcontinental roads previously established. In brief, Mr. Huntington thinks “the Canadian Pacific is not a real factor in the overland business.” Unluckily the expression of this judgment was accompanied with “a far-away look at a collection of flowers on the center-table.” This leaves the matter about where it was before he opened his mouth. The words are plain enough, but the man who can interpret one of Mr. Huntington’s far-away looks at a collection of flowers is absent in Los Angeles, endeavoring to recover the lost combination of a bank vault by divine inspiration.

The inspired schoolboy of the Chronicle thinks that “any intelligent man could construct a money belt in which he could carry $10,000 in gold coin.” If the i. s. will figure out the weight of $10,000 in gold coin he will probably come to the conclusion that the real difficulty lies in constructing the man. His mistake reminds one of the late Thomas Hood, author of the famous poem of “Miss Killmansegg.” This lady—greatly addicted to dancing—had a leg of solid gold, a circumstance which the poet, with that strange fatality affecting every writer engaged in making a monstrous blunder, accentuates with infatuated iteration. Of course she could not have lifted it from the floor by six inches.

The great and good man who edits the Chicago Times is becoming more star-spangled every day of his life, and has at last reached that crisis in the disease when the patient’s fevered ear hears the scream of the eagle in every blundering beetle’s drowsy hum. This perfervid patriot avers that both Mexico and Canada are “a bar to our national progress” and political spread, and for cause of action against the latter says that “Canada takes the greatest pleasure in furnishing a refuge for our criminals.” As it cannot be a very refined pleasure, perhaps we would better leave her in the enjoyment of it; but if she persists in roiling the creek below where we are drinking we must, of course, protect ourselves. In that case the warlike editor of the Chicago Times will doubtless be found at the head of his legion.

A good deal of surprise has been caused by finding that the writer of many acceptable articles in the popular magazines is a convict in the Tennessee penitentiary. It certainly is odd that the magazines have to rely upon people who are actually incarcerated; most of their articles, we should have thought, were written by honorary outmates.

Sympathy for “the debtor classes” appears to have attained its ultimate development in Mr. Parnell’s land hill. Through the saving grace and sanctifying efficacy of this extraordinary measure the robber’s-watchwords, “No rent!” and, “Down with the landlords!” are consecrated to the service of an assured right and become henceforth simple expression of a lawful and reputable purpose. By forbidding eviction for delinquency in rent, it frankly affirms the right of A to live at the expense of B. The Demon of Reform can hardly go farther than this without overtaking Mr. Henry George.

Following is an extract from the Chronicle’s Unabridged Dictionary, which will be published in book form as soon as the daily issues of the paper shall have sucked all the honey of its incomparable definitions: Stab, v. t. To “open an avenue for the escape of the life fluid.”

We knew somebody would discover that earthquakes are a blessing, and the editor of a Rhode Island paper appropriately named the Providence Journal has done so. Even he, however, would probably confess that they are a greater blessing when they don’t occur than when they do.


(Source: Internet Archive, https://archive.org/stream/waspjulydec188617unse#page/n241/mode/2up)