Ambrose Bierce

The Wasp/July 8, 1881

Since Man began his awful career upon the earth nothing has occurred more detestable than this assassination. A man of brain and character; a man with a past and a future—lord of a continent and ruler over fifty millions of people, ruling them wisely, too, and well; a great-hearted, clear-eyed gentleman, standing worthily upon his honors—such a man as that is suddenly brushed aside and effaced by the caprice of a smirking hoodlum! It is a colossal practical joke—an irritating and intolerable affront, reasonless and out of taste.

Unlike the murder of Lincoln, it has none of the dignity of the death-for-cause. The element of fitness, of proportion, the artistic element—all this is absent. The man’s life and his death have nothing to say to one another. He might as well have died of the kick of a mule, or fallen down a cellar stair and broken his neck. This is not an event; there is nothing in it: a death without a cause and without an effect. Sorrow is sunk in disgust, and submission is not resignation; grin and bear it is the word. “The will of God,” quotha’. O, go to the devil with your blasphemous platitude! It was the will of a blockhead.

Fancy God conspiring with Charley Guiteau—his accomplice! If so, He must likewise have had a “stand-in” with him to bilk landladies—must have stood by to see fair play when the fellow was beating his wife. Who are the hardiest blasphemers in the world? Always the Will-of-Godites. If God is a gentleman He had nothing to do with it.

Grant would have the Guiteau person hanged. The presidential nigger coachman wants to quarter him by stress of divergent horses. One of the most eminent barkeepers of this country cherishes a hope that he may be skinned alive. What! avenge a crime like this upon a man like that! Ought the sovereign commonwealth of Illinois to have pounded Mrs. O’Leary’s cow? Nonsense! Let the creature go. Give him a chew of tobacco or a consulship, and tell him to clear out. When one is snake-bitten unto death one does not bite back.

Despite his contempt of kings, Voltaire, who never ceased unsealing the inexhaustible vials of his wrath upon the advocates of physical torture, believed it just and necessary in the case of a regicide. Sovereigns, he argued, are peculiarly exposed and must be exceptionally protected. “All men,” he said to the Countess d’Artignan, “are in peril from knaves; sovereigns from knaves and fools.” “But are fools deterred by fear of torture?” “The Holy Church believes so, Madame.” By the way, Voltaire attributes the taciturnity of the Spanish character to the horror and distrust begotten by the Inquisition. To what, then, are we to attribute the superior taciturnity of an American at his dinner? To his horror and distrust of his victuals?

I would rather dine in the receiving-vault of a cemetery than in an American dining-room. I mean the dining-room of a hotel where ladies are admitted. The awful hush, the peculiar ghostly chill, the visible determination to be proper and avert the slow stroke of the rebuking eye that awaits the miscreant who laughs or speaks above his breath—these things overcome me. I can’t breathe in that atmosphere of solemn stupidity. I choke on my food and strangle on my drink. The waiter carries me out.

What a contrast to a dining-room on the continent of Europe. Everything there is alive. Each talks to his neighbor, chatters and laughs, and calls across to the adjoining tables. All is animation, vivacity, the joy of men who are not afraid of their women; of women who dread not the sound of their own voices (soft, luxurious, cultivated voices); of people who do not “converse” but simply think aloud, babbling their lightest and their gravest thought with equally artless disregard—people to whom, in all their lives, it has never occurred to think what kind of an “impression” they are making. In short, I am now writing of civilized men and women. That is how they dine. And when the lank and sallow American tourist tells them of his dispepsia they embrace and congratulate him. They think it some post in the diplomatic service.

Believe me, O countrywomen mine, yourselves are at fault in this matter; it is only where you are that men are altogether stupid. The escapes are blithe enough over their stag dinners, in their clumsy, unaccustomed way. Some have even been known to go beyond a joke with the waiter, and a doubtful story. O, men are quite supportable out of your presence, fair compatriotes; why are they so insufferable when in it? Pardon me, I do not mean to trouble you with the answer. I know it, all the same.

Jones is presented by his jeweler with a bill for a hundred dollars, and is equal to the emergency, as he has several times been before. “My dear fellow,” he says, with his handkerchief to his eyes, “I am sure you do not know that I have just buried my wife.” “Yes, I do,” replies the creditor, earnestly; “and that’s just how I have the advantage of you: if you don’t pay this account at once I’ll dig her up!”

On a previous occasion when Jones received a bill from his landlord he wrote: “You must wait; there has been ‘an addition to my family.'” The reply was: “I won’t wait; it might be construed as an admission.” Jones begins to feel as if he were found out.

Peter, one morning chilly,

Stood shivering o’er an ember.

Until a cock crew shrilly.

Then Peter did remember

How he his Master had denied,

And so he went aloof and cried.

Although a living chicken

Can make the soul surrender,

And the dead conscience quicken,

And the tough heart grow tender,

Yet I, unmoved, have often heard

A parson full of the dead bird.

Why don’t the feasting preacher,

When sinners he would rally,

Preserve alive this creature

To crow occasionally?

Alas! no preacher breakfasting

Denies his master anything.


If the Bulletin people should stop instructing the farmer how to farm, the agricultural interests of the State would “go to the demnition bow-wows,” and it would be a black outlook for the worthy middle-man. “Loosen the earth about the roots of your wheat vines.” “Now is the time to mow your potatoes.” “Eggs should be planted six inches deep, with the biggest end upward.” “The cow that has the longest pump-handle is the easiest to milk.” “Weed your growing cheese.” “In shelling cucumbers, save the cobs to plant again.” “Goslings should never be picked while green. They ripen best on the stem.”

My friend T is a gourmet, and much of his conversation smacks of his besetting weakness. The other day he was introduced to a lady whom he had long admired. “Well, T, how do you like her?” “Bah! she isn’t fit to eat!”

Under the strictest pledge of secrecy, an Oakland lady informed me, the other day, that her husband, a clergyman, was examining their eight-year-old hope and pride in theology. “Mention,” said he, “the Persons of the Trinity.” And without a moment’s hesitation that horrible youth replied: “The World, the Flesh and the Devil.” If that were not true I would not have related it, despite my promise to say nothing about it.

But I would tell this one, even if it were a lie: A learned young woman and I were speaking of the Pagan mythology, and I ventured jealously to disapprove of Jupiter’s habit of making love to the daughters of men, adding, however, that it must be very nice for a lady to be kissed by Jove. “Indeed it is,” she said; “I’ve been kissed, by Jove!” B.