Josh Billings was one of America’s most popular funny man until his comic heir, Mark Twain, came along. He was a ‘platform humorist,’ a 19th-century version of Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Kimmel. There were dozens of them back then, but Billings outearned them all at $100 per talk.
He was a late bloomer who tried his hand at a number of professions before hitting on the comic formula that made him famous. He used the slang of the day and delivered short, punchy aphorisms.
“Brevity iz power,” was one of them.
“The way tew Fame is like klimbing a greast pole; thare aint but phew kan do it, and even then it don’t pay,” was another.
He was born Henry Wheeler Shaw in the small Berkshires town of Lanesborough, Mass., on April 21, 1818. His father, Henry Shaw, was a U.S. congressman; so was his grandfather, Samuel Shaw.
He attended district schools and at 14 was admitted to Hamilton College. He didn’t last long. According to one version, he was expelled for removing the clapper from the campus bell. According to another, he never made it back after his freshman year. The story goes that on his way back to college he took a stage from Lanesborough to Albany, then boarded a canal boat for Utica. He met two adventurers bound for St. Louis on the boat, and he was so enthralled by their tales of the west that he didn’t stop traveling until he reached the banks of the Mississippi. He ‘tramped the streets of St. Louis, a homeless vagrant,’ wrote his biographer, Francis Shubael Smith.
He joined a party of adventurers who aimed to cross the plains, climb the Rocky Mountains and visit the coast of Mexico. They engaged a geologist from a German university and set out with letters of introduction. The letters, acquired with the help of Josh Billings’ prominent father, were from John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren.
The venture failed, but young Henry Shaw continued to roam the West. He and two friends ran out of money in Napoleon, Ind., so they decided to give a mock lecture on mesmerism. Henry gave the lecture as ‘Mordecai David.’ The room was packed, the lecture was a success, but it would be years before Josh Billings took to the stage again.
In 1845, he returned to Lanesborough and married his childhood sweetheart, Zipha Bradford, a direct descendant of William Bradford. They had two daughters, Grace and Kate.
A series of moves followed: To the western territory, where he farmed; to Virginia, where he ran a coal mine; to the Ohio and Kanawha rivers, where he worked as a steamboat captain. Finally he moved to Pouhgkeepsie, N.Y., where he dealt real estate.
One day in 1858 a newspaper editor walked into his real estate office and asked him to write a column. Under the nom de plume Josh Billings he wrote 20, spelled properly, but they attracted little attention. He stopped writing.
A year later, he read a piece about a mule by Artemas Ward. It was similar to one he had written, but it used quirky spelling. Billings thought his work was better, so he tried again with phonetic spelling. His Essa on the Muel was such a hit it launched his career as a humorist. Soon after, he went on the lecture circuit.
He wore his dark hair long, refused to wear a tie, walked onto the stage without an introduction, sat down to talk and often had a pitcher of milk on a table in front of him, according to his biographer David Kesterson. Billings neither touched nor mentioned the milk, though the title of his lecture was Josh Billings on Milk.
He delivered one-liners using a formula of pungency, brevity and quaintness – one that Twain would later adopt. Lines like, “It is better, to kno less, than to kno so mutch that aint so.” Or, “For ages past the philosophers hav been crying aloud on the street korners, and hous tops, but the phools hav allwuss run the world, and allwuss will.”
Billings met Mark Twain in 1869 when both were working Boston’s Redpath Lyceum Bureau. Critics note that Billings’ rustic humor paved the way for Twain, 17 years his junior. The two men became friends, along with another popular humorist, Petroleum Nasby.
From 1869 to 1879, Josh Billings published his most popular work, a spoof of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. In it he predicted ‘rather cold’ in January, dandelions would appear in May and ‘grate warmth’ in July. He peppered his almanac with such aphorisms as,
When people loze their property they generally loze everything else, in the estimashun ov the world, except their faults and vices.
Josh Billings died on Oct. 14, 1885, in the Hotel del Monte in Monterey, Calif.
John Steinbeck described what happened next in Cannery Row. The local constable delivered his body to the town’s only doctor, who doubled as an amateur mortician. The doctor threw Billings’ entrails into a gulley behind his house before packing his torso with sawdust. A dog found his stomach, liver and intestines; the dog’s owner, a small boy, took them to his boat, where he intended to use them for fish bait. Just as the boy started to row out to sea, some local men stopped him and retrieved Billings’ remains. They forced the doctor to give Billings’ a proper burial.
Here are more of his lines:
I hate to be a kicker,
I always long for peace,
But the wheel that does the squeaking,
Is the one that gets the grease.
Consider the postage stamp, son. It secures success through its ability to stick to one thing till it gets there.
Solitude is a good place to visit, but a poor place to stay.
I luv a Rooster for two things. One is the crow that is in him, and the other iz, the spurs that are on him, to bak up the crow with.
Man iz the only kreature that laffs, Angels dont, Animals kant, and Devils wont.
With thanks to Life and Adventures of Josh Billings: With a Characteristic Sketch of the Humorist by Francis Shubael Smith. This story was updated in 2022.