Massachusetts

The Dangerous Wit and Wisdom of Nathaniel Ames

Nathaniel Ames' sign redrawn in 1891

Nathaniel Ames had a wit that nearly got him sent to prison. Ames, who was a physician and innkeeper, was best known for publishing his almanac, which he infused with his caustic wit and dry humor amid the astronomical and weather predictions.

When nothing seemed likely to happen on a given date, he would fill the void in his almanac with a wisecrack, generally aimed at colonial society’s more serious minded:

Some examples:

May 22.

Some materials about this time are hatched for the clergy to debate on.

November 9.

These aspects show violent winds and in winter storms of driving snow; mischiefs by the Indians, if no peace; and among us, feuds, quarrels, bloody-noses, broken pates if not necks.

December 15.

This cold, uncomfortable weather

Makes Jack and Jill lie close together."

February 24-27.

If you fall into misfortunes, creep through those bushes which have the least briers.

July 16-27.

Every man carries a fool in his sleeve; with some he appears bold, with some he only pops out now and then, but the wise keep him hid.

September 12-16.

To some men their country is their shame; and some are the shame of their country.

Nathaniel Ames' sign redrawn in 1891

Nathaniel Ames' sign redrawn in 1891

Yet Ames’ light-hearted nature had a querulous side, as well. Ames, one of many colonial humorists, lived in Bridgewater and Dedham, Mass. from 1705 to 1764, and he frequently called on the courts to settle slights and disputes. And he particularly enjoyed pricking lawyers with his wit, as in this couplet:

The lawyers’ tongues they never freeze,

If warmed with honest clients fees.

However, he took his humor too far in one case. Ames had to sue members of his wife’s family after she died. She had owned the tavern that the couple operated, and her family claimed that they should inherit it. After a lengthy trial, Ames won the property, but two judges had argued against his position.

To mock the judges, he erected a sign that caricatured the judges. In it, nine of the judges who sided with him were pictured studying law books. Two, however, were facing the other way, ignoring the law.

Paul Dudley, chief justice of Massachusetts’ highest court, was one of the judges pictured ignoring the law. He heard about the sign and ordered the sheriff to arrest Ames and seize the sign.

Ames, however, learned of the plan to have him arrested and pulled the sign down. Unable to resist a parting shot, however, he replaced it with a Biblical quotation from the Book of Matthew:

“A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it.”

After Ames death, his son Nathaniel continued with his almanac, though with less vitriol and greater success.

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