Artemus Ward was a mischievous printer’s devil who slipped a funny essay about his hometown into his boss’s mail one day. The teen-ager’s boss published the essay, and a decade later Artemus Ward was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite humorist.
He became an international celebrity in his early 20s for the kind of folksy humor that made Mark Twain famous. Like the humorist Josh Billings, Ward used phonetic spelling and took on a droll persona in his lectures.
“I am not a politician, and my other habits are good, also,” he’d say. Or, “the Puritans nobly fled from a land of despotism to a land of freedim, where they could not only enjoy their own religion, but could prevent everybody else from enjoyin his.”
Browne With an E
He was born Charles Farrar Brown in Waterford, Maine, on April 26, 1834. After he became famous he added the ‘e’ to ‘Brown.’ His father Levi was a land surveyor and justice of the peace, his mother, Caroline Farrar, was a descendant of the first Puritans.
Though his parents were prominent citizens, the townspeople were sure he would come to a bad end. ‘Charley’ didn’t like to work. He preferred to lie around or put on ‘circuses’ in which he dressed up a cow and called it an elephant.
He and his older brother Cyrus played pranks as they grew up. They stole apples, poured ink down a schoolmate’s neck and locked up hens in the schoolhouse to avoid going to class during the subsequent cleanup.
Their father died when Charles was 13, and he was sent to Coos County, N.H., to learn the compositor trade at the Weekly Democrat. The printing office was located over a storeroom filled with barrels of rum. The other printer’s devils persuaded the local tinsmith to craft a long, thin tube through which they could imbibe the rum through a hole in the floor. One of those boys, Edward Cross, grew up to die a hero at Gettysburg.
Life of the Devil
Brown and the other apprentices made so much mischief the printer sent them home, telling Brown’s mother he needed more education.
He went to work for the Norway Advertiser. “He set type, loafed a good deal, wrote items, and led the general mixed life of the devil in a country printer,” wrote his biographer, Don Carlos Seitz. The newspaper, after a change of name, failed, and Charles Browne found a job in Skowhegan. He escaped that job by climbing down a rope from his bedroom window. A relative got him a job as a printer for the Carpet Bag in Boston for three years. There he set type for poetry by John Godfrey Saxe and Charles Graham Halpine.
The poets inspired Charles Browne to write a piece about the re-enactment of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis in his hometown of Waterford. He slipped it into his boss’s mail.
According to the story, a drunken Squire Wood, playing Washington on his horse, tried to run over Lawyer Jones, playing Cornwallis as he offered his surrender. ‘Washington’ called ‘Cornwallis’ an ‘infernal scoundrel’ and knocked him down with his sword. ‘Cornwallis’ retaliated by whipping ‘Washington.’ The story was reprinted as The Surrender of Cornwallis. Here’s how it ended:
They live now. Time, the “artist,” has thoroughly whitewashed their heads, but they are very jolly still. On town-meeting days the old Squire always rides down to the village. In the hind part of his venerable yellow wagon is always a bunch of hay, ostensibly for the old white horse, but really to hide a glass bottle from the vulgar gaze. This bottle has on one side a likeness of Lafayette, and upon the other may be seen the Goddess of Liberty. What the bottle contains inside i cannot positively say, but it is true that Squire Wood and Lawyer Jones visit that bottle very frequently on town-meeting days and come back looking quite red in the face. When this redness in the face becomes of the blazing kind, as it generally does by the time the polls close, a short dialogue like this may be heard:
“We shall never play surrender again, Lawyer Jones!”
“Them days is over, Squire Wood!”
And then they laugh and jocosely punch each other in the ribs.
The story was printed, and the proud author said he thought he was the greatest man in Boston. He celebrated by going to the theater.
Young Man Goes West
The West called loudly to young men like Artemus Ward. After three years in Boston, he took off. As Seitz wrote,
The printers of the middle ‘fifties were an adventurous race, with a contempt for employment and employers that was almost magnificent.
He landed in Cleveland, where for the first time in 1858 he wrote under the nom de plume Artemus Ward for the Plain Dealer. A collection of those stories was wildly popular. In 1860 he embarked on two ventures. In New York, he became editor of Vanity Fair, which failed. Throughout the rest of the country, he gave lectures, which succeeded.
Mark Twain supposedly saw his lecture in Virginia City, Nev. Afterward, Ward, Twain and another comedian took a drunken tour of the town’s rooftops and the constable threatened to shoot them with rock salt.
Artemus Ward went to England in 1866, where he died of consumption on March 6, 1867.
Outrage at Utica
In the Faul of 1856, I showed my show in Uticky, a trooly grate sitty in the State of New York.
The people gave me a cordyal recepshun. The press was loud in her prases.
1 day as I was givin a descripshun of my Beests and Snaiks in my usual flowry stile what was my skorn disgust to see a big burly feller walk up to the cage containin my wax figgers of the Lord’s Last Supper, and cease Judas Iscarrot by the feet and drag him out on the ground. He then commenced fur to pound him as hard as he cood.
“What under the son are you abowt?” cried I.
Sez he, “What did you bring this pussylanermus cuss here fur?” and he hit the wax figger another tremenjis blow on the hed.
Sez I, “You egrejus ass, that air’s a wax figger—a representashun of the false ‘Postle.”
Sez he, “That’s all very well fur you to say, but I tell you, old man, that Judas Iscarrot can’t show hisself in Utiky with impunerty by a darn site!” with which observashun he kaved in Judassis hed. The young man belonged to 1 of the first famerlies in Utiky. I sood him, and the Joory brawt in a verdick of Arson in the 3d degree.
With thanks to Artemus Ward (Charles Farrar Browne): A Biography and Bibliography by Don Carlos Seitz. This story was updated in 2020.