Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

White Elephant

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 24, 2014

If you have a white elephant, what you’ve got is a valuable but burdensome possession you just can’t unload (no matter how much or little you’re asking for it) that’s costing you an arm and a leg to keep.

In the book, “Marjorie Daw, and Other Stories” by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (published in 1969 as a reprint from the 1885 edition), the story, “A Rivermouth Romance” made great use of the idiom.

If Margaret Callaghan, when she meditated matrimony, indulged in any roseate dreams, they were quickly put to flight. She suddenly found herself dispossessed of a quiet, comfortable home, and face to face with the fact that she had a white elephant on her hands. It is not likely that Mr. O’Rourke assumed precisely the shape of a white elephant to her mental vision; but he was as useless and cumbersome and unmanageable as one.

It was indeed an idiom that was understood as it was used by Reader Charles (1814 – 1884) in his book “The White Elephantthat was published the year he died. The first chapter of the book began with this:

In the month of April 1828, Mr. Yates, theatrical manager found his nightly receipts fall below his nightly expenses. In this situation a manager falls upon one of two things — a spectacle or a star. Mr. Yates preferred the latter, and went of to Paris and engaged Mademoiselle Djek.

Mademoiselle Djek was a White Elephant of great size and unparallele sagacity. She had been for some time performing in a play at Fransconi’s, and created a great sensation in Paris.

In Volume 12 of “The Friend Religious and Literary Magazine” edited by Robert Smith and published in 1938, the story entitled, “Court Of Siam” was included. Written by John Crawford, it was originally published ten years earlier under the title of “Journal of an Embassy from the Governor-General of India to the Courts of Siam and Cochin China” and was dated April 8, 1822.

Upon enquiring into their history, we found that they were all either from the kingdom of Lao or Kamboja, and none from Siam itself, nor from Malay countries tributary to it, which last, indeed had never been known to afford a white elephant.

The rareness of the white elephant is, no doubt, the original of the consideration in which it is held. The countries in which it is found, and in which, indeed, the elephant in general exists in the greatest perfection and is most regarded, are those in which the worship of Buddha and the doctrine of the metempsychosis prevail.

Kings were usually the only ones able to afford white elephants as the upkeep for an elephant is an expensive undertaking for anyone, even a king. But if a king was displeased by a member of his court, the gift of a white elephant, while being a great honor, was also intended as a punishment in that the financial burden crippled the households of those with inferior monetary revenues and assets.

Between 1839 and 1873 — when a Letter to the Editor was published in the New York Times edition of May 28th — the term white elephant became known as a situation or an item that was costly. In the case of the Letter to the Editor, the white elephant in question had to do with the case of George Francis Train (24 March 1829 – 5 January 1904) that had been dragging on in the courts for months by that time.   Train had been charged with “issuing obscene publications.

Now, Train was not unknown to the American public. In fact, he was a well-known American entrepreneur who had been instrumental in establishing Credit Mobilier in the United States in 1864 as the Transcontinential Railroad was being built, and he had already made his name as a Civil War reporter.  The year his fortune was built by Credit Mobilier was the same year he began referring to himself as “Citizen Train.” He ran as an independent candidate for the office of President in 1872, and in 1873, he began charging admission fees to his campaign rallies where his primary focus was on attaining the position of Dictator of the United States.

Initially, the attempt was to have Mr. Train committed to an insane asylum, but on March 20, 1873 the following was reported:

Dr. Hammond, one of those commissioned by District Attorney Phelps to examine into his mental condition, says, with some reluctance, that the commission found Train to be a man of good education, of brilliant intellect, but undoubtedly of unsound mind. When, however, the usual form of commitment was presented for signature, Dr. Hammond refused to sign it, as he does not believe that Train can at all be considered a person dangerous or likely to do bodily harm either to himself or anybody else. The usual commitment will not be signed, and, of course, he cannot be transferred to the asylum. His latest assertion is that in thirty days not one stone in the bastile shall be left standing on another, and that the streets ot Sew York are to run with blood. Should this come to pass he may be dangerous enough, but his assertions are regarded only as idle words.

Six weeks later, it was reported on May 7, 1873 that the previous day the courts had ruled as follows:

The investigation which has been going on for the past few weeks before Chief Justice Daly and the Sherriff’s jury into the mental condition of George Francis Train was concluded this evening by a verdict rendered that he was, and is, sane and responsible for his acts. The District Attorney will now prosecute Train on the indictment found against him for publishing obscene literature in connection with the Woodhull-Ciaflin matter.

But the author of the Letter to the Editor, whose patience seemed to have reached an end, stated his opinion succinctly, writing:

For months the Courts have been trying to get rid of this dreadful person, but in vain. . . . In the meantime he is in the public hands, a white elephant of prodigious expensiveness in judicial time, patience and dignity.

In early 1864, and just weeks after the Gettysburg Address of November 1863, as the Civil War raged on, Ward Hill Lamon wrote about a discussion he had with Abraham Lincoln.

Jumping up from his reclining position he advanced, saying: “You know better than any man living that from my boyhood up my ambition was to be President. I am President of one part of this divided country at least; but you look at me! I wish I had never been born! It is a white elephant on my hands, and hard to manage. With a fire in my front and rear; having to contend with the jealousies of the military commanders, and not receiving that cordial co-operation and support from Congress which could reasonably be expected; with an active and formidable enemy in the field threatening the very life-blood of the government — my position is anything but a bed of roses.”

And it’s known that Belle Boyd — the famous Confederate spy who, when she was arrested and taken to General Patterson‘s headquarters for having shot a Union soldier for insulting her mother — was quoted in the Northern papers as saying that “like a white elephant” she was pointed out to thousands of troops coming into Virginia as being the most dangerous Rebel in the country.

Back in 1851, Geraldine Endsor (G.E.) Jewbury used the expression in “Letters.”

His services are like so many white elephants, of which nobody can make use, and yet that drain one’s gratitude, if indeed one does not feel bankrupt.

What is known about the idiom is that just about 40 years earlier, the idiom white elephant had positive connotations. In fact, Josef Semmelweiss (1788 – 1846) opened a wholesale business specializing in spices and general consumer goods in 1806 and named it zum Weißen Elefanten (at the White Elephant). By 1810, the business had made Josef Semmelweiss a rich man.

NOTE: Josef Semmelweiss was the father of Ignaz Semmelweis (1 July 1818 – 13 August 1865) who is regarded as the pioneer of antiseptic policy and prevention of nosocomial disease.

Somewhere in the forty or so years between the establishing of Josef Semmelweiss’ successful business where the idiom white elephant had a positive association and G.E. Jewbury’s use of the idiom which had a negative association, the shift in perception happened. Without proof of an earlier published reference, however, Idiomation is unable to take this idiom back any further than this point.

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4 Responses to “White Elephant”

  1. mutanatia said

    Two comments:
    1) “Citizen Train…” is that a spoof on “Citizen Kane?”
    2) Would you say that the Maltese Falcon was a White Elephant?

  2. The movie “Citizen Kane” was released in 1941, and told the story of a fictional character named Charles Foster Kane. Based on that, one might say that “Citizen Kane” gives a nod to George Francis Train.

    When you ask about the “Maltese Falcon” are you referring to the movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, or the 289 foot clipper sailing yacht?

  3. […] a choice between white elephants and pink elephants, Captain Penny very wisely decided not to make this a dog and pony show, and […]

  4. […] to address the issue, the issue continues to grow and may, in fact, unintentionally become the white elephant in the […]

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