Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Devil’s Lane

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 16, 2015

Did you know that the devil’s lane is the narrow area between two spite fences erected by disputing neighbors?

This definition is attested to in Volume 75 of the Farm Journal published in 1951 when Anna Shoemaker of New Jersey wrote a letter to the editor with the following opening sentence:

When I was a child, our farm was next to that of a cranky old man who always had a “devil’s lane” between his property and ours. Instead of a single fence, there were two.

On March 9, 1900, the Pittsburgh Press published a story by Colonel William Lightfoot Vischer in the Friday evening edition.  The story was about two men who had been the best of friends until two years earlier when a serious misunderstanding happened between them at hog killing time.  After that, the two men had erected two fences between their respective properties.

 As we drove the doctor remarked:  “Those youngsters will probably get paddled.”
“For what?” I asked.
“You observed that lane they came from, didn’t you?”
“Yes, and I intended to ask what it meant.”
“It means that these two farmers are bitter enemies.  The boy, Sam, is the son of Tom Riggins, whose house we passed just yonder, and the girl is the daughter of Dick Rutherford.  This is his place, just ahead of us.  The dividing line between their farms lies inside of those two zig-zag fences, and the men hate each other so that they’d rather die than join in a partnership line, hence each has built on his own, and thus we have such an eyesore as that.  Country people, knowing the cause of a double fence, call it the Devil’s Lane.”

In Chapter 15 of the “Tell Tale Rag And Popular Sins of The Day” by the blind Methodist lay preacher, Reverend George W. Henry (1801 – 1888) and published in May 1861, the author used the idiom.

He said his master had a sore quarrel with a neighboring farmer, which was of long standing.  They hated each other so intensely that they would not unite their line fences, so each built a fence near the line, making was it commonly called “the devil’s lane.”

Now the word lane is from the Old English word lanu that means narrow hedged-in road.  But despite Idiomation’s most valiant attempts, no earlier mention of the devil’s lane than the one found in George W. Henry’s book in 1861 could be found.

Perhaps one of our eagle-eyed readers or visitors has uncovered an earlier published version of devil’s lane.  If so, please leave a message in the Comments section below.

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