Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

  • Archives

  • Pages

  • Subscribe

  • Meta

Posts Tagged ‘1886’

Dead Man’s Hand

Posted by Admin on July 10, 2014

The tall tale told about the dead man’s hand is that one night, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok  was playing poker in Deadwood, South Dakota Hickok when he was shot dead while holding a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights.  The fifth card was … unknown.  You see, as the story’s told, Wild Bill had discarded his fifth card and was about to draw his fifth card when he was shot in the head by a buffalo hunter by the name of John McCall.

The reconstructed original saloon displays the Nine of Diamonds as the fifth card.  The Lucky Nugget Gambling Hall displays a Jack of Diamonds instead.  The Adams Museum in Deadwood has the Queen of Hearts, and the old Stardust Casino in Las Vegas claimed it was a Five of Diamonds.

Now, while the story is a good bit of yarn spinning, Frank J. Wilstach wrote a book in 1925 titled,”Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince Of Pistoleers.”  He claimed to have interviewed the town barber and impromptu undertaker at the time, Ellis T. “Doc” Pierce, and this is what was written in the book.

Now, in regard to the position of Bill’s body, when they unlocked the door for me to get his body, he was lying on his side, with his knees drawn up just as he slid off his stool. We had no chairs in those days — and his fingers were still crimped from holding his poker hand. Charlie Rich, who sat beside him, said he never saw a muscle move. Bill’s hand read ‘aces and eights’ — two pair, and since that day aces and eights have been known as ‘the dead man’s hand’ in the Western country.

The reason I call that a good bit of yarn spinning is because that story was told to Frank fifty years after the incident happened.  Interestingly enough, back in 1886, every poker player worth his weight knew that the dead man’s hand consisted of three Jacks and a pair of tens — none of the cards that were in Wild Bill’s hand when he died on 2 August 1876.

For those who may be wondering how Idiomation knows this, it’s because the St. Paul Daily Globe of 17 April 1886 carried an article entitled, “Big Games of Poker at Washington: $6,000 Won on One Hand.”  It was a reprint from the New York Mail and Express newspaper and stated in part:

I was present at a game in a Senator’s house one night and saw him win $6,000 on one hand.  It was the dead man’s hand.  What is the dead man’s hand?  Why, it is three jacks and a pair of tens.  It is called the dead man’s hand because about forty years ago, in a town of Illinois, a celebrated judge bet his house and lot on three jacks and a pair of tens.  It was the last piece of property he had in the world.

And to whom was this expression attributed?

When his opponent showed up he had three queens and a pair of tens.  Upon seeing the queens,the judge fell back dead, clutching the jacks and tens in his hand; and that’s why a jack-full on tens is called the deadman’s hand.

Perhaps the idiom could be found in tracing the history of five-card draw poker which was written about by an English actor by the name of Joseph Crowell who wrote about watching the game played on Mississippi steamboats in 1829.  By the 1830s, the game had been modified into the version of five-card draw poker known to this day.  As a side note, it was during the 1830s that the straight and flush were introduced into the game.

Between the date the game became known and a decade later when the judge mention in the news story of 1886 played the fateful hand (sometime in the 1840s), the moniker was tagged to three jacks and two eights.

What this means is that some time after 1830, someone tagged three jacks and a pair of tens as the dead man’s hand.

However, Idiomation was unable to find the idiom in any publications of the day.  In 1843, author Jonathan Harrington Green published his book “An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling: Designed Especially as a Warning to the Youthful and Inexperienced, Against the Evils of That Odious and Destructive Vice.”  An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to poker, including four-handed poker, three-handed poker, and two-handed poker, and the many ways in which players are cheated of their money.  But there’s no mention of the dead man’s hand.

His book was obviously a great success as the author published another book on the topic in 1857 entitled, “Gambling Exposed:  Full Exposition of All the Various Arts, Mysteries,and Miseries of Gambling.”  The dubious title of “by the Reformed Gambler, Jonathan H. Green” was included.  In both books, poker was blamed for being responsible for the death of many a good man who could otherwise rebuff vices and temptation.

But there’s something to be said about good poker players.

President Abraham Lincoln (12 February 1809 – 15 April 1865) placed his faith in Ulysses S. Grant (27 April 1822 – 23 July 1885) who was a brilliantly skillful poker player with a reputation for being able to anticipate his opponents’ moves.  And while he did indulge in drink and he was a gambler, when he became the 18th President of the United States, it was said that he rarely touched a drop of alcohol and rarely gambled.

Another bit of trivia for the books is the fact that the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department: Homicide Division uses a pair of aces and a pair of eights as their logo.  What do they investigate?  Why homicides and suspicious deaths, of course.

As for those who are curious about Will Bill’s poker hand —  whether the fifth card was the Queen of Diamonds, the Jack of Diamonds, the Five of Diamonds, the Nine of Diamonds or the Queen of Clubs (all of which have been suggested in various contexts) — it is likely that Hickok was already holding the winning hand and that the fifth card wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the game.  In the end, all that can be said was that a pair of aces and a pair of eights were one dead man’s hand, but not the hand that poker players of the day knew to be the dead man’s hand.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Dead Duck

Posted by Admin on January 20, 2011

The phrase “dead duck” is a funny sounding phrase.  It brings to light an interesting visual and questions about how a dead duck became synonymous with the concept of being ineffectual.

The Irish Canadian newspaper of May 20, 1886 reported on Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Gladstone of the Liberal Party by stating that

Protests are even now coming home to him, charging him with having almost accomplished the ruin of the Liberal party, and declaring that his usefulness as a leader is gone.  His vanity has destroyed all chances to the succession and his treachery of his chief has made it painfully manifest that he can no longer be trusted.  Come what may, one this is certain: Mr. Chamberlain is a dead duck politically.  Not so, however, with Mr. Gladstone.  He is cheered by many voices all over the land, urging him, in the event of an adverse vote upon his bill, not to resign, but to appeal to the people.  It is thought that this course will be adopted, provided her Majesty consents to a dissolution.

The term “dead duck” referring to politicians wasn’t something new in 1886.  History shows that in 1866, Andrew Johnson referred to John W. Forney, publisher of Philadelphia and Washington newspapers, as a dead duck.  In fact, when the New York Times reported on it on February 28, 1866, it came with the headline “Degree Conferred” and read in part:

On Thursday last, President, ANDREW JOHNSON, of the Union College, Washington City, conferred the honorary title of “dead duck” upon JOHN W. FORNEY, Esq. This exaltation creates some surprise, since it is not known that the recipient was ever in holy orders, and some go so far as to say that the President is making game of him.

Back on May, 15, 1829 the Glasgow Herald reported a very strange thing indeed.  It stated that the following had been published in the Dublin Morning Register:

In opposition to the dictum of Judge Littledale, that a dead duck was not a duck, Mr. Serjeant Adams has decided that a dead rabbit is a rabbit.  The vitality of a duck is one vitality, and the vitality of a rabbit is another vitality.

The phrase “dead duck” is an Americanism from the 1830s, originally it was political slang referring to a person who has lost influence or power and was therefore useless.  In fact, it was used in conversation without hesitation by the 1840s. 

There are even Letters to the Editor such as the one dated August 29, 1839 and published in the Hartford (CT) Courant newspaper.  The editor prefaced its publication by stating, “The following communication was received two or three weeks since.  The subject of it was considered rather small game for the writer, and it was laid on the table.  Other considerations now induce us to give it a place.” 

The author of the Letter to the Editor describes the accusations made by another party with regards to the next General Election in this way:

Respecting this accusation, he let off his popgun at the dead duck.

So somewhere between 1829 a dead duck that was not a duck came to mean — within a decade — an ineffectual person.  How that happened is something Idiomation could not track down.

What Idiomation did learn is that the word dead comes from the Old English word dead which hails from the Germanic word *dauthaz” from the 13th century.  Somewhere between “dead drunk” of 1599 and “dead on” of 1889, the phrase “dead duck” came into existence and has been around ever since.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Cold Day In Hell

Posted by Admin on January 10, 2011

When you hear someone say it will be a cold day in Hell before something happens, it means it will either never happen or it’s highly unlikely to happen.  The phrase hasn’t lost much of its punch over the years and has the same bite it seems to have always had.

On July 20, 1990, the Los Angeles Times reported on the Republicans block of the Democrats’ $55.4 billion spending proposal.  In fact, it was reported that Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, the representative for San Francisco said:

I know you (Republicans) hate people on welfare. Well, I was one of those poor children on welfare. I was raised on welfare. There are a lot of poor children out there who deserve our support, who deserve to be able to eat, who deserve to be able to sleep. I’m going to fight for those children. It will be a cold day in Hell before I participate in a society giving up on its children.

Back in 1944, after Ernest Graham lost his bid for governor for the state of Florida, the Miami Herald wrote:

It will be a cold day in Hell when anybody from Miami will be elected governor.

Going all the way back to July 7, 1886, the Atlanta Constitution newspaper published an article written by F.B. Doyle with a headline that read:

It Will Be A Cold Day In July And Mighty Late In The Evening When The People Desert General Gordon

Considering that the article was only 183 words long, the 20-word headline summed up the article quite nicely.  At the time, General Gordon secured the necessary majority of the delegates-elect to the Democratic state convention.

It was widely believed that his nomination — and having two-thirds of the delegates behind him — and election to the governorship would follow as a matter of course.  It was widely reported in the newspapers of the day that Gordon’s campaign — in its inception, progress and results — was without precedent or parallel in the history of Georgia.

And while the phrase a cold day in Hell or a cold day in July seems to be commonplace in the late 1800s, Idiomation was unable to find a published reference to the phrase prior to 1886.

As a side note, it’s a fact that Hell — which is between Flint and Ann Arbor in Michigan — froze over in 2004.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Slow As Molasses In January

Posted by Admin on January 6, 2011

It was a balmy 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius) in Boston when the Great Molasses Flood happened on Wednesday, January 15, 1919 .  On that day, the low-lying section of Commercial Street between Copps Hill and North End Park was flooded by the contents of  a 58-foot tank that had contained no less than 2.5 million gallons of molasses .  The container stood just behind the Boston and Worcester freight terminal. 

When the tank split wide open at around 12:30 p.m. that day, a 30-foot tidal wave of molasses tore the steel supports off the nearby elevated train structure.  In the end, it was determined that the molasses of the Great Molasses Flood ran at between 25 and 30 mph (40 to 48 kph).

That being said, the expression “slow as molasses in January” is an Americanism for someone or something that is painfully slow. Due to the high viscosity of commonly available molasses at room temperature, the liquid pours quite slowly. 

In the 1941 movie Gone with the Wind,  Scarlett O’Hara chides Prissy  for being as “slow as molasses in January.”

In the King Vidor movie Hallelujah released in August of 1929, you hear “You’re slower than cold molasses in winter time” just over an hour into the movie.

Thirty-four years before that, John Adrian wrote a piece for the Detroit Free Press on July 11, 1886 that discussed Milwaukee (WI) in a 182-word article. His words certainly painted quite the picture of Milwaukee in 1886!  Part of his review included:

The city is also noted as being somewhat of a slow town. While we brand the villain who says so, we must admit that its street cars are slower than molasses in winter and are as scarce as hen’s teeth.

And 14 years before that review, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a story on December 28, 1872 about the secret investigation of the Credit Mobilier scandal.  The newspaper reported that:

Most of them had the matter under advisement for seven or eight months before they could satisfy their consciences as to the moral bearing of the transaction, showing that the average Congressional perception of right and wrong is much slower than molasses in January.

In the records of the Supreme Court of Louisiana, there is a case dealing specifically with molasses in the month of January in 1840.

That defendant’s molasses was contained in two cisterns, a large and a small one; that in December 1839, Stansberry, the overseer, told defendant that if something was not done with the molasses it would be lost, because the large cistern, which was under ground, would not stand the pressure upon it, being nearly full.  To this the defendant answered, that he was waiting for the plaintiff to send him some casks, and was expecting them daily.  A few days after, in the beginning of January, a message was brought to the defendant and the overseer, that the cistern had bursted and was leaking.  On reaching the sugar house they found that the large cistern had given way, that the molasses was oozing out of the cistern, and the water outside, running from above.

While there is still no printed reference to being “slow as molasses in January” in 1840, one can determine from how the case was argued that the molasses that leaked out of the cistern in January did so very slowly. 

Somewhere between 1840 and 1872, the expression “slow as molasses in January” became part of the English language.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Fat Of The Land

Posted by Admin on September 14, 2010

When a person has the best of everything in life, word has it that he or she is living off the fat of the land.  So how did come to mean that and from where does the phrase, the fat of the land,  originate?

In a news story published in the The Quebec Saturday Budget newspaper on February 8, 1890 in a story entitled, “On Behalf of Ireland’s Cause: The American Press to be Bought With British Gold to Malign the League” the story read in part:

The Chicago Times of the second instant, says editorially ‘hold no convention, is the advice to the executive of the National League in America from the gentlemen over the sea, but send us more money.  As to the money part, that has been the cry from time immemorial.  Since 1886, this one agency of the League alone has collected a quarter of a million of money and the demand is for more.  Men who are living as Members of the British Parliament on funds raised in America, and living on the fat of the land, or gossip does them great injustice, will naturally cry with the horse-leech’s daughter ‘Give, give.’

In the 1500s, the fat of something was considered to be the best or richest part.  In fact, if you read any of the recipes from that time period, you will soon appreciate the fact that fat was where it was at! 

But in the end, this phrase is from The Bible as well in Genesis 45:17-18 where it is written:

And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Say unto thy brethren, This do ye: lade your beasts, and go, get you unto the land of Canaan;  And take your father and your households, and come unto me: and I will give you the good of the land of Egypt, and ye shall eat the fat of the land.

Posted in Bible, Christian, Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century, Jewish, Religious References | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »