A few week ago, I saw George Saunders speak about his new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The book is a fictionalization of a true event — Abraham Lincoln visiting his dead son, Willie, in the vault where he was entombed. Like so much of Saunders’ work, it is a combination of grief, tenderness, humor and oddity; reading it felt like bathing in a reminder that humans are basically good, even if they’re also hard-headed, misguided and imperfect.
At the reading, I asked Saunders whether, in his research, he had read any of the Lincoln joke books that were published during Old Abe’s presidency. While it’s still widely known that Lincoln was a captivating storyteller and jokester, it’s less known that some enterprising publishers tried to capitalize on that during Lincoln’s presidency by rushing books to market that were full of jokes “fresh from Abraham’s bosom.” (As someone who read multiple “unauthorized” biographies of X-Files actors in the late ‘90s, I can tell you: Books that have been rushed out to capitalize on popular interest don’t always have the strongest dedication to accuracy and quality.)
I also asked Saunders if he had a favorite joke attributed to Lincoln, and he shared this anecdote (although the version here is not an exact quote from Saunders’ telling, but the version printed in Paul M. Zall’s 2007 book Abe Lincoln’s Legacy of Laughter):
After the men and women had enjoyed themselves by dancing — promenading — flirting etc they were told that the supper was set. The man of audacity — quick witted — self possessed and equal to all occasions was put at the head of the table to carve the turkeys, chickens and pigs. The men and women surrounded the table and the audacious man being chosen carver whetted his great carving knife with the steel and got down to business and commenced carving the turkey, but he expended too much force and let a fart — a loud fart so that all the people heard it distinctly. … A deep silence reigned. However the audacious man was cool and entirely self possessed; he was curiously and keenly watched by those who knew him well, they suspecting that he would recover in the end and acquit himself with glory. The man with a kind of sublime audacity, pulled off his coat, rolled up his sleeves — put his coat deliberately on a chair — spat on his hands — took position at the head of the table — picked up the carving knife and whetted it again, never cracking a smile nor moving a muscle of his face. It now became a wonder in the minds of all the men and women how the fellow was to get out of his dilemma; he squared himself and said loudly and distinctly — “Now by God I’ll see if I can’t cut up this turkey without farting.”
And, good news: Paul M. Zall believed that Lincoln actually told this story. Because Abe Lincoln’s Legacy of Laughter isn’t just a collection of the president’s humor; it’s an effort to suss out which stories Lincoln actually told, and which ones were just attributed to him. Zall, who was professor emeritus of American studies at California State University and a research scholar at the Huntington Library, searched through speeches, letters, papers and other original documents, then organized his book in order from stories he’s most sure Lincoln told to ones he’s least sure he told. And Zall was meticulous — the 2007 version of the book is actually the second edition, and it excised 325 dubious stories contained in the first printing.
There are a few different theories as to why Lincoln used humor as much as he did — Zall writes that Lincoln’s “partner and biographer” Billy Herndon thought that Lincoln’s humor was “an antidote to his clinical depression.” Others thought that Lincoln’s humor was a “bridge connecting him to common people.” Then there’s also the thing where, honestly, dude just looked like a weirdo — gangly, with that jutty face. If you spend any amount of time with comedy writers, no matter how sane and attractive they seem now, you learn pretty quickly that for many, humor is a coping mechanism they developed to soften or distract from their oddity. Take, for example, this joke that Lincoln told at a banquet in 1856:
He felt like the ugly man riding through a wood who met a woman, also on horseback, who stopped and said:
“Well, for land’s sake, you are the homeliest man I ever saw.”
“Yes, madam, but I can’t help it,” he replied.
“No, I suppose not,” she observed, “but you might stay at home.”
But after Lincoln became president, Zall notes, he understandably removed the humorous stories from his speeches almost entirely — it was, after all, not as appropriate for the president to be throwing down hot zings all the time. (Side note: Please help me make “hot zings” the preferred name for jokes.)
Zall writes that “when he became president and abandoned stories, the press rushed in with all the Lincoln stories fit to print — and otherwise.” At least one reporter admitted to fabricating a Lincoln anecdote from whole cloth, and in a 2012 New York Times piece, Louis P. Masur noted that in Old Abe’s Joker, or Wit at the White House and other books published at the time, “few, if any, of the chestnuts included in these volumes can be traced directly to Lincoln.” Here’s an example of a joke that appears in both 1863’s Old Abe’s Joker and 1864’s Old Abe’s Jokes, although I’m choosing to share the 1863 version because it has a final line that I find hilarious in how dark and unnecessary it is:
Did Lincoln actually tell this joke at some point — or any of the others in the books? It’s really impossible to tell. Not only because of the lack of recordings, but for two other reasons as well. First of all, not all of Lincoln’s stories were Lincoln’s stories to begin with — Old Abe’s point in using humor wasn’t to tell his true tales; it was to relate to people, disarm them, and prove points. He was a collector of stories that could help him in this effort, which means that discovering a joke was published before Lincoln’s time might indicate that Lincoln didn’t come up with it, but it doesn’t tell you whether Lincoln told it. For example, Zall points to this story Lincoln told, which was seen several places before Lincoln’s day, including the 1826 book Wit and Wisdom:
I was once accosted in the cars by a stranger, who said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but I have an article in my possession which belongs to you.’ ‘How is that?’ I asked, considerably astonished. The stranger took a jack-knife from his pocket. ‘This knife, said he ‘was placed in my hands some years ago, with the injunction that I was to keep it until I found a man uglier than myself. I have carried it from that time to this. Allow me now to say, sir, that I think you are fairly entitled to the property.”
The second reason why the veracity of Lincoln’s jokes is difficult to suss out is the aforementioned public hunger for Lincoln stories, positive and negative, which led publishers to share many stories attributed to Old Abe without fact-checking. Lincoln’s enemies especially recognized the power of pegging dirty, crude, or mean-spirited stories to Lincoln, whether he had shared them or not. And while Lincoln had been known to tell a dirty or offensive joke in his day (and in private), Zall notes that “the president’s foes exploited his indecent humor as a political and moral liability.”
Lincoln’s monumental presidency combined with his reputation for storytelling means that he remains one of our most misquoted public figures, right up there with Gandhi. (One of my favorite fake Lincoln quotes is “Great things come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle,” as if Honest Abe were at heart a Red Bull-fueled startup bro.) Donald Trump even posted a fake Lincoln quote on Lincoln’s birthday.
But let’s not forget what really matters here: that while many, many of the jokes and stories that are attributed to Lincoln were never told by him, our 16th president did tell a story about farting while cutting a turkey. And that is truly a glorious thing.