San Francisco History

When Artemus Ward was Here

by Walter J. Thompson

Artemus Ward was invited to San Francisco by Tom Maguire, the theatrical and general amusement expert of early days. It was in 1863 and Charles Farrar Browne was in the height of his fame as a humorist. Maguire, keen for new business, planned a lecture tour of the State and wired to Artemus the invitation: “What will you take for forty nights in California?”

The reply of the whimsical man of humor was prompt and characteristic: “Brandy and water. A. Ward.”

The joke was supposed to be on Maguire. He grinned and used it as an advertisement for his star.

Artemus arrived in due time and was installed at the Occidental Hotel, to which place he was driven by a kind-hearted hackman who said that as Artemus had come out West to amuse people he would charge him only $5 for the ride. Platt’s Hall on Montgomery street, near Bush, was the scene of his introduction to the San Francisco public on November 13, and the connecting link was his famous lecture, “The Babes in the Woods.” Maguire had made no mistake about the popular interest in the funny man, and there was a “large and fashionable gathering,” as Ward put it. One of his most ardent admirers was Rev. Thomas Starr King, who had a seat on the platform.

The lecture was a marvel in its way and won the audience completely consisting as it did of a batch of wandering comicalities touching upon everything except the Babes. Those immortal infants of nursery fame had no more to do with the talk than did Professor Noah Webster have aught to do with the authorship of the jokes of Circus Clown Dan Rice. Artemus admitted that the lecture came very near being named “My Seven Grandmothers,” also that one of the features of his entertainment was that it contained so many things that didn’t have anything to do with it.

There are, I think, some old timers around yet who heard that lecture and who can recall the tall and slender man with straight blond hair, brilliant eyes and an “eagle-beak nose,” a step which was rather hesitating and a shy manner in the presence of his audience, suggestive of a country swain on his calling night.

Artemus was a heavy stockholder in the corporations of Bohemia and sought congenial spirits such as he was accustomed to associate with at Pfaff’s famous New York resort where he and George Arnold, the poet, and William Winter, the dramatic critic, as well as a score of others, often held high revels. Among the acquaintances he made there during his brief stay were many of the congenial order, and their sway as rulers in the world of entertainment was confined to Montgomery street resorts. It was a party of these spirits that made Artemus the guest of honor at a special dinner in a famous cave of conviviality on the other side of Washington street. There were a dozen select Bohemians at the banquet and wit and wine flowed freely. It was on this occasion that Artemus in the flow of his feelings entertained the party with a gem of a story that was typical of his style and personality. I got it from one who was there and who could retell it in nearly the humorist’s own words. The inimitable manner, of course, could not be imitated. It came as a surprise to some of the party who had begun to be disappointed in Artemus, who had been quiet, in fact, preternaturally solemn amid the fun.

“I think,” said Artemus suddenly, during a lull in affairs, “I ought to tell you about the adventure I had once with a pie. You know I have always been fond of pies. It ran in the family. Our folks always drove to church with a piebald horse, but I never favored going to the extremes: plain pie was always good enough for me. Once upon a time there were three of us in a hunting party; we were out rabbit shooting, that is, we meant to shoot rabbits if we met any, which we didn’t. But we shot something before we were through; oh, yes, indeed. One of the party was my old and esteemed friend Washington Lee Quackenboss, who shot me in the starboard limb, putting six buckshot in a copy of the New York Ledger, a paper I always used as boot lining. It did not affect me much, but it cut up the Ledger dreadfully, not to speak of damaging one of Sylvanus Cobb’s serials. But, I forgave Quackenboss. Yes, I assure you I forgave him.”

Then Artemus halted and gazed earnestly at first one and then another of those around him.

“What about the pie?” some one laughed.

“Oh, yes,” muttered Artemus, as though just getting a hitch on his memory. “The pie, we didn’t shoot that.” Then he resumed very gravely.

“You see, Quackenboss and I were very much afraid of our companion, X. Y. Z. Bowers, and had dampened his percussion caps so he didn’t fire his gun off at all during the day, although he did discharge a good many tall, able-bodied oaths. As regards myself, after experiencing the mulelike qualities of my gun, I thought it was unsuited to carry shot and so used powder only. Certainly I did not kill anything,” and then Artemus again gazed gravely about and seemed to go into a reverie, while again some one made a remark about the pie.

“It was dried apple,” said Artemus promptly. “I remember it so vividly because my landlady always treated us to pies compounded of the dried fruit of which Eve was so fond. I don’t mean to insinuate that Mrs. Eve tempted Mr. Adam with a dried russet, as I don’t think that would have fetched him any way. It was a boarding-house pie, put upon on homeopathic specifications, small and like myself—sweet. When my friends and yours truly gathered around the festive bowlder to swell up on luncheon we discovered that my pie was conspicuous because of its magnificent lonesomeness. Quackenboss had old sour mash sustenance and crackers and cheese. Bowers produced from his pockets a tine of sardines and a bottle of bourbon bitters, while it set before their hungry gaze a dozen buttered rolls, a bottle of R. Eye Water and the pie. We all loved pie, yes, indeed, we did. As for the whiskey, well, we used it. Quackenboss abhorred it, he said, but called it sustenance and took it for family reasons. Bowers proclaimed that he never liked it, so called it bitters and used it as a bowel regulation. I drank it straight because my ancestors did. I respect my ancestors, but being a moderate person in the habits called my whisky R. Eye Water.

“Well, we would up the sour mash sustenance, cheese and crackers, put a grand finish to the bourbon bitters and the sardines, devoured the buttered rolls and absorbed the R. Eye Water. But we avoided that pie. It was a small affair, as I have said. Sometimes one of us would point his knife in its direction, all inadvertently, whereupon the others would knit their brows and breathe hard—each wanting it and too polite to say so. Finally I mustered courage and said: ‘Won’t either of you eat this little pie?’

“‘Not I!’ said Quackenboss, with a hungry shudder, ‘I don’t like pie.’

“‘Dried apple pie always turned my insides topsy-turvey,’ said Bowers, his gaze wandering around the crust and settling fondly in the hole in the center.

“‘I can’t touch it,’ I said; ‘better eat it, one of you.’

“Strange to say, neither one of ‘em would take it; so, after each had devoured it with his eyes a score of times, we rose and left it reposing in its lonesomeness on the rock. After marching a half mile or so, Quackenboss said he thought he saw some quail over to the left, and Bowers said he was sure if he tried over to the right he could bag some ducks, and away they started in different directions, leaving me to kill all the game I wanted.

“‘You’re in a right good spot,’ said Bowers to me as he ambled away; ‘I’ll be back soon.’

“‘Now,’ I thought, ‘It’s a pity to waste that dear little apple pie on the beasts of the field.’ So, in order that it might not be wasted, I tracked back and after a smart run came across it, raising it tenderly and with emotion, I was about to bite a third out of it when I heard some one approaching running like all possessed. The thought instantly flashed through my mind:

“‘’Tis that greedy cuss Quackenboss after this pie.’

“Gently and regretfully I laid it back on the rock and climbed a neighboring tree, seating myself on a limb as Quackenboss came up.

“‘Ah,’ he said, ‘I’ve licked ‘em both.’ Then he took a deep breath and gazed lovingly at the poor little pie. After a spell of admiration he stopped, raised it in his fingers, grunted as though still enjoying the thought of the bluff he had run on Bowers and me, then, opening his mouth, prepared to demolish the pie, when he gave a start and replacing it on the rock hid himself behind my tree, saying: ‘I knew that human hog Bowers couldn’t keep away from it.’ Up rushed Bowers, pale and breathless.

“‘Reka!’ he shouted, seating himself on the rock and pressing his hand to his side. ‘I’ve euchred the pair of ‘em.’

“As he said it there was a rustling among the dead leaves, and Bowers slipped down behind the bowlder. He evidently through the noise was made by one of us. At that moment Quackenboss looked up and saw me. It was funny to see Bowers crouching there, as he thought, awaiting our arrival.

“Suddenly a big gray squirrel skipped out over the dead leaves, leaped upon the rock, and in an instant, before a restraining hand could be raised, he had grabbed that pie in his mouth and forepaw and vanished. Bowers alone did not see it, and when he peered over the rock he gave a shout, ‘Where the dickens did that pie go to?’

“Then he saw us and we explained the situation.’ He had the nerve to tell us that he had been chasing that squirrel and he wanted to know in what direction it had gone.

“Quckenboss pretended to be indignant and said he, too, had been trailing the squirrel.

“I told them I knew they were both after the same game and had climbed the tree to see the sport. We never did find out what became of that pie. It was only a small one, such a small one, anyhow,” and Artemus solemnly raised a glass and proposed the health of the pie.

After leaving San Francisco Artemus toured the State, and later incorporated his experiences in a lecture and showed a painted scene on Montgomery street in his famous panorama.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 17 September 1916. 28.

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