Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Legend: Calamity after calamity piles up in a tale of saving the worst news for last.
Example: [Brunvand, 1993]
Origins: This story has been presented in many forms over the long years it has been in existence. Folklorists have collected samples of what has come to be called "The Climax of Horrors" dating well into the nineteenth century. In 1879, a version titled "How to Tell Bad News" appeared in McGuffey's Fifth Eclectic
But it's even older than that. According to Cerf, a version was harvested from an 1841 English miscellany, and one of our readers points out its appearance as a French song dating back to at least the 1500s.
Since then, the story has gone through many incarnations, following a typical form of a servant's beginning by reporting the death of an animal (dog or pet bird who ate burnt horseflesh, or horses who perished in a barn fire); escalating through a fire that wiped out the barn and main house, the death of a family member, and culminating with the news that the man's wife ran off with a hired man. Some versions end (begin?) by killing off the wife and having all the couple's children perish in the fire.
The humor of the tale relies as much on the style in which the story is told as upon the absurd placement of the first (and deemed worst) chronological event at the end of the rendition:
[Cerf, 1946]Barbara "ask Jeeves where she went" Mikkelson
The latest version begins with a wealthy planter returning from a trip to New York, and greeting the faithful retainer at the station with a "Well, you old rascal, anything happen at the estate while I was gone?" "Nuthin wuth mentionin', boss," answers the retainer cheerily, "'Cept, of course, de two hands what died fum eatin' all dat burnt hoss flesh."
"Where on earth did they get hold of burnt horse flesh?"
"Dat was when de stables caught fire, boss."
"Yassuh! Sparks fum de big house, dey figger."
"The big house! Sparks! How did the fire start?"
"Fum de candles round de coffin, suh. Place burned to de groun' afore we could do a thing."
"Good heavens, man! Whose coffin?"
"Your ma, boss. I s'pect she died fum de shock."
"Yo' wife, boss. She done run away wid de butler."
Last updated: 18 January 2007
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