Lincoln laughed. That much we know. His war secretary did not. The rest of the cabinet either collectively chuckled or uniformly scowled, depending on whose account you believe.
It was noon on September 22, 1862, five days after Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War. The president, meeting with his advisors in what is now the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House, was about to sign his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. As a preamble to this historic act, the tall, somber executive read aloud the words of Artemus Ward—the national jester of the Civil War era and America's first stand-up comic.
For anyone familiar with the intersection of Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenues, something might sound a bit off. Isn't the statue at the center of Ward Circle of a Revolutionary War general? Yes, it is. It's also a statue of Artemas Ward—with an a. It's time you got to know Artemus with a u.
Artemus Ward was a persona dreamed up by 23-year-old New Englander and newspaperman Charles Foster Browne (née Brown—he added the e to affect an English air). Browne started out as a humble typesetter but rose to transatlantic fame thanks to this immensely popular alter ego he created to fill out the pages of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Browne developed the character of Ward—a plump, balding, opportunistic sideshow promoter—through dozens of comically misspelled letters ostensibly written to newspapers and magazines to recount his travels and pitch his bogus sideshow, one "ekalled by few & exceld by none." Intolerant of religious and political fervor, the Ward travelogues satirized extremists and institutions of all stripes using butchered attempts at highfalutin language.
In that 1862 cabinet meeting, Lincoln read Ward's "High-Handed Outrage at Utica," in which a country moralizer destroys a wax figure of "Judas Iscarrot" to punish the false apostle for daring to show his face in town. "What did you bring this pussylanermus cuss here fur?" the avenging local asked Artemus while clobbering the statue to bits.
Ward had skewered Lincoln himself, poking fun athis humbler-than-life, folksy image. But apparently, honest Abe was big enough to laugh at himself. That day, in fact, he felt he needed to.
"With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die," he said to his cabinet after reading the Utica story, "and you need this medicine as much as I do."
Ward's letters helped Browne become editor of Vanity Fair, a humor publication unrelated to today's magazine. The position was short-lived but established Browne as an arbiter of an emerging, national comedic style. He became a regular at Pfaff's, a legendary bohemian saloon in New York City where Walt Whitman also imbibed.
Around this time, Browne transformed Artemus from a character in the pages of the Plain Dealer into the touring star of a comedic lecture, essentially an hour-long stand-up routine.
The Ward of the stage, as portrayed by Browne, was thin, with a prominent nose and imposing mustache. His signature opening was to remain silent with such a sustained straight face that its woodenness in the awkward pause inevitably prompted laughter. At that point, he would take extreme and bewildered offense, offering to continue only once the audience had stopped interrupting him.
On a coast-to-coast lecture circuit, Browne set attendance records, earned handsome sums, and drank heavily. In Virginia City, Nevada, he spent 10 raucous days with another aspiring writer who employed a pseudonym—Mark Twain.
Browne later gave a career boost to his literary peer, asking Twain for a story to pad the pages of a book anthologizing the Artemus letters. Twain sent one, but it arrived too late. Instead, Henry Clapp, who hosted the gatherings at Pfaff's, published the tale of a celebrated jumping frog, and it became Twain's breakout hit.
Twain borrowed inspiration—and a few jokes—from Ward as his career developed but later tired at comparisons to the more famous storyteller. Their careers often intertwined, but they never met in person again.
Browne's final tour as Ward was to London, where he was the talk of the town and contributed to the humor magazine Punch. Browne died there in 1867, and his body was brought back across the Atlantic, landing in New York Harbor just as Twain was outbound on his own trip to Europe.
Twain eulogized Browne as "one of the kindest and gentlest men in the world" and "America's greatest humorist."
It is unclear if Browne picked his pseudonym in homage to Artemas Ward, the Revolutionary War general. That's one explanation he offered, but he also claimed to have lifted it from a showman of the same name.
Ward, the general, has no connection to AU. By the whim of a planning commission, his statue was installed at the Massachusetts Avenue intersection, and the campus now brushes against the circumference of the circle that bears his name. He may stand at the center to greet campus visitors, but his relation to our alma mater is—both historically and geometrically—only tangential.
Nonetheless, AU has embraced General Ward as a mascot of sorts, adopting his name for the School of Public Affairs building and the annual Artie Ward Week celebration. Imagine what might have been if the other Artemus had been enshrined in that spot.
Perhaps we would be home, instead, to a School or Public Satire ekalled by few & exceld by none.