Henry Wheeler Shaw

[Josh Billings]

Biography of Henry Wheeler Shaw

Josh Billings was the pen name of 19th century American humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw (21 April 1818 – 14 October 1885). He was perhaps the second most famous humor writer and lecturer in the United States in the second half of the 19th century after Mark Twain, although his reputation has not endured so well with later generations.

Shaw was born in Lanesborough, Massachusetts on April 20, 1818. His father was Henry Shaw, who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1817–21, and his grandfather Samuel Shaw who also served in the U.S. Congress from 1808-1813. His uncle was John Savage, yet another Congressman.

Shaw attended Hamilton College, but was expelled in his sophomore year for removing the clapper of the campus bell. He married Zipha E. Bradford in 1845.

Shaw worked as a farmer, coal miner, explorer, and auctioneer before he began making a living as a journalist and writer in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1858. Under the pseudonym "Josh Billings" he wrote in an informal voice full of the slang of the day, with often eccentric phonetic spelling, dispensing wit and folksy common-sense wisdom. His books include Farmers' Allminax, Josh Billings' Sayings, Everybody's Friend, Choice Bits of American Wit and Josh Billings' Trump Kards. He toured, giving lectures of his writings, which were very popular with the audiences of the day. He was also reputed to be the eponymous author of the "Uncle Ezek's Wisdom" column in the Century Magazine.

Billings died in Monterey, California on October 14, 1885. Billings' death is described in Chapter 12 of John Steinbeck's fictional Cannery Row. According to Steinbeck's homage, Billings died in the Hotel del Monte in Monterey after which his body was delivered for burial preparation by the local constable to the town's only doctor, who also doubled as an amateur mortician. The doctor, per his usual embalming protocol, dispensed of Billings' entrails by tossing them into the gulch behind his house before packing the torso with sawdust. The stomach, liver and intestines were found in the gulch the following morning by a dog whose master, a small boy, intended on using them for fish bait. Some local men, realizing the disgrace this could bring to Monterey—a town proud of its literary heritage—were able to stop the boy as he was preparing to row out to sea, retrieved the tripas and forced the doctor to give Billings' organs a proper burial befitting a great author.

Billings' daughter Grace Shaw Duff donated money for the building of Wilhenford Hospital in Augusta, Georgia, which opened in 1910. The name combined a syllable of her fathers' name (Hen) with her husband's and son's.

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