Josh Billings

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Josh Billings (Henry Wheeler Shaw)
File:Harvard Theatre Collection - Josh Billings TCS 1.2486 - cropped.jpg
Humorist and lecturer Josh Billings
Born (1818-04-21)April 21, 1818
Lanesborough, Massachusetts, US
Died October 14, 1885 (aged 67)
Monterey, California, US
Occupation Writer
Spouse(s) Zipha E. (Bradford) Shaw ( – November 12, 1901)[1] (m. 1845)[2]
Children Grace Anna Shaw Duff ( – 1923),[3] Kate Alice Shaw Santana[4][5]
Parent(s) Henry Shaw (1788–1857), Laura Wheeler Shaw ( – 1883)[6][7]

Josh Billings was the pen name of 19th-century American humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw (April 21, 1818 – October 14, 1885). He was a famous humor writer and lecturer in the United States, perhaps second only to Mark Twain, during the latter half of the 19th century.


Shaw was born in Lanesborough, Massachusetts on April 21, 1818. His father was Henry Shaw, who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1817–21,[8][9] 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 second year for removing the clapper of the campus bell.[2][10] He married Zipha E. Bradford in 1845.[2]

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.[11] 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.[12] 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 father's' name (Hen) with her husband's and son's.[13]

Legacy and attributed quotations

Main article: Josh Billings' Wikiquote page.

His saying, "In the whole history of the world there is but one thing that money can not buy... to wit the wag of a dog's tail" appears at the beginning of the Disney film Lady and the Tramp.[14]

The phrase, "Love is like measles... the later in life it occurs, the tougher it gets," was quoted as being Josh Billings' in Jan Karon's book, A Light in the Window.[15]

While the Squeaky Wheel analysis was used in different forms before Billings, his poem, "The Kicker" brought the idiom into common usage of American language. The term "kicker" at the time in the 1800s was another term for a complainer. The poem is:

I hate to be a kicker,
I always long for peace,
But the wheel that does the squeaking,
Is the one that gets the grease.

"Consider the postage stamp, son. It secures success through its ability to stick to one thing till it gets there."

"Solitude is a good place to visit, but a poor place to stay."

"It is better to know less than to know so much that ain't so."[16]

Hong Kong movie Revenge: A Love Story ends with his quote "There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness."


  1. (November 13, 1901). Obituary Notes, The New York Times, Retrieved December 1, 2010
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Adams, Arthur G., ed. The Hudson River in literature: an anthology, p. 303 (1980) (ISBN 0-87395-407-6)
  3. (June 6, 1923). Obituary, The New York Times, Retrieved December 1, 2010
  4. (November 7, 1885). Josh Billing's Will, The New York Times, Retrieved December 1, 2010
  5. Mark Twain's letters: 1869, Volume 3, p.410 (1992)(details of Bilings' children)
  6. Smith, Francis Shubael. Life and adventures of Josh Billings (1883)
  7. Palmer, Charles J. History of Town of Lanesborough, p.164 (1905)
  8. Biographical Introduction to The complete works of Josh Billings (Henry W. Shaw), p. xiv (1876)
  9. Encyclopædia Britannica, Vol. 24, p. 813 (11th ed. 1911)
  10. (May 4, 1956). Early Adventures of 'Josh Billings', Buckingham Post, Retrieved December 1, 2010
  12. Hamilton literary magazine, Volume 20, p. 108 (November 1885)
  14. Lady and the Tramp, Disney, 1955.
  15. A Light in the Window, by Jan Karon, ISBN 0-14-025454-4, pg 154.
  16. Keyes, Ralph. "The Quote Verifier." Macmillan, 2006. iBooks.

External links