Jeanne Matthews is happy to announce the arrival of a new mystery! Devil By The Tail, scheduled for release in July 2021, pairs the audacious young widow of a Union soldier with an unvarnished ex-Confederate POW. When they join forces and open their own detective agency, sparks fly – literally and figuratively. A sensational arson and murder, a yellow press, corrupt politicians, and a bevy of notorious bawdyhouse madams make life in 1867 Chicago a dangerous affair.
Originally from Georgia, Jeanne lives in Washington State with her husband, a law professor, and a Norwich terrier named Jack Reacher. Information about her other books can be found on her website, www.jeannematthews.com.
While researching my new historical mystery, set in 1867 Chicago, I learned a number of long, fanciful words that were all the rage at the time. Made up from prefixes and suffixes of complicated, Latin-sounding words, these comical creations had a faux-educated cachet and a delicious mouth-feel. Absquatulate (to abscond). Exfluncticate (to destroy). Discombobulate (to confuse). While they may sound quaint or corny today, they were in common parlance in the 1800s and some have endured. We all know what hornswoggle and skedaddle mean.
Sockdolager is my personal favorite of these verbal inventions and the one with the most momentous history. It can mean either a forceful blow, the point that settles a matter, or an exceptional person or thing. Its etymology remains uncertain but it was probably cobbled together from sock, meaning to punch somebody, and doxology, the concluding hymn at the end of a church service. The Chicago Daily Tribune defined sockdolager as “the term for anything that left nothing else to follow; an overwhelming finish to which no reply was possible.”
These splendiferous words, and especially the word “sockdolager,” fascinated the British playwright Tom Taylor. He wrote a farce intended to poke fun at earnest, naïve Americans and their ridiculous Americanisms. The plot featured an uncouth American bumpkin named Asa Trenchard who goes to England to claim an inheritance and meet his hoity-toity English cousins. To Taylor’s surprise, Americans thought the joke was on the English aristocrats who were also skewered in the play. Our American Cousin premiered in New York City in 1858 with great success and became hugely popular in the United States. In 1865, the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C. scheduled a two-week run of the play, but it lasted 150 nights. The finale on April 14th was a sold-out performance.
It was a laugh a minute. Lord Dundreary blabbers his twisted aphorisms. “Birds of a feather gather no moss” and “It’s a wise child that gets the worms.” Servants anticipate the American’s arrival with great excitement. All Americans are seventeen feet tall, aren’t they? And what about the “wild helephants and buffaloes” that roam the wilds of Vermont? When Asa shows up, he’s “bumfuzzled” and boorish, swilling liquor and taunting his snobbish cousins. “Do they think I mean to absquatulate with the spoons?” Believing Asa to be the heir to a large fortune, Mrs. Mountchessington overlooks his gaffes and tries to manipulate him into marrying her daughter. Unbeknownst to her, he has fallen in love with a poor dairymaid.
In Act 3, Scene 2, he confronts Mrs. Mountchessington in a way he knows will stop her meddling. He tells her there’s been a mistake. He isn’t the heir after all, but stands ready to pour out his affections upon her daughter “like apple sass over roast pork.” So, he asks, how does she feel about taking him on as a son-in-law now that he’s moneyless? The lady is indignant. “I am aware, Mr. Trenchard, you are not used to the manners of good society and that, alone, will excuse the impertinence of which you have been guilty.” With that riposte, she flounces off the stage in a huff.
Here comes Trenchard’s chance to put this highfalutin biddy in her place. The actors wait for it – the line that has brought down the house in every performance for the last 149 nights. “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal, you sockdolagizing old mantrap.”
The audience erupts in laughter. John Wilkes Booth, an actor familiar with the play, has anticipated the predictable roar of hilarity. He steals into the presidential box and fires a bullet into Abraham Lincoln’s brain. The crack of Booth’s single-barrel derringer was drowned out. Lincoln died in mid-guffaw. “Sockdolagizing old mantrap” were the last words he heard in his life.
Those words may have resonated with Lincoln in a more personal and emotional way than we can know. Biographers report that Mary pursued Lincoln relentlessly, determined to marry him in spite of his unpolished manners and lack of money. He confided his reluctance to marry her to several friends and broke off the engagement once, having fallen in love with an eighteen-year-old beauty named Matilda Edwards. But Mary didn’t give up. She got her man, most likely by seducing him. He would no doubt have felt obligated to marry her immediately in order to preserve her honor. Did that make her a sockdolagizing mantrap?
After a long, on-and-off courtship, the marriage was hastily arranged. While dressing for the wedding ceremony, Lincoln remarked to his groomsman, “I guess I am going to hell.”