Was the last joke Abe Lincoln heard funny?

I can’t be the first amateur historian / comedy writer to get interested in this question.

It’s presumed that John Wilkes Booth, who knew the play, waited for what he knew would be a big laugh line, which was:

Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.

Let’s back up a bit.

Lincoln, as errbody knows, was watching Our American Cousin at the time of his death.

The plot of Our American Cousin is a coarse but honest American goes to the UK to claim an inheritance and gets involved in the various shenanigans of his snooty distant relatives who are trying to keep up appearances and marry off daughters and so on.  Seems like a pretty good premise.   A Frasier-esque farce satirizing pretension and manners.

good source for these images is BoothieBarn, though not sure how to feel about the name

Our American Cousin was written by Tom Taylor.

He had a career as a lawyer and bureaucrat and magazine editor.

Our American Cousin doesn’t seem to have been his biggest hit, that might’ve been:

which isn’t a comedy. They made that one into a movie a few times, most recently in 1937.

Our American Cousin premiered in New York in 1858 and was a hit.

Stealing the show was Edward Askew Sothern as Lord Dundreary:

Askew Sothern almost hadn’t taken the part:

At first, he was reluctant to accept the role; it was so small and unimportant that he felt it beneath him and feared it might damage his reputation.[7][8] He mentioned his qualms to his friend, Joseph Jefferson, who had been cast in the leading role of Asa Trenchard in the play. Jefferson supposedly responded with the famous line: “There are no small parts, only small actors.”[9]

Huh.

After a couple of unhappy weeks in the small role, Sothern began portraying the role as a lisping, skipping, eccentric, weak-minded fop prone to nonsensical references to sayings of his “bwother” Sam. His ad-libs were a sensation, earning good notices for his physical comedy and spawning much imitation and merry mockery on both sides of the Atlantic. His exaggerated, droopy side-whiskers became known as “Dundrearys”. Sothern gradually expanded the role, adding gags and business until it became the central figure of the play. The most famous scene involved Dundreary reading a letter from his even sillier brother.

Sounds funny enough.  Kind of like this:

I can’t determine if Sothern was in the Ford’s Theater production, or if they got a different Dundreary.  Appears on this night Dundreary may have been played by one E. A. Emerson.

But top bill the Ford’s Theater night went to Laura Keene.

Born Mary Francis Moss, she married a former British Army officer who committed some crime or another and got transported to Australia on a prison ship.  To support herself and her kids she became Laura Keene, a popular actress.

She appeared with Edwin Booth many times, they even toured Australia together.

At this point, she lined up investors, along with an architect who specialized in theaters, and a new theater was constructed to her specifications. Named the Laura Keene’s Theatre, it opened on 18 November 1856. In 1858, Our American Cousin debuted in Laura Keene’s Theater.

A badass, as they say.  A strong female multi-hyphenate.

Some years later they revived the play for a kind of benefit night, and that’s how Lincoln ended up there.

John Wilkes Booth waited for a big laugh line:

Halfway through Act III, Scene 2, the character of Asa Trenchard, played that night by Harry Hawk, utters this line, considered one of the play’s funniest, to Mrs. Mountchessington:

Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.

Harry Hawk in costume:

I found that image through the website for The Persistence of Dreams, this four minute recreation movie of that night at the theater (warning: violence):

Sockdologizing was a made up word, invented in this play.  It seems that around this time people found the word “doxology” to be funny.  It may have been a play on that.

The phrase sounds weird to our ears.  But I bet if you heard it, delivered with solid timing by a charming actor like Harry Hawk, playing into the role of the lovably blunt Asa Trenchard, it was probably amusing.

Anyway, I conclude that yes, the last joke Abe Lincoln heard was pretty funny, even if it may not be exactly hilarious to us these many years later.



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