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The Lighter Side of Lincoln

July 5, 2021

Lincoln’s propensity for story-telling and his sense of humor, borne out of the Civil War and a strained marriage, has been the subject of many books. During his Presidency, it also became the grist of Democratic partisan attacks, seen in cartoons and other campaign ephemera.

There were at least two Lincoln joke books issued during his Presidency. We are uncertain whether these were intended as critiques of the President or merely commercial efforts of a non-partisan nature. The first such publication is Monaghan #177, Robert M. DeWitt’s “Old Abe’s Joker or, Wit at the White House”, a compendium of “minstrel and Irish jokes” published in New York by Henry J. Wehman. It was reprinted in the 1920s. We pictured the original on page 18 of our Spring 2007 hard copy issue. A year later, T. R. Dawley of New York published “Old Abe’s Jokes: Fresh from Abraham’s Bosom” (M-335). Copies are known with buff and yellow pictorial wraps. The cover features a somewhat rustic portrait of the President, copied from a journal printed at the time of Lincoln’s first inauguration. Dawley also published a variant titled “Honest Abe’s Jokes” and “Honest Abe’s Songster [Dawley’s Ten-Penny Song Books”), both with full color covers featuring a bust of Lincoln surrounded by four vignettes of his career. Both are unlisted in Monaghan.

Around 1885, New York publisher Hurst & Co. decided to reprint a Lincoln joke book. What they came up with was an amalgam of “Honest Abe’s Jokes” and “Old Abe’s Jokes.” The reprint is printed on cheap wood-pulp paper. It is somewhat smaller than the original. The cover is patterned after “Honest Abe’s Jokes”, but printed in black & white with some differences in the type fonts. The frontispiece contains the same portrait seen on the cover of “Old Abe’s Jokes” and the title page indicates the work is “Old Abe’s Jokes.” So, with the exception of the cover and titled spine, the Hurst reprint is basically a copy of “Old Abe’s Jokes”. Original books published in 1863 and 1864, as well as the 1885 reprint, are rare and seldom appear for sale.