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The Joke’s On Us

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 07, 2011

Keepa has posted 125 “Funny Bones” collections of quips from old church publications, which means that you’ve read approximately 130 jokes about overly frugal Scots (or “Scotchmen” as the jokes usually call them). The jokes aren’t true — but are they funny? offensive? something else? How about the other ethnic jokes, the ones that depend for their punchlines on the idea that Irishmen drink too much and get into fist fights? or that Swedes talk funny but sometimes inadvertently express great wisdom behind their accents? or that Jews are good businessmen? How about the other stereotypes — country bumpkins, city slickers, henpecked husbands, brides who can’t cook, employers who chase their secretaries?

Today the shoe is on the other foot, as we look at jokes printed in Gentile newspapers showcasing Mormon stereotypes. I’ve weeded out the worst of them, the ones that display blatant hatred and scorn and contempt, and limited the jokes to those most comparable to the ethnic stereotypes our own ancestors found so funny. Many of them are simple twists on other stereotypes — the talkative woman, the henpecked husband, the interfering mother-in-law — but all on steroids in the presumed Mormon context.

Discuss.

(1870)

Lightning killed a Mormon near Salt Lake, and threw upon the market a fine assortment of widows of all ages and conditions.

-oOo-

First Mormon: “I wonder who that blonde is? A nice figure!”

Second ditto: “Why, don’t you know? It’s your wife.”

First Mormon: “So it is. I thought I had seen her before.”

(1872)

The debating society held their meeting the other night, and as I expected, the subject was “women.” The vote was adverse to the women of Otago, and it was resolved that in the event of the United States of America confiscating all the wives of the Mormons except one each, that it would be advisable to petition President Grant to send them out here [New Zealand]. In favour of this movement it was argued that those ladies would receive pensions, and being saints as well, they would be very desirable helpmates.

(1873)

The ladies of Utah are tired of being called Mormons, and have changed the orthography of their creed by substituting “e” for “o” in the last syllable – more men is what they want.

(1876)

They have found a petrified Mormon in Utah, and from the number of dents in the head, evidently made with a poker and flat iron, it is judged that he had at least thirty-three wives.

(1877)

The good die young. Brigham the Mormon died Young. Therefore Brigham was good.

(1878)

A Mormon trigamist, who couldn’t persuade a widow to become his fourth wife, sent his No. 2 to plead for him. The widow, with some surprise, asked the woman if she really wanted her to accept. ‘Well,” said the second wife, “I don’t wish Mr. — to take any more wives, but I do so hate and detest his No. 3, that I would do anything to plague her, and so I want you to come.”

(1880)

There is a man who says that if we reflected upon the number of an active Mormon’s mother-in-laws, we should not hesitate to forgive his iniquities on account of the mighty vastness of his reparation. Our informant has just married his third wife, and all their maternal parents live in his house.

(1884)

A contemporary talks of “fighting polygamy with words.” But it is necessary to say that words can have no deterrent effect upon the man who has half a dozen wives in his family.

(1885)

A Mormon with twenty wives is not necessarily twenty times as miserable as the man with only one. For instance, when one of them gets mad and wants to break his head with the broom – are there not nineteen others to stand around and protect and save him, and to call her “a horrid, nasty, cruel thing”?

Worse than Mormonism

“Talk about Mormonism,” said Bulger; “I don’t see what right people have to howl about it when such things as this are permitted in Pennsylvania,” and he pointed his finger to an item in the paper he had in his hand.

“What is it?” inquired Sucker.

“Why, here it tells of one man who has married no less than 1500 women.”

“Incredible.”

“But it is so. His name is Mayes, and he marries a new woman every few days, and yet the authorities don’t interfere.”

“Horrible! How does he evade the law?”

“He doesn’t evade it. He is a Justice of the Peace, and his place is a sort of Gretna Green for Ohio and West Virginia runaway couples.”

“Oh!” said Sucker, and then went off muttering something about people being too smart.

-oOo-

The only way to open the eyes of the Mormons to the evil of polygamy is to have all their wives buy spring bonnets at once.

(1886)

Two Mormon women met on a street in Salt Lake City the other day. “Say,” said one of them, “is it true that Brother Smith has married a second wife?”

“Yes, it is true,” was the answer.

“How do you know?” asked number one.

“I can see it in his first wife’s face,” said number two.

(1887)

Mormon wife (to husband) – ‘Are you going out, dear?’

Mormon husband – ‘Yes; I have an engagement with Miss Brigham. She is to give me her answer tonight.’

(1889)

Wife (reading morning paper): “Why, the Mormons actually still claim the right of having two, three, and sometimes four wives at once.”

Husband: “At that rate, how can a man ever hope to be a widower?”

(1890)

Small Son: “Ma, what’s Mormons?”

Mother: “Men who have a good many wives, my son.”

“A good many?”

“Yes; thirty or forty sometimes.”

“Ooo! That’s awful.”

“Yes, my son.”

“Just awful. I wouldn’t like thirty or forty mammas to spank me.”

(1894)

Two girls wished to enter a Woman’s College in New York. The first gave her name as Lucy Smith aged 17, and the second as Mary Smith aged 17.

‘Ah,’ said the principal, ‘twins, I suppose!’

‘Not at all,’ answered Mary. ‘Pa is a Mormon.’

(1895)

Smith: “Who is that lady with the pale blue dress? She’s a beauty.”

Jones: “That is Mrs. Tomkins – an awfully clever woman. Makes a splendid wife – one in a hundred.”

Smith; ‘Good gracious! You don’t mean to tell me that her husband is a Mormon?”

(1899)

Mrs. Enpeck: “Ah, well; things are never so bad but that they might be worse.”

Mr. Enpeck (in whom the lion has suddenly been aroused): “I know it. I might be a Mormon and have three or four of you.”

-oOo-

An amusing story is told of the late Mr. A—, the head of a large American college, and a lady of more inquisitiveness than intelligence.

On one occasion a business matter called Mr A— to a small town in the central part of Pennsylvania. While sitting in the country hotel in the evening, after transacting his business, he was taken in hand by the wife of the proprietor, who wanted to know all about his private affairs.

Mr. A— took it all in good part, and for a time was rather amused. Finally she asked: “Have you much of a family?”

“Oh, yes,” said he, and he smiled as his mind reverted to his hundreds of pupils.

“How many children?” she persisted.

“Well,” said Mr. A—, with great earnestness, “I have three hundred, and all boys!”

The good lady was speechless for a moment. Then she arose, and hurrying to the door, called softly to her husband –

“Oh, John, come in here at once! We’ve got Brigham Young stoppin’ with us!”

-oOo-

When a woman is giving her husband a bit of her mind, he should try to imagine what it would be like if he were a Mormon, and was having seventeen such bits served up to him.

(1902)

Heard in a book-store: “I suppose that work in sixty volumes is an encyclopedia?”

“No; it is called ‘The Love-Letters of a Mormon Elder.’”

(1904)

A Mormon boy out in Utah
One day chanced to meet his own pa;
Cried the glad little one:
“Shake, pa, I’m your son!”
“Indeed?” said the man; “who’s your ma?”

-oOo-

Mr. Goldbug: “Very old family, is it not?”

Mrs. Malaprop Newrocks: “Very old, indeed; it goes away back to the conquest of England by the Mormons.”

-oOo-

“Do you know anything about the Mormons, Tommy?” asked the teacher.

“Yes’m,” replied the boy. “With the Mormons a wife is sometimes twins.”

-oOo-

A Mormon once argued polygamy with Mark Twain. The Mormon insisted that polygamy was moral, and he defied Twain to cite any passage of Scripture that forbade the practice. “Well,” said the humorist, “how about that passage that tells us no man can serve two masters?”

(1905)

Salt Lake City has imposed a 10-mile speed limit for motors, on the ground that one motor accident in a Mormon community may create half a dozen widows and convert an entire schoolhouse into an orphanage.

(1913)

First Bachelor – “What’s your idea of a hero?”

Second Bachelor – “A Mormon.”

A Quick Thinker

Boss: “Young man, this is the third time, to my knowledge, that you’ve buried a grandmother.”

Boy: “Well, you see, boss, my grandfather was a Mormon.”

(1927)

“What!” cried the Mormon’s wife. “You say my husband is dying?”

“I am afraid so,” replied the doctor.

“Then my place is by his bedside until the end.”

“Certainly,” said the doctor, “but I advise you to hurry, as all the best places are being rapidly taken.”

(1934)

Some people wonder what a Mormon wedding is like. It’s something like this:

Pastor (to groom): “Do you take these women to be your lawful wedded wives?”

Groom: “I do.”

Pastor (to brides): “Do you take this man to be your lawful wedded husband?”

Brides: “We do.”

Pastor: “Some of you girls at the back will have to speak louder if you want to be included in this.”



25 Comments »

  1. Very interesting (and at times, funny), Ardis. It points to the prominence of polygamy as the defining characteristic of Mormonism (assuming that the jokes selected by you are representative of the larger body).

    Can you help me with this one? I’m missing the context/humor.

    Mr. Goldbug: “Very old family, is it not?”

    Mrs. Malaprop Newrocks: “Very old, indeed; it goes away back to the conquest of England by the Mormons.”

    Comment by Christopher — February 7, 2011 @ 9:11 am

  2. It’s a malapropism, Chris — she means her family goes back to the conquest by the Normans. In addition to the wordplay, I suppose its humor is supposed to come partly from the absurdity (or perceived threat?) of being overrun by Mormons.

    This sample is representative of the jokes I find. I’ve got more, generally longer anecdotes rather than jokes, which I’ll probably post as a follow-up sometime. But I haven’t selected these specifically because they play off of polygamy. They’re just the first however-many-there-are that appear at the top of my research file, reordered by date and skipping the long ones. Purely random, otherwise.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 7, 2011 @ 10:05 am

  3. There are some pretty funny ones in there. I can’t imagine someone reading this blog today being the least bit offended by these, but I can’t tell if the reason is that jokes based on stereotypes are not so offensive if they are good natured or that none of us really identify with polygamy.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 7, 2011 @ 10:23 am

  4. Some of these are pretty funny.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 7, 2011 @ 10:26 am

  5. Ah. Thanks, Ardis. That seems obvious now that you point it out. Can I blame it on today being Monday?

    Comment by Christopher — February 7, 2011 @ 10:26 am

  6. I think they’re generally pretty funny, too. If you can look past the “but they’re not true!” factor, some of them really are clever. I suppose if you were a missionary greeted 50 times a day by “How many wives do YOU have?! Hahaha!” your smile might be a little forced. But I’d have a hard time being offended by any of these today, in ordinary circumstances.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 7, 2011 @ 10:35 am

  7. Ardis, but what about the ones that are true (e.g. 1886).

    Comment by Jacob J — February 7, 2011 @ 10:48 am

  8. No wonder people find it so hard to get past the polygamy thing.

    Comment by SilverRain — February 7, 2011 @ 10:48 am

  9. Jacob, in what sense is that one true? (I don’t suppose you think it’s biographically or journalisticaly true? in the sense that you can identify the specific individuals, and verify either the accuracy of the conversation or the accuracy of the perception?)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 7, 2011 @ 11:11 am

  10. Outstanding, Ardis. Very funny stuff. How did you collect all of these? Have you just been slipping them in a file as you have come across them, or is there a specific way of searching for Mormon jokes?

    Comment by Kevin Barney — February 7, 2011 @ 11:31 am

  11. Very funny! They are certainly funnier than the average Scotch joke, and a couple of them have given me pause as to the language I use in some of my writing about polygamous households.

    Comment by Researcher — February 7, 2011 @ 11:41 am

  12. Keep sharing the love! : )

    Kevin, I do keep a file of Mormon humor to store things as they turn up. Believe it or not, though, every single joke in this post came from a single newspaper database that I discovered this weekend — there was so much of it that these were at the top of that humor file, and stuff I’ve collected from elsewhere was too far down the page to make the cut for this post.

    I don’t know how you’d specifically hunt for it, since there’s no obvious key word to separate these jokes from news or editorial discussion of Mormonism. I just have a habit of reading every Mormon mention from the past that I can scrape up from anywhere, so sooner or later I’m bound to run across material on any subject imaginable. (That’s what makes me a valuable source for other historians to tap — anybody want to hire me? I need the work.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 7, 2011 @ 11:51 am

  13. Jacob, in what sense is that one true?

    In the context of someone poking fun at Mormon polygamy, I would only need to get past the “but they’re not true!” factor if it struck me as an unfair stereotype. Were there enough instances of that reaction from a first wife that an insider would recognize it from first-hand experience (and maybe even laugh)? My guess after reading a fair amount about early polygamy is that there were. As you suggest, establishing the accuracy of the perception objectively is probably hard. But I don’t think Emma was the only first wife to resent her husband taking more wives.

    In what sense does that one give you a “but that’s not true!” reaction?

    Comment by Jacob J — February 7, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

  14. Interesting to see that our primary “ethnic stereotype” still seems to be polygamy. I know we often are accused of being humorless, but our own internal humor seems less to be about polygamy than the number of meetings, jello, numbers of children, or my favorite (actually true in the case of one of my nephews a few years ago):

    Q: How do you recognize the mother of the bride at a Mormon wedding?
    A: She’s the one who is pregnant!

    I did chuckle at a number of your examples, particularly the speed limit joke.

    Comment by kevinf — February 7, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

  15. Jacob, it’s a very common claim by visitors to Salt Lake during the 19th century that they can see how awful polygamy is just by looking at the faces of the women. Some of the descriptions are really pathetic — the downcast eyes, the darkened brow, the sorrowful countenance. I even read a report this weekend about a newborn baby who never made a sound but simply wept great tears of sorrow over its polygamous birth until it died of a broken heart — all reported as it if were the most solemn truth.

    I don’t doubt there were unhappy women, or that women grieved or were resentful over their husbands’ taking new wives. But the particular joke you point to gets a “that’s not true!” reaction because I don’t believe for a moment that all plural wives were constantly sorrowing over their plight. Even if you did happen to see a woman with a sad face, I don’t believe you could accurately diagnose the cause. How does the facial expression of grief over a plural marriage differ from the facial expression of someone who has recent news of a relative’s death or who is worried for the coming winter because hail has just destroyed the wheat crop?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 7, 2011 @ 4:25 pm

  16. Most of these are as boring as this kind of juke usually is, but some of them are hilarious, and less a bit of moderated viciousness than something along the lines of the “Swede” stereotype (they may talk funny, but they’re actually pretty smart), where there’s something admirable in the other. I like those mainly because they’re harder to pull off.

    I’m particularly fond of 1889, ’cause the joke actually works both ways especially well. (1890 is a close runner-up. 1899 #2 had potential, but tried too hard—it could be reworked nicely, though.)

    Comment by David B — February 7, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

  17. Discovered these after a very long day. Now I can go to bed with a smile on my face!

    Comment by Mina — February 7, 2011 @ 10:25 pm

  18. Ardis, I think we are probably in close agreement about the actual situation on the ground during polygamy and the ridiculousness of the reports you mentioned. Maybe that joke is fanning the flames of an unfair stereotype, as you suggest. The way I read this kind of humor, though, everyone understands that it is an exaggeration. There has to be a kernel of truth for it to be funny, but it doesn’t require that “all plural wives were constantly sorrowing over their plight” any more than mother-in-law jokes require that every mother-in-law be an ogre.

    At any rate, thanks for the post, I enjoyed it as usual.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 8, 2011 @ 12:42 am

  19. I finally figured out what you meant, Jacob, a moment after I posted my last comment — I had thought at first you meant by “true” that the 1886 joke was a record of an actual overheard conversation, when what you meant was that there was certainly some general truth at the heart of it, giving rise to the stereotype. You’re right — we’re in agreement — I’m sure there is general reality behind it and 19th century readers saw it as an exaggeration of that reality. No argument from me on that, just trying to understand what you meant.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 8, 2011 @ 9:27 am

  20. When people have asked me how many wives I have, I usually reply “I’m still looking for my first.”

    What would be a light-hearted come-back from a married guy? Perhaps “One too many” ?

    Comment by Bookslinger — February 8, 2011 @ 9:29 am

  21. A light hearted response? Try this one.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — February 8, 2011 @ 10:28 am

  22. Bruce, I had completely forgotten that one, and had to read it all the way through to see what was coming next! Ha! Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 8, 2011 @ 10:42 am

  23. These are mostly pretty good, though it helps that they date from a time when we were actually practicing polygamy. And they have actual humorous content. A lot of recent polygamy “humor” seems to assume that just alluding to polygamy is clever and funny. I remember seeing a lot of that sort of thing around the time of the Salt Lake Olympics. “If you’re going to the olympics, be sure to bring your wiveZZZZ and kids. Get it? WiveS.”

    Yeah, I get it. Har-dee-har-har.

    I’ve also seen Mormon humor that just gets the stereotypes wrong. “How many Mormons does it take to change a light bulb?” “Just one, but don’t move around too much or the church will think you’re dancing.”

    Comment by Left Field — February 8, 2011 @ 10:49 am

  24. I’ve always been fond of the Mormon joke that asks, “Why do Mormon women stop having kids at 38?”

    Because 39 is too many even for a Mormon.

    Comment by Marianne Egan — February 9, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

  25. Ardis, with your permission, may I include these Mormon Humor sites for easy reference. Please just delete this (not that you need my permission) if it’s not fitting.

    http://www.overheardintheward.com (Mostly “Kids say the darnedest thing”.)

    http://www.mormoncartoonist.com

    http://www.9thwardcartoons.com (Hasn’t been updated in a while.)

    beckstrombuzz.blogspot.com

    http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/humor/

    Comment by Bookslinger — February 9, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

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