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Mrs. Benson Takes a Hand: Religion and Horse Sense

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 26, 2011

Mrs. Benson, that intrepid lady who can’t bear to see a neighbor cheated, goes back into action.

From the Relief Society Magazine, October 1936 –

Mrs. Benson Takes a Hand

Religion and Horse Sense

By Ivy Williams Stone

Samson Benson was dead. The news caused a stir of regret all along the street, for there were many friends of the Benson family who had enjoyed happy hours through the kind offices of this faithful old servitor. As the body of the old, blind servant was lowered into the grave under an apple tree in the family orchard, the four sons and two daughters of the family were unashamed as tears trickled down their cheeks. Samson had become a landmark, almost an institution, somewhat like the old jail building erected by Grandfather Pace and the big oak tree.

“We’re glad you tended him, Mother, like you did.” Thus spoke son David whom Samson had once saved from hazardous accident. “Some folks would have given him chloroform long ago, but he was just too human.” The sons filled in and rounded the grave, and the eldest son put up a neatly lettered headboard.

“Let him rest in peace,” they prayed in unison and filed silently away.

With Judge Benson still exploring the Salmon River, with old Samson no longer needing her ministrations, Mrs. Benson felt the need of fresh activity. “I’ll go ward teaching all afternoon,” she planned early one morning. “That’s a duty I seem to have neglected. I’ll begin with Aunt Eliza Mall. She’s lonesome too, since her only son is dead.”

Mrs. Benson toiled up the long hill that led to Eliza Mall’s humble cottage, atop a rather bleak, unfertile hill. Even the natural fertility of the soil had never been coaxed, for Amos Mall had been much fonder of taverns than he was of plowing. In fact, he had contracted fatal pneumonia the winter before, as he wandered home on a bitterly cold night and had gotten lost in an irrigation ditch. Big bodied man that he was of thirty odd years, there had not been as many people to mourn his death as had gathered over the grave of faithful old Samson.

“First time I ever heard of a drunkard dying,” muttered one unsympathetic person. “His old mother will be better off without him; he ate her out of house and home. Folks will be more willing to help her now he’s gone,” were some of the comments. And although it seemed rather mercenary and unChristianlike, this latter was literally true. Men were now glad to help the aged widow, who had resented aiding her while an indolent son whiled away the summer months, letting winter care for itself. And Mrs. Benson had started a collection of cash. Actuated with the sense of personal pride and independence which she would have experienced under similar circumstances, Mrs. Benson had seen to it that the lump sum of money had been turned over to the widow, to let her make her own selections of what she needed.

It was a long walk and Mrs. Benson gladly accepted the chair which the Widow Mall proffered immediately upon her arrival. The chair was a creaky old rocker; but the best the room afforded. A ragged carpet, an unpolished old whatnot, and a marble topped table of ancient vintage completed the furnishings of the tiny “parlor.” On top of the marble table lay a shiny new volume, and the Widow Mall, wiping her hand on her apron before touching it, proudly displayed this new treasure.

“See, Sister Benson,” she fairly gloated in her maternal joy, “Look at the wonderful present Amos gave me.”

“Amos?” Mrs. Benson looked incredulously at the gilt edged, limp leather bound book labeled “Holy Bible.” “Why, I didn’t know – I thought – ”

“Lots of other folks thought the same, too,” interrupted the Widow Mall. “Lots of folks in this town thought Amos was better off dead. But they didn’t know him like I did. Takes a man’s mother to know the best that’s in him. Like the agent said that brought the book, ‘Only a mother can know and understand a wayward son.’ You see,” she hurried on, anxious to explain the mystery, “Amos ordered this here book as a surprise for my birthday. He paid some down on it, when he ordered it, but being short of money at the time, he never was one to keep much money handy, he agreed to make monthly payments. Then he got sick and died, and when he never went near the store to make the other payments, they looked me up; and they let me pay the difference. They knocked off all their profit, when they knowed Amos was dead; but, like they said, they couldn’t sell the book to no one else, ‘cause of the engraving.” Mrs. Mall rose to her full height in her pride; placed emaciated arms on her thin old hips, but the light of maternal joy glowed resplendent in the faded old eyes.

“I only had to pay thirty more dollars, besides what Amos paid hisself.”

Understanding broke in full intensity upon Mrs. Benson’s brain. Thirty Dollars for the cheap, imitation leather bound book that lay in her lap. Without even a concordance, or maps; such a book as could be purchased in any shop for less than three dollars. But the gilt lettered inscription had turned the tricks. “To Mrs. Eliza Mall from her loving son Amos.” Instinctively Mrs. Benson knew from whence the thirty dollars had come. With the realization came again the memory of the long hours she had tramped about the district, collecting the dollars, halves and quarters that had made up the cash gift. She recalled the strained arches, aching feet, and belated suppers that had been the aftermath of each day’s solicitations, until Judge Benson had rebelled and donated the amount necessary to raise the funds to one hundred dollars. “In the interest of home and footwear it was worth twelve dollars,” he stormed, but his tone had been kindly.

“I skimped here and I saved there,” beamed the Widow Mall, “in order to get the money. I figured you didn’t mind my buying the things that made me happiest,” she added. “I kept just one fire going, and I went to bed before lamp lighting time, and I bought stale bread at the bakery and put cardboard inside my shoes. I lived on soup with never a bit of meat to flavor it. As one mother to another, Sister Benson, that there book means more to me than angel food cake. I’d never knowed before that Amos was religious. He’d always been so careless like ‘bout going to church. But that book proves his love: ‘To Mrs. Eliza Mall from her Loving Son Amos.’” She repeated the words reverently, as she relaid the book upon its alter of old marble. “I read a bit in it every day. And when I gets lonesome I says to myself, ‘Amos was religious.’”

THIRTY DOLLARS! THIRTY DOLLARS! The words beat a rhythm to her footsteps as Mrs. Benson walked homeward. “Preying upon sentiment! Swindlers! Racketeers! She had heard of many confidence games but this surpassed them all. To Mrs. Benson, preying upon the credulity of bereaved people seemed a heinous crime. The farther she walked, the angrier she became; her cheeks were flushed and she had worked up a genuine hatred of such people and their nefarious practices. When she reached her own gate she leaned upon the pickets and paused for breath, and gazed back into the orchard, at the newly made grave of faithful old Samson.

Suddenly Mrs. Benson had an inspiration. They always came in a flash of keen intuition. Although she was dusty and tired, she resolutely continued on down town to the establishment of her good old friend and second cousin, Mortimer Pace. In the earlier days Mortimer had been a combined furniture dealer and undertaker. Now, however, his more modern establishment bore the name of “Pace & Son, Morticians”; and Mrs. Benson had to go far to the rear to find old Mortimer, who was virtually superseded by the son.

Into his sympathetic ear Mrs. Benson poured the story of the Widow Mall’s gullibility, and the rascality of the impostor. She also outlined her scheme for a fitting punishment of the latter, which had hatched in her fertile brain as she stood at her own gate.

Cousin Mortimer Pace smiled indulgently; then the smile broadened into a grin of keen appreciation; finally, after making several notes, he leaned back and beamed. “Agnes,” he had always liked this energetic cousin,” Agnes, you should have been a lawyer. I believe your plan will work. No harm in trying. Let’s see now. Samson Benson, aged twenty-five years, died after a lingering illness due to blindness and malnutrition; private funeral held at graveside in family burial plot; other members of the Benson family are Judge Andrew W. Benson and wife and six children. I’ll attend to it, cousin; and we’ll watch for developments.”

Mrs. Benson felt like a child who had stolen his first apple. First she felt a sense of guilt; then a wave of righteous anger followed, as she visioned old Widow Mall, climbing into bed at dark, minus a lamp; living on soups and with scarcely any fire. Mrs. Benson did not confide her plans to her children. They would be sure to offer too many suggestions, or frustrate her plans. Children, she reasoned, had a way of believing that the ingenuity of parents ceased with the advent of grandchildren.

When the morning paper arrived Mrs. Benson scanned it hurriedly like a child hunting the comic strip. In the obituary notices she found that which she sought, and smiled over the somewhat cryptic announcement:

SAMSON BENSON: Aged twenty-five years. Death due to long illness of blindness and malnutrition. Graveside services were held in the family private burial plot. Survivors are Judge Andrew W. Benson, Mrs. Benson and the six Benson children.

Well, there was nothing in that announcement which was untrue. If any person wanted to interpret it as meaning that Samson was a real human being, it was his own affair. Cousin Mortimer Pace had said nothing untrue. Mrs. Benson again felt virtuous that she had not actually lied.

Two weeks later she was wrapping the rose bushes against the winter frosts when the front gate clicked, and a young man came briskly up the walk. He was dapper and well groomed; he carried a green bag that was weighted with something heavy, and his eyes were covered with huge dark glasses. A smartly folded handkerchief protruded from the top of his coat pocket, his brilliantly hued hat was set at the prevailing angle, his shoes were shiny, and his whole bearing indicated self assurance and poise.

“Are you Mrs. Andrew W. Benson?” he inquired suavely, tipping his hat, while the white teeth showed the smile which the darkened eyes could not reveal. “Yes,” answered Mrs. Benson, hoping her sudden frustration was not too evident. “Ouch!” she cried with a mock twist of pain, “I – I pricked my finger!”

“I am looking for a gentleman named Mr. Samson Benson,” continued the visitor. “I believe he lives here. Perhaps he is your son. He ordered a book from us and has never appeared to make any further payments. We thought he might be ill, or temporarily out of employment, or – ” he stopped and coughed expectantly.

Mrs. Benson leaned far down over her rose bushes. “Samson is dead,” she muttered.

”Dead! Impossible!” cried the young man with full and proper tones of sympathy in his voice. “Why, he looked the picture of health when he called at our store to place the order. I would never have dreamed of his passing. Perhaps, however, he had some secret knowledge of his impending illness. Had not told you, hoping to spare you. He must have known, for the book he ordered was significant. Most significant. It was a specially made, hand assembled, gilt edged, limp leather Bible, printed on a rare and expensive quality of onion leafed paper.” The young man deftly opened the green bag and drew forth a Bible, an exact replica of the one that held the place of honor on the widow Mall’s marble topped table. “I’ll wager they make them by the thousand,” thought Mrs. Benson, bending over to read the inscription: ”To Mrs. Agnes Benson from her loving son Samson.” “My, I never guessed Samson was that religious,” she muttered. “He used to go with us to church real often; in fact every Sunday when he was younger. But he simply would not go inside. He always waited in the churchyard till the services were over.”

“He had a deeper religion than you ever realized,” added the visitor. “This is the proof,” he tapped the Bible significantly and continued: “He made a down payment on the book, because of the special engraving on the cover. That makes it unsalable to others, you know. But, if you wish to pay the balance of our actual cost of fifty dollars, we will forgo our profits. Far be it from us to profit upon the sentiments of bereaved parents. But we know you will want to cherish the emblem of his last act of remembrance of you; in time it will become your most cherished treasure.” Undoubtedly the shrewd visitor had quickly estimated that the appearance of the Benson home justified a rise of twenty dollars over that of the widow Mall’s humble cottage.

“Did you see Samson yourself, when he placed the order?” Mrs. Benson felt self-composed now and faced the impostor. “Did you talk to him?”

“I waited on him personally,” answered the visitor with never the quiver of an eyelash. “He was a most remarkably built young man. Clear eyed, soft voiced, broad shouldered, alert, keen – a son to be proud of,” he finished.

“Come out and see his grave,” invited Mrs. Benson. “We were sort of sentimental about a cemetery. We buried him privately – right here in our own orchard; among the fields that he loved and under his favorite tree.”

The young man seemed none too zealous to weep over any bier; but the vision of fifty dollars from this opulent appearing residence seemed nearer, and he followed obediently. Mrs. Benson led him out through the backyard garden, past the fish pond and lily pads; past the garage and the pioneer jail; on to the field where Samson had spent his declining years in peace and plenty. She finally stopped beside the fresh mound under the apple tree. The young salesman removed his hat and stood reverently, waiting for the bereaved parent to speak. “Come round and see the headboard,” invited Mrs. Benson, with a composure that amazed her listener. “I’m right proud of this headboard. My oldest son painted it himself. He’s somewhat of an artist, and he loved Samson dearly.”

Obediently the visitor walked around and read the inscription on the headboard; the green bag in his right hand, his hat in his left, the dark glasses still covering his eyes.

SAMSON BENSON
There was more man sense in his horse head than there is horse sense in some men’s heads.

His lips had moved automatically; but as he finished reading, he sensed the meaning of the epitaph. As the full weight of the ruse played upon him penetrated his senses, he dropped the green bag, pulled off his dark glasses, and turned fiercely toward Mrs. Benson.

“You advertised!” he cried vehemently. “You deceived me! The obituary said he died of blindness and malnutrition – I’ll make you pay for this – I’ll – ”

“Samson did almost starve to death,” interrupted Mrs. Benson, making a supreme effort not to chuckle. “His teeth got so long he couldn’t chew. And he never went inside a church. But even at that, he had more religion than the drunken Amos Mall, whose old widowed mother paid you thirty dollars for a Bible that likely cost you about two dollars. I’m going to ask the Judge to prepare a bill to introduce into the next legislature, making it a prison crime to inveigle money out of simple folks when they are suffering from bereavement!”

Instantly the visitor lost his debonair expression; his face paled, he pulled his hat far down onto his head, and stumbled over the green bag. Finally, with a glare in which hate, resentment, duplicity and frustration mingled, he fled rapidly down the orchard path to the lane gate, and soon disappeared along the street. There was no dignity in his retreat – only apprehension and speed.

“It’s a pretty fair Bible at that,” remarked Mrs. Benson after she had examined the contents of the green bag. “I’ll ink out this inscription and present it to the Sunday School. Eddie Marsh can use the green bag to carry his books in, and the children can use these dark glasses when they lay under that newfangled lamp that makes canned sunshine.” As she walked slowly back to the house she felt that even missing the grandeur and ruggedness of the Sawtooth mountains had its compensations. Samson, like all good souls, had not died in vain.



7 Comments »

  1. My kids will be glad to hear there’s another Mrs. Benson story out. They’re too old to need bedtime stories, but they like to hear them anyway, and the story about Mrs. Benson and the knitting-machine salesman is one of their favorites (mine too).

    Apparently there was a couple that subscribed to newspapers from numerous small towns (for the death notices) and defrauded about 30,000 families in the 1930s-50s with this Bible scam, except sending them by post instead of personally calling.

    Comment by Lee C. — September 26, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

  2. It’s a pretty good scam, too … until you run into a Mrs. Benson.

    Sad to say, this is the last Mrs. Benson story I’ve found. I’m really glad to hear that you and your kids have enjoyed them. My mother used to read to us even well into our teens. Good memories.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 26, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

  3. I love it! It did take me a while to figure out that Samson wasn’t human. I figured he was the dog until I read the epitaph.

    The widow was so happy, I wonder if it wasn’t $30 well spent.

    Comment by HokieKate — September 26, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

  4. The widow was so happy, I wonder if it wasn’t $30 well spent.

    Sorry, HokieKate, but that’s exactly what the con artists want you to think.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 26, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

  5. I knew from the title and the careful wording of the story that he was a horse. People don’t generally chloroform other humans. Even back in those dark, dark ages. ;)

    I love this story. Not just because of the horse, either.

    Comment by SilverRain — September 27, 2011 @ 7:15 am

  6. A delightful story, though I was surprised that an old oak tree was so adept at building a jail, i.e. “…the old jail building erected by Grandfather Pace and the big oak tree.” :P

    Comment by charlene — September 28, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

  7. Partners in a good cause! :P

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 28, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

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