Death of Joe Miller, Jokesmith, 1738

“By Lord B___, had married three Wives that were all his Servants, a Beggar-Woman meeting him one Day in the Street, made him a very low Curtsey, Ah, God Almighty bless your Lordship, said she, and send you a long Life, if you do but live long enough, we shall be all Ladies in Time.” — Joe Miller’s Jests, 1739

Joe Miller was an English actor who was born in 1684, and died on August 16th, 1738. We don’t know a lot about Joe, and the one thing he’s most famous for, doesn’t really have much to do with him.

He played at Drury Lane, usually in minor parts; Trinculo in The Tempest and the First Gravedigger in Hamlet were said to have been among his favorite parts. He was also rumored to have been a friend of the English painter, William Hogarth. During slack times at Drury Lane, Miller also performed for the Pinkethman Company. And when he wasn’t working, he liked to hang out at the Black Jack Tavern on Portsmouth Street.

“Henry the IVth, of France, reading an ostentatious Inscription on the Monument of a Spanish Officer, here lies the Body of Don, &c. &c. who never knew what Fear was. Then said the King, he never snuffed a Candle with his Fingers.” — Joe Miller’s Jests, 1739

Joe was a pretty serious guy when he was hanging out in the Black Jack, and pretty soon his drinking buddies made up a new inside joke. Whenever they heard a new jest, they attributed it to Joe. Joe was just about the last person the joke could have originated with.

Joe gave his last performance on April 13th, 1738, and died three days later. He was buried at St. Clement Danes on Portugal Street. His epitaph praised his character, his devotion to family and friends, and his jovial company. Later on, the graveyard was built over when Kings College Hospital was built there, so today we don’t know exactly where Joe’s grave was.

“A Gentleman being at Dinner at a Friend’s House, the first Thing that came upon the Table was a Dish of Whitings, and one being put upon his Plate, he found it stink so much that he could not eat a Bit of it, but he laid his Mouth down to the Fish, as if he was whispering with it, and then took up the Plate and put it to his own Ear; the Gentleman, at whose Table he was, enquiring into the meaning, he told him he had a Brother lost at Sea, about a Fortnight ago, and he was asking that Fish if he knew any thing of him; and what Answer made he, said the Gentleman, he told me, said he, he could give no Account of him, for he had not been at Sea these three Weeks.” — Joe Miller’s Jests, 1739

About a year after Joe Miller’s death, a writer named John Mottley published a compilation of jokes under the pseudonym Elijah Jenkins Esq. The pamphlet was called Joe Miller’s Jests, or the Wit’s Vade-Mecum, and contained 247 jokes. Only three of them had any connection whatsoever to Joe, but his name helped the book sell.

It wasn’t the first book of jokes that had been published — such books were actually pretty popular and people bought them to learn a few jokes to tell to friends or at parties. Mottley’s book was one of the most popular, however, and three editions were published in the first year alone.

The book was republished many times, both by Mottley and in various pirated editions, and with each publication the number of jokes increased. By 1865, the book had nearly 1300 jokes.

Over time, any old chestnut of a joke became known as a “Joe Miller” or a “Millerism.” If you’ve read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, you’ve run across the expression, although you might not have known what it meant. When Scrooge orders the enormous turkey sent to the Cratchit’s house, he chortles, “I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s! … He shan’t know who sends it! It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim. Joe Miller never made such a joke as sending it to Bob’s will be!”

As you can see from the samples I’ve provided, humor has changed a lot since Joe Miller’s time. The jokes may have changed, but one thing remains the same today — everybody loves a good laugh.

“A Profligate young Nobleman, being in Company with some sober People, desired leave to toast the Devil; the Gentleman who sat next him, said, he had no Objection to any of his Lordship’s Friends.” — Joe Miller’s Jests, 1739

Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events;;;;;, “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens.

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