Tuesday, April 5

She said, he said

On page 20 of the 23 November 1939 Cleveland Plain Dealer is a Good Morning from Claire MacMurray column called "Thanksgiving Nightmare" which tells the tale of a "Mrs. Amos Pinchot" writing a bit of verse whilst in a dream state:

Hogamus Higamus
Men are Polygamous
Higamus Hogamus
Women Monogamous

The men/women being polygamous/monogamous was certainly nothing new. A Google Books search finds references going back into the 1800s. What was new are the two words hogamus and higamus. Who coined them?

The Reader's Digest reprinted the poem and its origin in its May 1940 issue, giving the nonsense words wide circulation. Any attribution to folk after this date is therefore moot. No one appears to have come out of the woodwork to say: Hey, that's my misappropriated poetry! But we do have something else — someone suggesting that Claire MacMurray lied about the poem's authorship.

In 1942 James Grier Miller published a book called "Unconsciousness" in which he retells the story of the writing of the verse — but from the perspective of a man! The switch was accomplished by means of a footnote stating: "Mrs. Amos Pinchot has repeatedly been incorrectly said to have been the author of this quatrain. She denies any responsibility for it, however, and the true author appears to be shrouded in anonymity." Mr. Miller was certainly no stranger to referencing assertions, so it's somewhat disconcerting to see him not do so here.

There were two women who could have claimed to having been Mrs. Amos Pinchot: Gertrude Minturn (who married Amos in 1900) and Ruth Pickering (who married him in 1919). Gertrude died in May 1939 — six months before Claire MacMurray's story appeared. If Ruth Pickering denied authorship of the poem, when and where?

It strikes me as disingenuous to hold Claire MacMurray to a standard that we do not demand of James Grier Miller. Either of them could have promulgated an untruth. [A third possibility is that Ruth Pickering — in denying authorship — did so. A fourth possibility is that Claire MacMurray was referring to Gertrude Minturn.] Yet James Miller's unsupported claim somehow demeans that of Claire MacMurray to an extent that Garson O'Toole calls her story "fanciful". No matter. In the realm of word/phrase origins, early citation is everything. If one is at all uneasy about crediting Mrs. Amos Pinchot for the creation of those fanciful words, attribute them instead to Claire MacMurray*!

* "Claire MacMurray" was her pen name. She was born Bessie Claire McMurray on 12 Feb 1899 in Huntington IN. In 1916 she swam from Liverpool to Havana (Illinois) in under four hours. Marrying Edward Howard II in 1923, they had three sons (born 1925, 1927, and 1929). Claire saw publication of her starting-in-1936 newspaper columns as two books (1941, 1944, subsequently amalgamated into a third). The first of those books inspired the 1941 NBC radio series "We're Five in the Family". Claire died 31 Jul 2003 in Cleveland OH.

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