Read CHAPTER VIII of Twenty Years of Hus'ling , free online book, by J. P. Johnston, on


The next day after making this trade and procuring the ten dollars, I bought an old silver watch from a stranger who had become stranded, paying him three dollars for it. This I traded for another watch and received five dollars as a difference. From this I continued to make trades until I was the owner of ten head of fine sheep, three pigs, a shot-gun, violin, watch, and a few dollars in money, besides having paid my board at the hotel and bought necessary clothing.

When I found a buyer for my sheep and pigs, my mother said of course I couldn’t be contented until I sold them and lost the money. I explained to her that, in order to speculate, it was necessary to keep re-investing and turning my money often.

Mr. Keefer said I was right, but advised me to be very careful, now that I had quite a nice start from simply nothing.

After selling out, I one day called on the day telegraph operator, Will Witmer, and while sitting in his office, asked him to explain the mysteries of telegraphy. He did so, and I then asked him to furnish me with the telegraph alphabet, which he did. I studied it that night, and the next day called at his office again, and began practicing making the letters on the instrument.

He paid me a very high compliment for my aptness, and said I was foolish for not learning the business.

I asked what the expense would be.

He said his charges would be fifteen dollars, and it would take four months anyhow, and possibly six, before I would be able to take an office.

Two days later, after giving special attention to the business, I had become quite infatuated with it, and paid over the fifteen dollars to him and two weeks’ board at the hotel.

My intentions were to try and sustain myself by speculating and trafficking, but I very soon became so absorbed in my new undertaking as to be unfit for that business.

My mother was immensely pleased at the turn affairs had taken. Mr. Keefer was both surprised and pleased, and said he would help me pay my board, although he couldn’t see how I ever happened to take a liking to that business.

During this winter, my associates and habits of life differing wholly from those of former years, I became what would now be considered “quite a dude.” And having no income from business, and a limited one from Mr. Keefer, with a fair future prospect, I took advantage of my good credit in town, and bought clothes, boots, shoes and furnishing goods, and borrowed money occasionally from my friends, who never refused me.

Three months from the very day I began learning the alphabet, through the advice and recommendation of Mr. Witmer, I called on Wm. Kline, Jr., General Superintendent of Telegraph, and made application for an office. He sent me to Whiting, Indiana, sixteen miles from Chicago, with instructions to take charge of the night office, at a salary of forty dollars per month.

On arriving there I found only a small station, and one family, with whom I was to take board, and who were living in an old abandoned water-tank.

The young man whom I relieved from night duty was promoted to day operator, and as he was thoroughly disgusted with the place he kept continually writing to the Superintendent’s secretary, who was a friend of his, to get him a better office, which he did in just six weeks afterwards.

I was then promoted to his position, with no raise of salary, but which I gladly accepted.

There was plenty of duck hunting and frog catching among the settlers there, but they didn’t seem to understand how to find a market for them. I at once took advantage of this by getting a day off and a pass to Chicago, where I bargained with a commission merchant to handle all I could send him. I then returned to Whiting and arranged to have the settlers consign all their game to me, which I in turn consigned to the commission merchant. I had plenty of business and made money fast.

One day the Division Superintendent happened to get off the train, as we were loading on a lot of frogs, when he asked me who was shipping from that point. I told him I was. He looked at me a moment and asked, in a gruff tone:

“Does this R. R. Co. pay you to buy frogs?”

I answered: “No, they pay my board to watch the station, and I buy and sell frogs to make my salary.”

The conductor and other employees who heard our remarks laughed heartily, and the Superintendent returned to his car with a broad grin.

As soon as the frog and duck season was over I began urging Mr. Kline to give me a better paying office. I also wrote home expressing my dissatisfaction with the business, and my contempt for the small salary it paid, and closed by saying I could make more money swapping jackknives than I could telegraphing, and that I never would be able to pay my debts were I to continue at it.

My mother answered; saying, that if I threw up that position and came back home she would leave the country.

In a few days I was transferred from Whiting to Swanton, Ohio, with no raise of salary, but better facilities for spending what I did get.

I remained there until the following spring, and managed to spare about five dollars per month towards reducing my home liabilities, and tight squeezing at that.

While there I made frequent visits to Toledo, where Mr. Kline’s office was located, and never failed to call on him or his secretary, with a request for a better position. One day I wanted to be extra operator, and another day I would insist upon being placed in the train dispatcher’s office, and again thought I would like the general freight office, either of which was considered a fine position.

Finally the secretary asked, one day, how I would like to have Mr. Kline resign in my favor.

I told him I would like it first-rate if the salary was sufficient.

As soon as the green grass and flowers of spring commenced to show themselves, I began to get nervous and anxious to make a change.

One day while several people were sitting in the depot waiting for a train, a young enterprising looking fellow came in with a small sample-case in his hand, and began talking to an old gentleman about spectacles, and very soon made a sale for which he received two dollars and fifty cents, spot cash.

After the train had come and gone, carrying with it the old gentleman, I entered into conversation with the young man, and finally asked him, confidentially, what that pair of spectacles cost him. He laughed and said they could be bought for one dollar per dozen.

“That settles it right here,” I said, and added:

“That settles the telegraph business with me. I’ll send my resignation to Mr. Kline forthwith, by telegraph.” And I did so.

After about ten days he accepted it and sent me a pass for home and the amount due me, which was sixty-five dollars.

On my arrival home a stormy scene ensued.

My mother said it was just like me to leave a sure thing and traffic around over the country, with no future prospects whatever.

Mr. Keefer said the business was too slow for me, anyhow, and he had thought so from the beginning. I explained that the experience was worth a great deal to me.

My mother replied that I had for years been getting nothing but experience.

Mr. Keefer said he’d bet I would come out all right yet.

“Yes,” my mother said, “he will come out in the poorhouse, and drag you and me with him.”

She then what I expected to do next, and I told her about the immense profits made in the spectacle business.

She laughed, and with much sarcasm remarked, that a dozen pair of spectacles and an old tin box to carry them in, would probably be the height of my ambition.

I told her that remained to be seen; but I would some day convince her differently, and show her how to make money fast.

The next day I received a letter from an acquaintance residing at Kirkersville, Ohio, in answer to one I had written him, in which I stated my intention of going into the spectacle business.

He informed me that he was the owner of a fine horse and carriage, and suggested that I take him in partnership with me; he to furnish the traveling conveyance and I the money. This I agreed to, and wrote him my intentions to start for Kirkersville on a certain day, where I would expect to meet him, and we would drive to Columbus, a distance of twenty miles, and buy our stock.

On my arrival at Kirkersville I found him ready to start. We drove to Columbus and called on a wholesale jewelry firm.

After looking their stock over I decided that there was more money in cheap jewelry than spectacles. I had about forty dollars in cash, and after buying one dozen pairs of spectacles, for one dollar, invested the balance in jewelry, after which I prevailed on the firm to give me a traveling sample case. In this we displayed our jewelry nicely and started down the Portsmouth pike.

My first effort to make a sale was at the toll-gate, a short distance from the city. Finding an old lady in attendance, I introduced the spectacles. She declared she never would buy another thing from a peddler.

I told her I had not asked her to buy, and said: “Madam, I have here a stereoscopic lens.”

“A stereo-what?” she quickly asked.

“A stereoscopic lens,” I repeated.

“Well, my!” she ejaculated, “they ought to be good ones, if the name has anything to do with them,” and began trying them on.

She very soon found a pair which suited her and pleased her exceedingly.

While she was looking my glasses over, I picked up her old ones, and while examining them the thought occurred to me, that as my stock of spectacles consisted only of a dozen pairs it would be a good idea to try and trade spectacles each time instead of selling outright, and by so doing always keep my stock up to the original number.

Acting on the suggestion, I remarked to the old lady that her glasses must have cost at least three dollars, and if she so desired I would give her a trade.

She asked the price of my glasses.

“Four dollars,” was my reply.

She said she didn’t just remember how much she did pay for hers, but it was about the price I had mentioned.

She then asked me how I would trade. I offered to allow her two dollars for her glasses on the deal.

She said she would if she had the money. On counting it she found but one dollar and thirty-two cents, all in pennies. We made the trade, as I had a great deal of sympathy (?) for her, and knew she had never before found a pair of glasses so well suited to her eyes.

The third house we stopped at I found a young lady who was very anxious to see my jewelry.

After opening my case she selected a very showy set, ear-drops and pin, which I sold her for one dollar. When she paid me I noticed she had more money left, and said to her:

“See here, my young miss, I hardly think the set you have selected is good enough for you. Let me show you a handsome set of jewelry such as you would be proud to wear at a fashionable ball, or entertainment of any kind. It will of course cost you more money, but I know it will please you better.”

I then took from the bottom of the case a set which was nicely put up in a small paste-board box (although they all cost the same), and offered it for inspection. She was at once infatuated with it, and after asking the price (which was five dollars), expressed her regret that she had made her purchase before taking notice of that particular set. I then very kindly offered to exchange for the set she had just bought, and allow her the same as she paid, when she remarked, after reflecting a moment, that she couldn’t do that as she hadn’t money enough within one dollar to pay the difference. But when I offered to trust her for the other dollar until I came around again, she traded, remarking, as she counted out her last three dollars:

“All right, I’ll do it, and if you never come again I’ll have a dollar the best of you anyhow.”

We had excellent success during the first ten days, after which we experienced four days of probably as poor success as ever attended a “Yankee peddler.”

We stopped at every house, and never sold a dollar’s worth during the four days. Doors were slammed in my face, and dogs were set upon us. Yet I insisted that success must necessarily follow, sooner or later.

My partner, however, was not so hopeful. He became impatient and disagreeable in the extreme. At every house we would come to he would sullenly remark that there was no use stopping, they didn’t want to buy anything; and finally went so far as to insist that we make no more stops.

As I considered myself the senior member of the firm, I ordered a stop made at every house.

This led to unpleasantness, and brought out a few personal characteristics of his which induced me to think he had been raised a “pet” and was accustomed to having his own way in everything.

But as I was not one of the “petting” kind, and rather inclined to have my way about things in general, we gradually grew into a controversy.

He declared the horse and carriage was his, and he had a right to stop when and where he pleased.

I gave him that privilege, but also gave him notice that I owned the goods and carried the money, and as “the walking was not all taken up” he could drive as fast and as far as he pleased, but I was going to stop at every house, even though I might lose a piece of my unmentionables by every dog on the road.

At last I was successful in trading spectacles with an old lady, receiving two pairs of old glasses and two dollars in cash for the pair I let her have.

This enlivened things up for a while, but only temporarily. We drove back to his home at Kirkersville, where, after invoicing and dividing profits, we dissolved partnership.