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


I remained with my late employer several weeks, having almost uninterrupted success, when he was notified of his wife’s serious illness and was obliged to leave his horses and wagon with a liveryman and return at once to his home in Ohio.

I continued selling furniture polish as though nothing had happened, but never ceased making auctioneering a continual study.

Shortly after this I received a letter from an old acquaintance who had recently married a widow about forty years older than himself, expressing a desire to go into the auction business with me.

He said he was well fixed now (or at least his wife was) and if I would do the auctioneering he would furnish the capital and we would travel together and divide the profits.

I telegraphed him to have his money ready, as I was coming.

On my arrival Johnny showed me a large roll of bills and said “there was plenty more where that come from.”

We ordered a nice stock of goods and started at once taking in the Western and Southwestern States.

Johnny was exceedingly gay and chipper from the start and seemed possessed with the idea that he had found a gold mine.

He led about the same life I did the winter I was selling government goods only a little more so, and I frequently reminded him of the results of my experience and tried hard to convince him that his would result the same, but without success.

He was a jolly, good natured fellow, a true friend, kind and generous to a fault, which with his expensive habits made serious inroads on his capital and it diminished rapidly.

I saw how things were shaping, and lost no time in making a new contract with him, which gave me a certain commission, and required him to defray all hotel bills.

I kept up the sale of polish as usual, during the time when we were not selling at auction, and by so doing was steadily gaining ground.

I suggested to Johnny when we first started out that he also sell polish.

He laughed at the idea and said he “didn’t have to.”

After we had been out a few weeks I asked him one day if he didn’t think we had better invoice. He thought we had, and we did so. He seemed less gay after this and showed frequent signs of having the blues.

We could show good sales, but he couldn’t show where the money had gone, although he had had the exclusive handling of it himself.

He began to show an inclination to make improvements, but still clung to a few expensive notions, so much so that his expenses far exceeded his profits.

In a few weeks I suggested another inventory, to which he submitted, and was fairly paralyzed at the result.

We then decided to go to Kansas City, Missouri. On our way there Johnny asked me what I thought of going to some nice, quiet boarding-house instead of paying the usual high rates at hotels.

I agreed, and again suggested that he go to selling polish, which he was almost tempted to do, but finally said he guessed he wouldn’t yet a while.

When we got to Kansas City I said:

“Now Johnny, I will stay at the depot while you ‘hustle’ up town and find a boarding-house.”

He started on the hunt immediately.

In about two hours he came rushing back with a broad grin on his countenance, and informed me that he had found one of the nicest places in town, where every thing was neat and clean, and nice and tidy, the old lady was a good conversationalist, she had a nice family of well-bred children, and it was so home-like, and at a cost of only two dollars and a half each.

“But Johnny, two dollars and a half a day apiece at a boarding-house is too much.”

“Good Johnston, I don’t mean by the day. I mean by the week.”

At this he grabbed a piece of baggage and bounded away, I following closely.

On our arrival at the boarding-house we found the landlady to be a widow with seven children. The house was furnished with the very commonest of furniture, no carpets on any of the floors, no paper on the walls, and the plastering off in many places.

We were both very hearty eaters, and were in the habit of taking our heartiest meal at six o’clock in the evening.

When supper was called we went in to the dining-room, took seats and waited to be served.

In about two minutes the children began flocking in. The majority of them took their position along one side of the room and stared at us with half-starved looks, while the others were climbing over the backs of our chairs, and turning summersaults under the table and in the middle of the floor.

Directly the old lady came in with a cup of tea for each of us, and then brought in a molasses cake, with a couple of slices of bread and a small piece of butter.

Johnny glanced at me as if expecting a grand “kick;” but, although I had no fondness for molasses cake, I took hold and ate with as much relish as if it had been roast turkey. I kept up a pleasant conversation with the old lady, and never failed to laugh heartily whenever one of the older boys happened to kick a cat up the chimney or break a lamp or two.

When bed-time came, the old lady showed us to the spare-room, which contained nothing but a small stand and an old-fashioned bedstead with a straw tick resting on ropes instead of slats. The straw was nearly all on one side, which discovery I happened to make before retiring, and forthwith took advantage of it by hurrying to bed first, and occupying that side.

Although I had always before insisted on sleeping alone, I didn’t in this instance raise any objection, but on the contrary, appeared as happy as could be.

As soon as Johnny struck the bed he began to roll and tumble, and in a very short time succeeded in breaking the rope on his side, making it very uncomfortable for both of us. We kept sinking gradually, till at last our bodies were resting on the floor, with our feet and heads considerably elevated.

I felt the consciousness of getting the best of it, as the straw still remained on my side; and made up my mind to find no fault, but wait and see what Johnny would have to say.

Hardly a word had passed between us since supper. Finally, discovering that I was awake, he asked me if I was comfortable. I assured him that I was resting splendidly.

He then asked, in a low tone, how I liked the supper, and what I thought of the boarding house.

I replied that I thought the supper was fine, and that everything was neat and clean and nice and tidy, the old lady a splendid cook, a good conversationalist, and had a nice family of well-bred children; and as for myself, I liked it, it was so home-like. Johnny made no reply, but as I could see, was doing considerable thinking.

For breakfast we had hominy and coffee. If there was ever one thing I detested more than another, it was hominy. But I partook of it heartily, and conversed as pleasantly as possible with Johnny and the old lady.

For dinner we had a small piece of tainted beef-steak with some warmed over sour potatoes and warm biscuit and butter.

I praised the dinner and especially the biscuit. The children never failed to occupy their customary places nor to perform their usual evolutions.

For supper the cup of tea and molasses cake were again brought out.

The third day Johnny once more asked me how I liked the boarding-house. I said:

“Well, Johnny, I think it is nice. Every thing is neat and clean and nice and tidy. The old lady is a splendid cook, a good conversationalist and has a nice family of well-bred children, and as for myself I like it, it’s so home-like.”

We made several successful auction sales, and I kept canvassing with the polish.

Johnny found considerable difficulty in passing the time pleasantly at the boarding-house. Having previously stopped at first-class hotels, the contrast was far from agreeable, and I could see he was getting restive and dissatisfied.

I had determined to use every effort in trying to keep him there as long as possible. My experience had taught me that a cheap boarding-house was no place to stop at, and I thought the sooner he learned the lesson the better it would be for him.

On the fifth day, when he asked how I liked it by that time, I again repeated:

“Why, Johnny, I think it’s nice. Everything is neat and clean and nice and tidy, the old lady is a splendid cook and a good conversationalist, and has a nice family of well-bred children; and as for myself, I like it, it’s so home-like.”

I noticed he eyed me very closely this time, but as I managed to get through without a smile, and appeared thoroughly in earnest, he seemed to consider it best not to express his opinion; and as I asked no questions he said nothing, but looked pale and haggard, and appeared nervous and anxious.

Matters went on as usual, with no improvement at the boarding-house, except on Sunday for dinner we had flour gravy, which I was very fond of, and complimented the old lady on her way of making it.

Johnny had nothing to say; and as he cared nothing for gravy, ate but little, and looked silly.

As we passed into the sitting-room together I remarked:

“That’s the kind of a dinner I like; it’s so home-like.”

He eyed me closely, said nothing, but looked bewildered.

On the seventh day at noon, as I was coming in from canvassing, I met him down town. He looked haggard and hungry. When I came up and said “it’s about dinner-time, isn’t it?” he answered: “Great Cæsar! it’s about time to eat, anyhow, and I have got to have a square meal once more.”

“Well, come with me, Johnny, I’ll take you to a nice place.”

He followed, and as we passed into the restaurant the cashier said:

“How are you to-day Mr. Johnston?”

We took a seat at one of the tables, when Johnny began watching me closely. Directly one of the waiters came to us and said:

“Mr. Johnston, we have your favorite dish, to-day, and it’s very fine.”

“Very well, then bring me a New England dinner.”

At this Johnny’s eyes fairly glistened, and he turned ghastly pale. Then jumping to his feet and pounding the table with his fist, he cried out:

“Johnston, you’re a fraud! and have nearly succeeded in starving me to death, and me if I

“But, sit down sit down; let me explain let me explain.”

He resumed his seat, when I began with:

“You see, Johnny, I thought you were partial to boarding-houses, and as everything was neat and clean and nice and tid

“Oh, tidy be ! Cuss your nice old lady, and her good conversation, and all the well-bred kids. I’ll be cussed if you’ll ever come any such smart tricks on me again. The best will be none too good for me, hereafter. I thought all the while that you were feeling mighty gay for a man living on wind and water, and sleeping on a bunch of straw. And I suppose, if the truth were known, you slipped off up to some hotel every night after I got to sleep, and staid till five o’clock in the morning, and then returned in time to make a fool of me. But look out for breakers hereafter. No more clean, nice, tidy boarding-houses for me, no matter how home-like it is, nor how good a talker the old woman is. I am through through forever, even though all the well-bred children in Missouri starve for the want of income from boarders, I am going to move to-day.”

We then moved to a respectable hotel, where both were delighted with the wonderful change.

After leaving Kansas City we remained together for some time, but Johnny made no improvement in his manner of living till finally his money was gone and his stock was reduced to a mere handful of goods. At last one Saturday afternoon we went out to make a sale and I cleaned out the last dollars’ worth and then sold the trunks and declared the business defunct.

Johnny protested, but I argued with him that the sooner he sold out entirely and spent the money the sooner he could call on his wife for more.

He said that was so, and he guessed he would telegraph her to sell another house and lot and send him the proceeds immediately, with which he would purchase more goods.

I laughed at the idea and little thought he would do so till about two weeks later he opened a letter one day containing a draft for several hundred dollars, and said:

“Johnston there is nothing like striking it rich;” and then queried in an under tone: “If a man has nothing and his wife has plenty who does the property belong to?”

He liked the auction business and immediately ordered more goods and also began showing more extravagance than ever in buying clothing and a disposition to go out with “the boys” at every town we visited.

I kept “hus’ling” with my polish and let Johnny pay my hotel bills and the commission due me on auction sales.

I soon saw that all arguments were lost on him so long as his wife owned another house and lot, so concluded to stay with him as long as there was anything in it.

He was not long, however, in again bringing the business to a focus. It happened in this way: One afternoon while I was out selling polish he engaged in a quiet game of cards “with just enough at stake to make it interesting,” and when the game ended he had not only lost all his ready cash, but had borrowed about twice as much on the goods as they were worth, and had also lost that.

He then asked me to loan him some money which I refused to do, but assured him that I would not see him want for the necessaries of life as long as he was with me.

I now thought it a good time to urge him to try to sell polish, and lost no time in doing so. When pressed he declared he wouldn’t be caught going to a house with a valise in his hand for fifty dollars a day.

But he said he had often wished he could be sitting in some one’s house some time when I entered and see how I managed.

I then proposed that he should make some plausible excuse for visiting a certain house that we should agree upon, and I would call while he was there.

The next day was Sunday, and when we were out walking he located a house, and we fixed the next day as the time.

I asked him what excuse he would make few calling.

He said he would make believe he wanted to buy their house and lot, and the lots adjoining them, and that his intentions were to build a stave and barrel factory. He had been foreman in such a factory, and could talk it right to the point.

The next day, after dinner, I asked him if he was going to make that call and hear me sell polish.

He said yes, he was ready to start then.

He started, and I followed closely after him; and in a very few minutes after he was admitted, I rang the bell and was also admitted by the servant, and ushered into the parlor where Johnny was sitting alone. The girl informed me that her mistress would be down very soon.

I asked Johnny, in a low tone, if he had met the lady of the house yet. He said he had not, but she had sent word that she would see him in a few moments.

I stepped across the room near him and began looking at some pictures, then carelessly set my valise down by his chair, and after looking at a few more pictures, returned to my own chair, near the hall door, and awaited the lady’s coming.

She soon entered the parlor, her two grown daughters accompanying her. As they glanced from one of us to the other, I arose and said:

“Madam, I am informed that you have offered your property here for sale. I am desirous of purchasing a property of this description, as I want a house with several vacant lots adjoining on which to build a stave and barrel factory.”

She said they had often spoken about selling out if they had a good chance; but didn’t know that their neighbors, or any one else, had ever been informed of it. I then asked her if she would show me the house. She said she would, and as we were about to leave the room I turned to her and said:

“Madam, perhaps this gentleman would like your attention before we leave the room. I see he has something for sale in his valise.”

She turned to him and said:

“What is it sir?”

Johnny sat there deathly pale, his eyes fairly popping out of his head and his whole body shaking like a poplar leaf. He first glanced at the valise, then at the lady, and after giving me a wistful, weary, woe-begone look, carefully picked up the valise and rising from his chair faltered out:

“Madam, you don’t want to buy any varnish, do you?”

“No sir, indeed I do not and

“Well that is what I thought. I’ll bid you good day, ladies,” and he bowed himself out.

After being shown through the house and answering innumerable questions about stave and barrel-making, and where I had formerly been in business, I left for the hotel where I found Johnny patiently waiting my return.

As I entered the hotel office he met me near the door and said:

“Johnston I’d rather have been caught stealing chickens than in that horrible predicament; don’t you ever do it again.”

I assured him I had no idea of ever being able to do it again, or to perpetrate a similar joke on him, even though I were ever so anxious to do so.

After it was all over he seemed to appreciate the joke, but made me all sorts of offers if I would not tell it to his wife when we got home.

I asked for the valise and he said he had paid a small boy to bring it to the hotel, and he supposed it was at the office, for he wouldn’t carry it through town under any circumstances, and if those people where he called would deed him their house and lot he wouldn’t again go through what he did during those few awful seconds. He said that when I began talking about the house and lot he thought at first I had either got things badly mixed up or had gone crazy; and then when he suddenly thought of himself and the predicament it had left him in, he thought he would go crazy. The very first thing he thought of was that I had up and told the same identical story that he was to tell, and that he was actually left without a sign of an excuse for calling on those people. It never occurred to him that he could possibly introduce himself as a polish vender although he fully realized that the valise had been saddled on to him; and he was sitting there in a dazed condition wondering how he should get out of a scrape when I called the lady’s attention to him. And only for the fact that I mentioned him as a man with something for sale he possibly never would have came to his senses again, and would no doubt have been arrested or kicked out of the house.

I asked him why he didn’t ask the lady if she didn’t wish to buy instead of saying, “Madam, you don’t want to buy do you?”

“Great Heavens, I was afraid as it was that she would say that she wanted to buy and if she had I would have fainted dead away.”

This satisfied me that Johnny would never make a polish vender and I advised him to return home, which he did.

I then went to Clyde, Ohio, where my family were keeping house. I had sent them there from Bronson, Michigan a few weeks before. It had taken the greater portion of the money I had been making to get them comfortably settled at housekeeping and to buy necessary clothing for them. I had now begun to hand over a few dollars to Mr. Keefer occasionally to help him out at times when he was badly in need of money.

I lost no time in getting out canvassing again and had set my mind on some day having a nice stock of auction goods.

It occurred to me about this time that I might possibly prevail upon merchants doing business in country towns to advertise and make an auction sale and clean out their old hard stock. I suggested the idea to one of the leading merchants of a town where I was canvassing. He readily fell in with it, and after I convinced him of my ability to sell the goods, he advertised a sale which brought large crowds of people from all directions, and our success was more than gratifying.

He acknowledged that we had converted hundreds of dollars’ worth of goods into money that had been in his store for years and probably would have remained there for years to come.

With a strong letter of recommendation from this merchant, I found no trouble in persuading the leading merchant in each and every town I visited to make an auction sale. I was to receive a regular commission on all sales made, and to sell only during the evenings and Saturday afternoons. This afforded me a very nice income, but I still clung to my polish, and kept hus’ling when I wasn’t selling at auction.

It is not generally known by auctioneers that this plan of operating is a practical one. Nevertheless it is, and there is not only a wide field for them, but it is a fact that the average merchant can well afford to and will give a good live auctioneer a large percentage for clearing out his odds and ends, as often as once a year, and this can be continued from place to place the year round.

Many a young man, who has the ability and might easily learn the profession and adapt himself to it, could as easily establish himself in a well-paying business in that way as to plod along in the same old rut year in and year out, without any future prospect for obtaining either money or experience.

As for the latter, I have always considered every year’s experience I had as an auctioneer equal to any three years of other business.

On my new plan of operating, I at once saw that success, especially during the fall and winter season, was assured me.

This was in the fall of 1876, when Hayes and Tilden were candidates for the Presidency. I had never interested myself in politics in the least, up to this time, and hardly knew which side either man was running on. But Mr. Hayes being from my own county, and I might add the fact that I then had in my possession a history of one branch of my father’s family which contained his name, and enabled me to prove him at least a fourteenth cousin, I at once became interested in him and anxious to see him in the Presidential chair.

I likewise began reading up on politics; and seeing the necessity of familiarizing myself with the party platforms, so as to be able to score every Democrat I met in good shape, I took the precaution to preserve every good Republican speech I read, and at my leisure cut such extracts from them as I considered good.

After getting a lot of these together I arranged them so as to read smoothly, and pasted in a scrap book; and discovered that I had a “bang up” political speech. I lost no time in committing it to memory, and was thereby successful in carrying everything by storm.

As I could talk louder, longer and faster than the average person, I usually experienced little trouble in making the Democrats “lay still.”

At last, however, I came in contact with one landlord who was a Democrat and who made it so very unpleasant for me that I concluded to manufacture a Democratic speech also, in order to be prepared for another such occasion.

Therefore I did the same as I did with the Republican speech; and although I rather preferred Hayes, I didn’t think my own prospects for a post office were so flattering but that, when I considered it a matter of policy, I could deliver a Democratic speech as well. This I often did, with as much success as with the Republican.

Whenever I registered at a strange hotel, the first inquiry I made was about the landlord’s politics; and he always found me with him.

Before the campaign was over I had argued about equally for both parties, and the day before election I felt that I ought to go into mourning, because whichever was elected I knew I would be sorry it wasn’t the other.

I had been a red hot Democrat at Gallion, Ohio, and had made a great many hotel-office speeches there, greatly to the satisfaction of the landlord and his friends.

From there I went to Crestline, where I felt obliged to be a Republican, and immediately made the acquaintance of two professional men, one a doctor and the other a lawyer. Both were Republicans, and frequented the hotel where I boarded. Neither of them could read very easily, on account of having what I used to call “slivers in their eyes,” caused by excessive drinking. They enjoyed politics, however, and used to ask me to read aloud to them. In order to flatter me and keep me interested in the reading, every time I would finish an article the old lawyer would jump up and down in his chair, and say:

“He’s a good reader, a Jim-dandy reader.”

“Damfeain’t, damfeain’t,” the doctor would chime in, also jumping up and down in his chair.

“Read some more, Johnston; read some more, you’re a bully good reader.”

I of course had frequent occasions to deliver my Republican speech while there, or at least extracts from it; and as I also established quite a reputation as an auctioneer, the two professional gentlemen said I ought to have been making political speeches during the entire campaign.

The lawyer said he frequently went out to different points and made speeches, and wanted me to go along the next time he went.

In a few days he asked me to accompany him fifteen miles to a cross-roads school house the following evening. He was to make a speech, and expected to meet a man from Gallion who would also speak; and he wanted me to go with him, and get up and bury the Democratic party forever, in that part of the country.

I at first hesitated, on account of having been a Democrat while at Gallion, as I feared that the gentleman from there might have heard me arguing at the hotel, and would give me away.

Fortunately, however, he failed to put in an appearance. The lawyer delivered his speech, and after informing his audience that the Gallion man was unable to come, introduced me as a substitute sent by him, and represented me as a very promising young lawyer from Fremont, Ohio, the very town where Mr. Hayes had always resided. I could tell them more of his personal characteristics than any politician in the field.

I opened up on them like a thunderbolt, and succeeded in fairly mopping the floor with the Democratic party.

After talking a full half hour, and relating many a little story which I had picked up for the occasion, and was carrying my audience along under full sail, with almost a full string counted up for the Republican party, the old lawyer who sat behind me, pulled my coat-tail, and began to laugh slightly. I noticed also a few intelligent-looking gentlemen looking suspiciously at one another and laughing immoderately.

I became conscious that something was wrong, and suddenly realized that I had unconsciously switched off onto my Democratic speech.

I hesitated a moment, and on a second’s reflection realized that I had been talking Democracy several minutes, and had said several things that I couldn’t take back. I became flustered, and hesitated and stumbled more or less till I heard the lawyer say, in a low voice:

“Dang it, get out of it the best you can, and close ’er up close ’er up quick.”

I then said:

“Gentlemen, I am compelled to make an honest, frank confession to you. In the first place I must admit that my politics have become somewhat tangled up in this particular speech; and as an apology for it must honestly confess that I am a Democrat, and have been traveling all over the country making Democratic speeches.

“But I was paid an extra stipulated price this evening to come over here as a substitute and make a Republican speech; and dang me if I haven’t got fogged up. So, gentlemen, you must take the will for the deed; and if you are able to unravel my speech, you are welcome to whichever portion pleases you best.”

Everybody laughed and yelled, and the majority of them wanted to shake me by the hand and congratulate me.

The old lawyer said one good thing about it was, that the biggest part of my speech was Republican, anyhow; and that I told them a good many plain truths, too, while I was at it.

I asked how about the Democratic part. Weren’t they facts, too?

“Well, yes, I guess they were; but, thank God, there wasn’t much of it.”

He said he couldn’t see how on earth I could have gotten my politics so badly mixed, and only for the fact that he positively knew me to be engaged in selling polish and auctionering he would surely take my word for it that I was a Democratic stump speaker. He said further, if I had politics down a little bit finer, he couldn’t see anything to prevent me from striking a job in almost any town, as I would be sure to find either a Democratic or Republican meeting wherever I went.