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


On my return home I met an old acquaintance who had just sold out his grocery and was anxious to invest with me in the auction business. We very soon formed a co-partnership, he furnishing one thousand dollars and I five hundred.

We opened at Upper Sandusky, in a store room, with a stock of notions, hosiery and underwear, but from the very first began losing money. The roads were very muddy, and it rained day in and day out. The weather was warm and there was no demand for our goods. We moved from one town to another with but poor success, hoping for cold weather and a demand for sox and underwear. However, “luck,” as we called it, was against us, and when spring came we invoiced and found ourselves with about six hundred dollars’ worth of stock on hand.

I then made clear to him that at the rate we had been losing money, we would probably have about five hundred dollars cash after winding up provided we commenced at once and sold out as soon as possible. I suggested that we do so, and I would turn that amount over to him, which would leave us each just five hundred dollars out of pocket for the winter’s work.

Hank said he was perfectly satisfied, and I should go on and close out, and he would go home and attend to other business.

I worked into Indiana, and succeeded in finishing just about as we had figured on, for after sending him the last remittance to make up the five hundred dollars, I had about four dollars in cash and an old trunk left.

Elkhart, Indiana, was the town I closed out in, and while stopping there at the hotel I became acquainted with a physician and surgeon from Chicago, Dr. S. W. Ingraham, whose office is now on South Clark Street.

He had been called there to perform a surgical operation, and being obliged to spend an hour or two in the hotel office before taking a return train, he became an interested listener to several stories told by a couple of drummers and myself. He finally told one or two which convinced us that we had struck an old-timer. After we had related some personal experiences I learned, to my great delight, that the Doctor’s experience had been almost as varied as my own. He began by relating the different kinds of business he had engaged in while a young man; but he was unable to mention a single thing that I hadn’t embarked in and of which I could show up a smattering of knowledge.

Finally he said:

“Now, Johnston, I am going to head you off right here.”

“What is it, Doctor? I am anxious to know what it is.”

“Well sir, I’ll bet you never made a political speech, and I stumped Ohio during one campaign and made one speech a night for ten consecutive weeks.”

“I can beat that. I stumped Ohio for Hayes and Tilden, and made two speeches on the platform for one consecutive night.”

“But how could you speak for Hayes and Tilden? One was a Democrat and the other a Republican.”

“No matter, I did it anyhow, and all in the same speech, too.”

And to prove the correctness of my statement, as the Doctor seemed a little incredulous, I jumped to my feet and delivered a part of my Republican speech and then a part of the Democratic, and then headed him off by relating my experience running a fruit stand, the three days with a side-show, besides one or two other ventures. When I told him I was an auctioneer he at once became interested in me, as he had been one himself in his younger days. I quickly satisfied him that I could sell at auction, and he likewise convinced me that he “had been there.” I then narrated the ups and downs I had had, and showed up my books for the winter’s losses, and how I had just sent my late partner about all the money I had. He asked my plans for the future. I told him about my furniture polish, and that it was always a sure thing. He listened attentively, and after a moment’s reflection said:

“But the time of year is just coming when you could make money fast if you had a nice auction stock.”

“I know that; and another thing I know is just how to do it now, as I have paid well for my experience.”

“Well,” said the Doctor, surprising me as he reached down into his pocket and produced a roll of bills, “I am going to loan you one hundred dollars, and I know you will pay it back before three months.”

I thanked him, but told him fifty dollars would answer, as I could get along nicely and would prefer to commence as low down as I dared. He insisted that a hundred would be none too much, but I declined to accept more than fifty, and immediately sent to Chicago for a stock of just such goods as I felt certain would sell well and not be too bulky.

I assured the Doctor that if I were successful I would pay him back, and if I was not I would never cross the street to shun him when I came to Chicago, but would surely call on him and acknowledge the debt, anyhow.

I had heard and read of men like Doctor Ingraham, but he was the first of his kind that I had ever met; and realizing that such friendship could not be valued too highly, I determined to not only repay him, but to let him have the satisfaction of knowing sooner or later that the start he gave me had developed into something of consequence.

After he bade me farewell and started for home, I was at a loss to know what to do while waiting for my goods, and had almost concluded to have a few bottles of polish made up with which to make a few dollars, when a young man appeared at the hotel with a very peculiar-looking cylindrical instrument in a box. I was curious to know what it was, and as he looked rather tired and sorry, I ventured to inquire what he had in there. He answered:

“Oh, it’s nothing but a ‘talking machine.’”

I was fairly dumfounded, and thought perhaps he was casting a slur, as I had been doing considerable talking. At any rate I felt that whether he was telling the truth or not, I had a right to take exceptions.

If he had meant to slur me, I would be insulted.

If he had told the truth, I had a right to oppose unfair competition.

I then demanded an explanation, and assured him that I did nothing else but talk, and considered I had a perfect right to investigate any sort of a machine that would be at all likely to monopolize the business.

He then took the cover off the box and showed me an Edison phonograph, which he had gotten in exchange for a horse. He had come on there expecting to meet his cousin, who was to furnish the money, and they were going to travel and exhibit it.

I asked him to “set ’er going” and let me hear it spout an hour or two. He said it would take several minutes to arrange it, besides he didn’t like to use up any more tin foil than was necessary, as he hadn’t much on hand.

I asked him what he thought of doing. He said he didn’t know, but guessed he’d go back home if his cousin didn’t come.

“Why can’t you and I give an exhibition?” I asked.

“Where will we give it?”

“Suppose we go to some country school-house a few miles out and give a show to-morrow evening?”

“All right, I’m willing. I have plenty of small hand-bills.”

“Then we’ll hire a team to-morrow morning and drive out to some thickly-settled neighborhood and advertise it. You’re sure it’ll talk, are you?”

“Talk? You bet it’ll talk!”

The next morning we were up and ready for business, and, after hiring a horse and wagon, started out.

After driving several miles, we found a place where we thought it would pay to stop, and upon inquiring for the school directors, were referred to a farmer living near by.

We called on him, and after stating our business and promising himself and family passes, were given an order on the school-teacher for the key, when she had locked up for the day. We drove directly there, where we found nearly forty scholars in attendance.

After making the teacher’s acquaintance and explaining our business, she gave us permission to deliver a circular to each one present, and to make an announcement.

This I managed to do, and stated to them that if I had time after the performance with the talking machine, I would deliver a lecture on Telegraphy, and explain the manner of sending messages, and how batteries were made, and how long it would take a message to travel from New York to San Francisco.

My idea, of course, was to represent as much of an attraction as possible, as I felt certain that if we got them there, and got the machine to talking once, they would forget all about Telegraphy.

On our way out my partner had drilled me on what to say to the Phonograph in order to have the words reproduced distinctly. He said it was necessary to use a certain set of words that I could speak very distinctly, and that would be penetrating, and recommended the following:

And the-mouse-ran-down,

After making arrangements at this school-house, we started out and visited two other districts and advertised our performance. The result was that people came from all directions, in carriage and wagon loads. They had all heard or read of Edison’s talking machine, and were anxious to see and hear it.

The house was packed, and we took in over forty dollars at the door.

At eight o’clock I announced everything ready for the exhibition, and requested all to remain as quiet as possible throughout the performance.

Of course I was as ignorant of the manner of manipulating the talking machine as any one of the audience.

I didn’t know whether the thing had to be “blowed up” or “wound up,” and was obliged to leave it all with my partner, who seemed perfectly confident of its success.

After arranging the tin foil he took hold of the crank, began turning, and instructed me to place my mouth over the instrument and speak my little piece about the mouse and clock. After finishing, I stepped back to await results.

He turned the crank, and the thing gave just one unearthly, agonizing groan and, I imagined, rolled its eyes back, and gasping for breath, died a natural death.

The audience showed a look of disappointment. I endeavored to convince them by my careless, indifferent manner that it was only a common occurrence, and that all would soon be right.

My partner tried to laugh it off and make believe it was a good joke, but I noticed very quickly large drops of perspiration standing on his forehead as he busied himself in trying to fix the machine.

At last he was ready to try it again, and instructed me to speak louder and more distinctly than I did before. I was determined that he should not lay the blame to me for not talking loud enough, and therefore used all the strength and power of lungs and voice that I could command. The result was less satisfactory than before, for not a sound could we get from it.

The audience began to show impatience, and from different words and expressions that came from them we were convinced that they were not going to submit easily to anything but an exhibition of some kind.

By this time my partner had taken off his coat and vest, although it was really cold enough for an overcoat, and the perspiration was fairly dripping from him. He was much excited and I wasn’t feeling any too gay myself.

We began working on the machine together, which gave us a chance to converse in an undertone. I asked if he had ever tried to run it before. He said no, but he was certain he knew how.

I told him it really looked as though he must have boarded and roomed with Edison when he conceived the idea of making the thing.

“Are you positively certain it ever did talk?”

“I know it has talked.”

“Did you ever hear it?”

“No, but my cousin did.”

“Great Scott, man! you don’t know whether this is a Phonograph or a washing-machine; and I am certain it looks more like the latter. What are we going to do?”

He said he guessed we’d better give back the money and let them go.

“Yes, that would be a bright thing! Do you suppose I’d give back this money? Not much.”

“Well, but we’ll have to. What can we do?”

“What can we do? Well sir, we’ve got to do something to entertain these people and hold their money, if you and I have to give them a double song and dance.”

“My gracious, Johnston, I can’t dance!”

“But you have got to dance. I can’t dance either, but this is a ‘ground-hog case,’ and we’ve got to dance and sing too.”

“I guess I’ll announce to them that you will favor them with a song and single clog, and then we will appear together.”

As I stepped to the table I heard him say:

“I’ll take my hat and run!”

Then, stepping to the front, I said:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you will be patient with us a few moments. The trouble is just this: We brought the Phonograph over here in an open wagon, and as the weather has been cold and damp, and we forgot to keep the thing blanketed, it took a severe cold, which seems to have settled on its lungs, rendering it unable to speak above a whisper. But with your kind indulgence we hope to doctor it up and be ready to give you a nice exhibition in a few moments.”

Of course I expected our audience to laugh at and ridicule the idea of its taking cold, and was surprised that not a single person cracked a smile, but, on the contrary, every one seemed to gaze at the instrument with a look of sympathy.

When I returned to my partner, who was still trying to fix it, he was nervous and showed much agitation, and said:

“Oh, what a relief. I would have sunk through the floor if you had announced what you said you were going to.”

“Do you think you can fix it?”

“It don’t look like it. Say, Johnston, suppose you deliver that lecture on Photography?”

“On Telegraphy, you mean.”

“Oh yes, Telegraphy. Go ahead.”

“But it won’t take three minutes to tell all I know about that.”

“Well then, by Jove, we’ve got to give back the money.”

“Not much! No giving back the money with me; and as I sold the tickets and have the cash, you can rely on that. You have got to do something to entertain these people. You can sing can’t you?”

“Indeed I can not.”

“Can you whistle?”

“No, sir.”

“Can you do anything? Can you speak a piece?”

“Johnston, if my life was at stake I couldn’t do a thing! the old talking machine anyhow! I wish

“Say, I’ll tell you what we’ll do. I’ll announce to them that the Phonograph is too sick to talk, and will give them a choice of three things: Either a lecture on Phrenology or Telegraphy, or an imitation of a Yankee peddler selling his wares at auction; and the moment I say ‘auction’ you look up and begin to laugh and clap your hands and say, ‘Johnston, give them the Yankee peddler; that’s the best of all.’”

He agreed, and when I made the announcement he had no sooner carried out my instructions than the whole house cried as with one voice:

“Yes, yes, give us the Yankee peddler!”

Then I felt relieved and knew we had them. I then explained that Yankee peddlers usually carried handkerchiefs, sox, hosiery, shears, shoe-laces, suspenders, soap, pencils, pins, razors, knives, etc., and if some one of the crowd would name any article, I would go through the formality of selling it on the down east Dutch auction style.

A lad sitting near me on a front seat cried out:

“Here, Mister, play you are selling my knife,” and reaching out and taking it in my hand, after making a few preliminary remarks, I began with the twang of the almost extinct down east Yankee, and in a high-pitched voice and at lightning speed, rattled off:

“Now, ladies and gentlemen, the first article I am going to offer for your inspection is a fine silver-steel blade knife with a mother-of-pearl handle, brass lined, round-joint tapped and riveted tip top and bottom a knife made under an act of Congress at the rate of thirty-six dollars per dozen there is a blade for every day in the week and a handle for your wife to play with on Sunday it will cut cast-iron steam steel wind or bone and will stick a hog frog toad or the devil and has a spring on it like a mule’s hind leg and sells in the regular way for

I then went on with my usual plan of selling, and introduced the endless variety of sayings and jokes which I had been two years manufacturing and collecting, and then went on through the whole list of Yankee notions, giving my full description of everything, to the great satisfaction of my audience and the surprise of my partner, who was in ignorance of the fact of my ever having been in the auction business.

I kept this up for over two hours and kept the crowd laughing almost constantly. This, I considered, was about as much as any show could do, and felt that I was not only entitled to their money, but that I had struck quite a novel way of utilizing my knowledge of auctioneering.

After closing the entertainment the people gathered around, and many of them wanted me to stay in the neighborhood and deliver a lecture the next night on Phrenology. But as we were billed at Elkhart for that date, it was impossible to do so. We remained over night with the school director, and the next morning he requested me to delineate the character of his son by an examination of his head.

I had always been interested in the study of human nature, and consequently had taken considerable pains to read up and post myself on Physiognomy. I had a fair knowledge of temperaments, and altogether was enabled to pass fair judgment on the lad. While I hadn’t the slightest knowledge of Phrenology, I was more or less familiar with the terms used by them, such as benevolence, veneration, firmness, self-esteem, approbativeness, caution, combativeness, ideality, etc., etc., and began at once to delineate the boy’s character.

When I placed my fingers on the front part of the boy’s head and looked wise, saying “large combativeness,” the father said:

“Great Cæsar! do you locate combativeness in the front of the head?”

“Who in thunder said it was in the front of the head?”

“But you put your fingers on the front part of the head.”

“Yes, possibly so, but if I did my thumb was at the same time resting on the bump of combativeness. My gracious, any one knows where that is!”

This satisfied him, and the whole family were delighted with the boy’s prospects when I had finished.

We were then ready to leave, and when I asked how much our bill would be, he said he guessed two dollars would be about right, and then inquired what my charges would be for examining the boy’s head. I told him two dollars and a half was the usual price, but we’d call it square on our board bill. He said he thought it would be about right to call it even.

My partner thought it the most wonderful thing he had ever heard of that I should be able to jump up before that large crowd of people, as I did the night before, and conjure up such a lot of talk on notions, and he couldn’t see how I did it. He said he believed I was inspired.

On our return to Elkhart we divided our cash and dissolved partnership.