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


While traveling in Northern Michigan I came across a young man clerking in a dry-goods store in a small iron-mining town, who expressed a desire to go on the road for me as traveling agent. His employer said:

“Oh, Bert is thoroughly honest and trustworthy, and naturally a capable fellow; but I think he is rather too unsophisticated to act in that capacity, as I don’t believe he has ever visited a town of over three hundred inhabitants in his life.”

I replied that he was just the sort of chap I was looking for. I wanted a man who would be likely to listen to my advice and instructions, and a man of wide experience would not be apt to do so.

I made arrangements with the young man to return to Chicago with me. His manner at once convinced me that he meant business, and was determined to succeed. But for all that, and with the most kindly feelings towards him, I must admit that every move he made, after arriving in the city, reminded me of myself on my first trip to New York. In fact, with the exception of the difference in ages, he was a regular Joshua Whitcomb. I felt almost obliged to lasso him to prevent him from following off band wagons and chasing fire engines around town. He was particularly fond of dime museums and the “knock-’em-down and drag-’em-out” Wild-western plays; and I saw the necessity of getting him started on the road as soon as possible, before he should become stage-struck. I had two sample-cases made, and took him on the road with me through Michigan. I took particular pains to impress upon his mind the necessity of curtailing expenses, and often reminded him that the occasional saving of ’bus and carriage fares from the hotel to the depot, when he had plenty of time to walk, would be no disgrace to him or his House. I also pointed out the foolishness of spending money with merchants in treating, or in other words, attempting to bribe them by treating, as that was something I had never yet done myself, and would not be responsible for any such expense. I fully believed that the average salesman lost as often as he gained by this practice. (I still believe it.)

He was rather inclined to rebel against this, and said he was certain that it would often become almost necessary to spend a little money in that way in order to hold trade. I persisted that business should be conducted on business principles only, and not socially or on the strength of friendship; and it would only be necessary to call on a merchant, introduce his business at the very earliest possible moment, get through as soon as possible, and immediately take his departure; and if he had any loafing to do, do it at the hotel; and above all, to spend very little time in trying to become better acquainted. By these methods, if he didn’t make a good impression he would be quite certain not to make a bad one.

His penchant for telling funny stories made him known to those with whom he came in contact as “the man of infinite but unpointed jest,” so as a matter of precaution I requested him to always defer telling stories till his next trip.

I convinced him that all successful salesmen worked from early morning till late at night, and that a dollar-a-day hotel, in a small country town, would not be a disgraceful place to spend a Sunday. The result was, he traveled the first year at a wonderfully light expense, and sold more goods than the average high-salaried salesman.

He was not long, however, in becoming sophisticated, and was soon able to roll up as nice an expense account as any of the boys.

The second year after I began business for myself who should call at my office one day and apply for a position as traveling agent but my old friend, Dr. Frank, who, it will be remembered, traveled through Ohio with me selling the “Incomprehensible,” and whom I dubbed Doctor after we set the old lady’s ankle. I had not heard from him for years, but he had been in Michigan all the time since he left me; and in consequence of having received a letter from me addressing him as Dr. Frank he had been called Doctor by every one, and so concluded to become a physician, and had spent one winter at Ann Arbor, in the Medical College, attending lectures. I hired him at once, and sent him on the road. I also engaged five other men, later in the season, and sent each of them out with a large stock of goods. They were all certain of an immense holiday trade, and were extravagant in their demands for a large stock to supply it.

I had been prompt in the payment of all bills, and had become quite well acquainted with all the manufacturers. They called on me in large numbers, urging me to buy, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Each was positive that I could not run another month without their special styles, and as I could buy on long time and sell on short time I could easily see my way out.

About two months before the holidays, the bottom fell completely out of the fall trade. My agents began to complain, and each advised me not to buy any more goods. They were too late, however, as I had bought goods enough to supply a dozen agents. Their sales amounted to simply nothing. A day or two before Christmas they began straggling in, one after another, with their trunks and sample-cases full of goods.

My safe, and every nook and corner of my office, were all filled with goods; and when my bills became due I had nothing but goods. Two weeks after the holidays I sent my men out again and kept them hus’ling. Of course they were bound to sell more or less goods, but it was up-hill work.

I gave my particular attention to satisfying Eastern creditors, and managed to do so more by writing letters and acknowledging my indebtedness, and promising fair dealing, than by making remittances. As fast as any one of the last five agents I had hired would sell off his goods I would order him in and discharge him. In this way I reduced my stock without having to buy but few new goods, and very soon had but two men on the road. These two were Dr. Frank and Bert, who were both good men, and perfectly reliable.

On the seventeenth of January, this same year 1884 I was married to Miss Anna H. Emmert, of Chicago, (my present wife), having long since been legally separated from my first, and she already married again.

My second wife had received a thorough business education, although but eighteen years of age, and immediately began taking an interest in the management of my office affairs; and from that time until the present has been of incalculable help to me.

I had no knowledge whatever of book-keeping, while she was an expert; and since my force of clerks, book-keepers and type-writers has run up to between thirty and fifty, there has never been a time when she couldn’t more than acceptably fill any of their positions; and during our last holiday trade in our busiest season she took the place and kept up the work of three different employees during their temporary absence. And this in addition to a general oversight of the entire force, which she makes her regular line of duty.

The summer following our marriage my wife’s health began failing. As I had already become convinced that it was necessary that I should again go on the road, I decided to buy a pair of horses and carriage and travel with them, and let my wife accompany me. Our physician said nothing could be more beneficial to her than such a campaign.

So after employing competent help to take charge of our office, we were ready to start out. Soon after our decision to travel I traded a diamond ring for a horse, harness and buggy, and not being able to buy a mate to the animal in Chicago at a satisfactory price, we shipped our stock of goods and horse and buggy to Grand Haven, Michigan, by boat. I also bought a double harness in Chicago and shipped with the rig, and we crossed on the same boat.

On our arrival there I began searching for another horse, and succeeded in finding one to suit me, which I bought in less than ten minutes after the owner showed him to me. I then had a pole fitted to my carriage, and by noon of that day we were under full sail for Northern Michigan.

The first excitement I furnished my wife on that trip occurred about an hour after our departure from Grand Haven, and, was in the shape of a horse trade. We were traveling through a thick, heavy wood, when we met a sewing-machine agent. I saw at once that he was driving an animal that exactly matched the one we brought from Chicago.

I bantered him for a trade.

He stopped, and after looking over the horse I had just bought, said he’d trade for seventy-five dollars.

“I’ll give you fifty dollars.”

He then offered to trade for sixty. I still offered fifty.

“Make it five dollars more, and it’s a trade,” said he.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll wrestle you, run a foot-race, or spit at a mark, to see whether I shall pay five dollars extra or not.”

He “sized me up” for a moment, and said he guessed he’d wrestle with me; and asked me to name my hold. I proposed “rough-and-tumble.”

We then laid off our coats and took hold, and in much less time than it takes to tell it my heels and hat were flying in the air, and a second later I found myself sprawling in the middle of the road on my back.

After rising to his feet he was about to put his coat on, when I asked if he was going to give up.

“Give up? Great Cæsar! didn’t I throw you fair and square?”

“Yes, you did that time; but the best three in five is what wins where I came from.”

“All right, sir. Three in five goes, then.”

By this time we had gotten rested, and took hold again. I felt in my bones that my five dollars was a goner, but determined to do my best, and managed to make it pretty lively for him. Finally, however, he landed me again squarely on my back.

While taking a rest he remarked that “side-hold” was his favorite way to wrestle.

I told him that I also preferred “side-hold.”

The fact was, I preferred almost anything for a change. I couldn’t see that I was likely to lose much, at any rate, and was glad to accept almost anything. A moment later my wife called time, and we took “side-hold.”

For some unaccountable reason I felt more confident, and in less than two seconds I had him on his back. I then began laughing and told him I had only been fooling with him, and asked how he’d like to divide the five dollars and call it a draw. He was extremely good-natured, and seemed to enjoy the sport as much, if not more, than I did, but said he wasn’t the “draw” kind; and if I expected to get any part, or the whole of that five dollars I’d have to do some tall wrestling. I have often thought since that the fellow must have known what he was talking about, for when he took hold of me the fourth round, one would have thought he was about to decide a bet of thousands of dollars.

I took in the situation at once, and the thought uppermost in my mind was to try to save my neck, regardless of the five dollars.

I was not mistaken when I thought I saw “blood in his eye,” for sure enough he proved himself a terror, and in less time than any previous round he again had my heels in the air and landed me on my back the third time.

I acknowledged myself vanquished, and after paying him the fifty-five dollars, we exchanged horses and separated on the best of terms.

A few moments later, after my wife and I had started on with our new horse, I asked her how she liked traveling. She laughed heartily at the absurdity of our plan for deciding the trade, and replied that with the recreation, excitement and change of climate, she thought that I would improve in health whether she did or not.

I soon discovered that my scheme of traveling by team was going to be just the thing to help me sell off the large surplus of goods which I still had on hand. I had always done the bulk of my business with general-store merchants.

On this trip we learned that there was a general stagnation in trade, and especially with this class of goods; and to undertake to push more jewelry on those who then had more than they needed and more than they could pay for, would be foolish and unbusiness-like. I also found that my agent who had been traveling through that section, had sold to anybody and everybody, regardless of credit-standing, or responsibility.

I quickly decided to adopt a new system of operation.

On referring to my map and commercial book I found any number of what are termed Cross-Road stores, that is, merchants residing and doing business off the railroads, and in very small towns where traveling agents were not likely to stop. I could find any number of these right on the lines of roads where my agents had been traveling, and where I had considerable money due me, which I was anxious to collect.

I began at once by calling on this class of trade. Business was exceedingly dull with all of them, and as I hardly ever found a single one who had experimented with the sale of jewelry, I found but little difficulty in convincing the majority that the only thing they lacked to boom their trade was a stock of my goods. At any rate, I found my sales running four or five times as high as any one of my agents had been making. I managed to keep in range of the larger towns where money was due me from old customers, and would make it a point to call on them and demand an immediate settlement of some kind. If they couldn’t pay cash, I would take notes, which could be used as trade paper with my creditors, by endorsing the same.

About this time I received a long confidential letter from my book-keeper, saying he had been looking over the books carefully, and found that I was owing twenty-six thousand dollars which was past due, besides what was not yet due; and as there wasn’t a dollar in the bank, and the majority of our customers were not prompt in the payment of their bills, he couldn’t see how I ever expected to pull through; then after apologizing for offering me advice, suggested that I return at once, and make a clean breast of it by making an assignment; and after settling up for from twenty-five to fifty cents on the dollar, I could commence on a new and firmer basis.

I replied to this letter as soon as I could get hold of pen and paper. I reminded him that I had never thus far received an unpleasant communication from a single one of my creditors.

In other words, I had never yet received what might be considered a dunning letter, but on the contrary nearly every one of them had, in one way or another, given me to understand that they had implicit confidence in me, and were willing and glad to favor me all they could. I also explained to him my new system of operating, and showed him how I expected to sell goods and collect money too.

I then closed my letter by saying that in the future, if he entertained an idea that I had got to fail in business, I wished he would kindly keep it to himself, as there would be time enough for me to consider the matter after my creditors had become dissatisfied; and added that as far as I was personally concerned, I intended to stick to the wreck as long as there was a hand-hold left; and that I’d pay one hundred cents on the dollar if I had to collect my bills at the muzzle of a shot-gun. I then cautioned him about keeping up my plan of letter-writing, and assured him that at that particular stage of the game a good letter would often take the place of a small check; and that I should depend upon him to “hold them down,” while I would keep hus’ling and turn our stock into cash, as well as to collect up closely; and with this system properly manipulated there would very soon be a perceptible change.

In answer to this he said he was going to treat it as a personal letter, and intended to keep it for future reference, in case he or any of his friends should ever get in close quarters; he believed that as I had now hit on a plan for unloading our large stock of goods, and with my determination and bull-dog tenacity, he felt certain of success.

This was the last time I ever heard the word “assignment” used in connection with my business, and I hope circumstances will never bring it up again.

My wife and I continued on through the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan, and I must say, that although my business affairs were considerably muddled, I never made a more enjoyable trip than this. After my separation with Flo. I had often declared that I would never marry again; and I now saw where I might have made a serious mistake, had I adhered to that declaration. With a wife full of hope, and a determination to do all in her power for my comfort and happiness, and a particular faculty for working hand in hand with me, I could see a bright future, even in the darkest days of my financial trouble.

We continued to trade horses occasionally, or at least often enough to break the monotony; and after we had been out a few weeks, I traded jewelry for a handsome pair of ponies, harness and carriage. My wife’s health improved rapidly; she found considerable amusement at first in driving this team, following after me. Very often, when we would find it convenient to do so, I would give her a case of goods and let her drive to some distant store and make a sale while I would drive to another town, and we would meet at still another point at night.

I agreed to give her ten per cent. on all the goods she could sell to any new customer, and on all they would buy in the future. She made several customers in this way, and as we are still selling them lots of goods, they are known to our book-keepers as Anna’s customers, and she never fails to call regularly for her commissions. When she became tired of driving the ponies I traded them off.

We had some queer experiences that summer in making collections. One firm had been owing me one hundred and twenty dollars for a long time, and at last the entire establishment was turned over to the man’s wife and the business carried on in her name. This was at Farwell, Michigan.

We drove up in front of the store, and I went in to see what the chances were for collecting.

I was informed by the wife that her husband was absent from the store. I told her my name, and called her attention to the fact that she had in her show-case a lot of jewelry my agent had sold her husband on credit.

She said that didn’t make any difference; she had bought him out, and those goods were hers.

I then said:

“Madam, I am going to have you arrested.”

“What for?”

“For grand larceny.”

Her clerk laughed me in the face; but she changed color, and calling me into the back room, said:

“Where did you ever know me before? Were you ever in Pittsburg?”

“Where did I know you? Were I ever in Pittsburg? Well, you’ll find out where I knew you, and whether I was ever in Pittsburg, before you get through with me. I’ll have you locked up inside of ten minutes if you don’t settle with me,” saying which I started out.

She called me back, and in much agitation said:

“Now see here; there is not a soul in this town knows that I have ever been married before, and if I have committed larceny by not getting a divorce from my first husband, it will do you no good to have me arrested, and will only make me lots of trouble.”

I saw that I had her cornered, and immediately took advantage of it, and said:

“Madam, just think of it! a woman with two husbands! Don’t you know that larceny is one of the worst offenses a person can be guilty of, in this state? I am surprised that a woman of your intelligence should take the desperate chance of committing larceny, and grand larceny at that.”

She asked what the difference was between larceny and grand larceny, in a case. I replied:

“Grand larceny is a case where a woman leaves her first husband in one state and marries her second in another without a divorce; and twenty years in the penitentiary is a very common sentence for grand larceny in Michigan.”

By this time she was trembling with fear, and said she would pay me in full if I would agree never to mention her name in connection with that larceny affair.

I assured her that all I wanted was my pay, and I would never molest her again.

She then returned to the store and paid me the cash. I had just given her a receipt in full when her husband made his appearance and asked what she was doing.

She replied that I was Johnston, the proprietor of the wholesale jewelry house that he had been dealing with.

He turned to me and said:

“See here! I paid your agent for those goods when I bought them.”

“Did you? Well, your wife has been kind enough to pay for them again, and I guess the receipt I just gave her is about the only one you can produce.”

She then called her husband and myself to the adjoining room, and quickly turning to him, said very excitedly:

“See here, John. This man knows me, and knows that I committed larceny, and grand larceny at that, and was going to have me arres

“Larceny, did you say?” he interrupted, “what in have you been stealin’?”

“Well, I hain’t stole nothin’, John; but you know I hain’t got no divorce from Uriah,” she answered.

“Oh, divorce be ! you infernal fool. That’s bigamy, you idiot; not larceny.”

I then began to laugh, and said to him:

“Mr. , do you remember writing me a letter, once upon a time, telling me to go to the devil for that account, and that it would be a cold day when I got my pay; and I answered you, saying that I would some day catch you napping and get even with you?”

His wife saw her mistake at once, and looked and acted silly enough.

He ripped and tore and swore, and threatened to throw me out; but I told him he needn’t be to that trouble, as I was ready to leave, and would go out alone.

The next hard case I had came up a few days later. We drove into Reed City, and soon learned that our customer had sold out three days before. We then went to the hotel, and after putting our team out I began a search for my man, and was informed that he was carrying about two thousand dollars around in his pocket, and had refused to pay any one. There were any number of creditors at the hotel, who had been trying to collect, but were not successful.

I called on the man who had bought him out, and was assured that he had paid him eighteen hundred dollars cash, and furthermore, that he carried that money in his pocket.

Half an hour later I met the delinquent, and said:

“How are you, Mr. ? Come into the hotel and take a cigar.”

He did so, and I said:

“It’s too bad you have had such poor success. What are you going to do now?”

He looked very serious, and said he didn’t know.

I then invited him up to my room, where I was going to fix up some trays of jewelry. He followed me, and as soon as we were inside I closed the door, locked it, put the key in my pocket, threw off my hat and coat, took out my watch, and holding it in my hand, said:

“Mr. , I’ll give you just two minutes by my watch to pay me ninety-nine dollars, and if you don’t do so within that time I’ll not promise that there will be a grease-spot left of you when I get through. I want you to distinctly understand that I am out on a collecting tour, and I mean money or blood; so now, sir, take your choice: either settle or the consequences; you have less than two minutes to decide in.”

He turned pale, and became much excited and declared he hadn’t a cent with him.

“Then it’s your misfortune, sir. I’m going to ‘do you up’ or collect ninety-nine dollars right now, whether you have a cent with you or not; you deserve it anyhow.”

“Johnston, what can I do?” said he.

“Settle; settle, of course; and you now have but one minute to do it in, and I’m not certain but it will be your last minute on earth if you don’t.”

“Well, Johnston, suppose I settle with you, will you agree not to let my other creditors know it?”

“No sir, I’ll not agree to anything of the kind; on the contrary, I shall tell every one just how I brought you to terms, and you have but a half minute left.”

He then produced a leather pocket-book filled with bills of large denomination, and counted me out ten ten-dollar bills.

I thanked him, and told him I’d just keep the extra dollar for interest, and then wrote him a receipt in full. He said he intended to pay me, anyhow. I told him I intended he should, and asked how he liked my system.

He looked foolish, and said he thought I’d come out winner, if I didn’t get killed some day in trying to collect. He further said that he’d bet I’d run across some one some day who would give me a good trouncing.

I told him I had it all figured out that I could afford to take one good threshing for every five dead beats, provided I could collect from the other four.