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Pills and Persimmons by Jonathan F. Kelley


I remember an old “Joke” told me by my father, of an old, and rather addle-headed gentleman, who some fifty years ago did business in New Castle, Delaware, and having occasion to send out to England for hardware, wrote his order, and as he was about to despatch it to the captain of the ship, lying in the stream, ready for sea, a neighbor got him to add an order for some kegs of nails, and in the hurry, the old man dashed off his P. S., but upon attempting to read the whole order over, he couldn't make head or tail of it.

“Well,” says he, in a flurry, “I'll send it, just as it is; they are better scholars in England than I am—they'll make it out.”

Strange enough to say, when the hardware came over, among the rest of the stuff were the so many kegs of nails, but upon opening one of these kegs, it was full, or nearly so, of American quarter dollars. The old man roared out in a [word missing].

“Haw! haw! haw! Well, blast me,” says he, “if they ain't scholars, fust-rate scholars, in England; it's worth while sending 'em bad manuscript.”

A still more comical mistake is related to us, of a commercial transaction that actually took place within a year or two, between parties severally situated in Boston and the city of San Francisco, California. As we consider the whole transaction rather rich, we transcribe it for the diversion it may furnish.

Simmons, the “Oak Hall” man, of Boston, had set up a shop in San Francisco, to which he was almost daily sending all sorts of cheap clothing, and making, on the same, more money than a horse could pull; and in his package, he was in the habit of sending articles for friends, &c. A gentleman recently gone to the gold country, from Boston, acquainted with Simmons, and Simmons with him, found, upon looking around San Francisco, that his own business, lawing, wasn't worth two cents, as many of his craft were turning their attention to matters more useful to the human family—digging cellars, wheeling baggage, driving teams, &c. So lawyer Bunker turned his attention from Blackstone, Chitty, Coke on Littleton, and those fellows of deep-red, blue-black law, to the manufacture of quack nostrums. Bunker found that the great appetite we Yankees have for quack medicines, pills and powders, suffered no diminution in the gold country; on the contrary, the appetite became rather sharpened for those luxuries, and Bunker found that a New York butcher, with whom he became acquainted, was absolutely making his fortune, by the manufacture of dough pills, spiced with coriander, and a slight tincture of calomel.

“Egad!” says Bunker, “I'll go into medicine. I'll write to a friend in Boston, to send me out a few medicine and receipt books, and a lot of pulverized liquorice, quinine, &c., with a pill machine, and I guess I'll be after my New York butchering friend in a double brace of shakes.”

Now, it may be premised that as Bunker was a lawyer, he wrote a first-rate hand; in fact, he might have bragged of being able to equal, if not surpass, the “Hon.” Rufus Choate, whose scrawl more resembles the scratchings of a poor half-drowned in an ink-saucer spider, meandering over foolscap, than quill-driving, and as unintelligible as the marks of a tea-box or hieroglyphics on the sarcophagus of ye ancient Egyptians! In short, Counsellor Bunker's manuscript was awful; a few of his most intimate friends, only, pretending to have the hang of it at all; and to one of these friends, Bunker directs his message, transmits it by Uncle Sam's mail poche, and in fever heat he awaits the return of the precious combustibles that were to make his fortune. In course of time, Bunker's friends receive the order, but, alas! it was all Greek to them; they cyphered in vain, to make out any thing in the letters except persimmons.

“What the deuce,” says one of Bunker's friends, “does Joe want with persimmons?”

They went at it again, and again, but there was no mistaking the final sentence, “send, without delay, persimmons.”

“Persimmons?” said one.

“Persimmons?” echoed another.

“Persimmons? What in thunder does Joe Bunker want with persimmons ?” responded a third.

“Persimmons!” all three chimed.

“Persimmons,” says one, “are not used in law proceedings, anyhow.”

“Nor in gospel, even, provided Joe has got into that,” responded another.

“Persimmons are not medicinal.”

“They are not chemical.”

“Persimmons are no part, or ingredient, in art, science, law, or religion; now, for what does Joe Bunker, counsellor at law, want us to forward, without delay, persimmons?”

Well, they couldn't tell; in vain they reasoned. Joe's letter was very brief, strictly to the point, and that point was—persimmons! In the first place, it is not everybody that knows exactly what persimmons are, where they come from, and what they are good for. One of Bunker's friends had lived in the South; he knew persimmons; it occurred to him that possums, and some human beings, especially the colored pop'lation, were the only critters particularly fond of the fruit. Webster was consulted, to see what light he cast upon the matter: he informed them that “Persimmon was a tree, and its fruit, a species of Diospyros, a native of the States south of New York. Fruit like a plum, and when not ripe, very hard and astringent (rather so), but when ripe, luscious and highly nutritious.”

“Well, there,” said one of Bunker's friends, “I'll bet Joe's sick; persimmons have been prescribed for his cure, and the sooner we send the persimmons the better!”

“Persimmons! Now I come to think of it,” says the man who had a faint idea of what persimmons were, “they make beer, first-rate beer of persimmons, in the South, and it's my opinion, that Joe Bunker is going into persimmon beer business; as you say, he may be sick—persimmon beer may be the California cure-all; in either case, let us forward the persimmons without delay!”

Now persimmons never ripen until touched pretty smartly with Jack Frost. This was in September; persimmons were mostly full grown, but not ripe. A large keg of them was ordered from Jersey, and as fast as Adams &Co.'s great Express to San Francisco could take them out, the persimmons went!

Counsellor Bunker, relying upon his friends to forward without delay the tools and remedial agents to make his fortune in the pill business, went to work, got him an office, changed his name, and added an M. D. to it, had a sign painted, advertised his shop, and informed the public that on such a time he would open, and guarantee to cure all ills, from lumbago to liver complaint, from toothache to lock-jaw, spring fever to yaller janders, and in his enthusiasm, he sat down with a ream of paper, to count up the profits, and calculate the time it would take to get his pile of gold dust and start for home.

The day arrived that Doctor Phlebotonizem was to open, and he found customers began to call, and sure enough, in comes a large keg, direct through from the States, to his address; the freight bill on it was pretty considerable, but Joe out and paid it, rejoicing to think that now he was all right, and that if the proprietors of gold dust and the lumbago, or any of the various ills set forth in his catalogue of human woes, had spare change, he would soon find them out. He closed his door, opened his cask—

“What in the name of everlasting sin and misery is this?” was the first burst, upon feeling the fine saw dust, and seeing, nicely packed, the green and purple, round and glossy—he couldn't tell what.

“Pills? No, good gracious, they can't be pills—smell queer—some mistake—can't be any mistake—my name on the cask—(tastes one of the 'article')—O! by thunder! (tastes again)—I'm blasted, they (tastes again) are, by Jove, persimmons! Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ho! ho! he! he! ha! ha! ha!”

And the ex-counsellor of modern law roared until he grew livid in the face.

“I see—ha! ha! I see; they have misunderstood every line I wrote them, except the last, and that—ha! ha! ha!—for my direction to send out my stuff per Simmons, they send me PERSIMMONS! Ha! ha! ha! ho! ho!”

But, after enjoying the fun of the matter, ex-counsellor Bunker discovered the thing was nothing to laugh at; patients were at the door—if he did not soon prescribe for their cases, his now numerous creditors would prescribe for him! What was to be done? Very dull and prosy people often become enterprising and imaginative, to a wonderful degree, when put to their trumps. This philosophical fact applied to ex-counsellor Bunker's case exactly. He was there to better his fortune, and he felt bound to do it, persimmons or no persimmons. It occurred to him, as those infernal persimmons had cost him something, they ought to bring in something. By the aid of starch and sugar, Doctor Phlebotonizem converted some hundreds of the smallest persimmons into pills—sugar-coated pills—warranted to cure about all the ills flesh was heir to, at $2 each dose. One generally constituted a dose for a full-grown person, and as the patient left with a countenance much “puckered up,” and rarely returned, the pseudo M. D. concluded there was virtue in persimmon pills, and so, after disposing of his stock to first-rate advantage, the doctor paid off his bills; tired of the pill trade, he vamosed the ranche with about funds enough to reach home, and explain to his friends the difference between per Simmons and persimmons!


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