Imaginary Persons

IT is characteristic of mankind that our dreams are better than our waking hours, our fiction than our daily lives, and our imagination superior to reality. This arises, shall we say, from the existence within each of us of a sort of imprisoned super-self, conscious of a better world than the one about us. Only in our higher moments — in the thrill of danger, in the flush of creative effort, in the benevolence of Christmas — do we enter for a brief space within it. But we carry round, in much that we do and say, certain vestiges of this better world, like the poet’s trailing clouds of glory.

Nor is there any better instance of this than in our intercourse with the queer set of imaginary persons whom we have created out of next to nothing to be the companions of our pilgrimage. I am not thinking here of the characters of fiction, the people ‘out of a book.’ Such people as Huckleberry Finn and Mr. Pickwick and Sherlock Holmes belong elsewhere. The people I mean were never in a book, or, if they were, escaped from it so long ago and so completely that all trace of their origin was lost, and they entered upon a life of their own.

I am thinking, in other words, of such persons as Davy Jones, and Jack Robinson, of Punch and Judy, John Doe and Richard Roe, and John Bull and Uncle Sam. All these are real enough and all carry with them the queer imprint of our super-self in bclonging to a better world than that of our daily walk.

Of many of them the origin is utterly lost, of others it can be traced back a certain distance and then disappears; of others, again, it is quite traceable as a matter of scholarship but quite unknown to those who daily deal with its descendant. Who, for example, was Jack Robinson? Except for the fact that his name became a symbol for rapid speech, and that things happen before we can say Jack Robinson, we know nothing of the man. He apparently has a French cousin called Jean de Nivelle, known not for his own sake but for his dog, ‘qui s’enfuie quand on l’appelle.‘ But that is all we know of him, unless he is one of the trio ‘Brown, Jones, and Robinson,’ otherwise familiarly known as ‘Tom, Dick, and Harry.’

But look at Punch and Judy, whose origin we know absolutely. What a grim tragedy of human history is reflected here! This queer jocular Punch, who fights with Judy in his little showbox, wicked without knowing it, all agrin with malice, which seems somehow to run the gamut of emotion and turn to merriment! Who is this? This is — save the mark!— Pontius Pilate, come down from a sacred miracle play of the Middle Ages, and the Judy with him is Judas Iscariot. What a commentary on the story of mankind, in which the most tragic chapter of human history is turned to the laughter of country clowns! It is like the ‘hoc est corpus’ of the Sacrament, which slowly passed into ‘hocus-pocus.’ Yet the real significance of Punch is that in the course of time even the greatest of our sorrows takes on the soft coloring of retrospect, that in the long run human happiness wins out over human suffering. It must be so or our lot would be too hard to bear. We are compelled, as it were, to ’laugh it off.‘

Oddly enough, Punch and Judy, as they passed down the decades of history, picked up other accessory characters not part of the original miracle play. The baby which they throw about originated in the change of Judy’s sex from that of Judæus, though it may have an irreverent origin of its own. The dog Toby seems straight out of the infernal pit — he may be Tobias, son of Tobit, of the Apocrypha. Another character who came into the Punch story much later is Jack Ketch, a sort of imaginary or generalized hangman. The English Punch and Judy picture books put him in on the last page, carrying his portable gibbet, with the legend, ‘In the end Jack Ketch comes to hang Punch.’ His face is concealed, after the correct fashion of the executioners of his time. As a matter of fact, Jack Ketch once existed as the ’headsman’ of King Charles II’s and King James II’s reign. Apparently he was a very poor one. Macaulay tells of his beheading the unhappy Duke of Monmouth on Tower Hill in 1685. ‘Monmouth,’ he writes, ‘accosted John Ketch, the executioner, a wretch who had already butchered many brave and noble victims, and whose name during a century and a half has been vulgarly given to all those who have succeeded him in his odious office. “Here,” said the Duke, “are six guineas for you. Do not hack me as you did my Lord Russell."‘ After which Macaulay describes the hideous scene of butchery that followed as Ketch hacked away with blow after blow at his wretched victim.

Out of all this has come our Mr. Punch, chastened somehow of all wickedness, a genial character whom we know as well as ourselves: ‘as pleased as Punch,’ we say, or ‘as proud as Punch’ — using him as what the mathematicians call a ’frame of reference.‘

Punch thus represents a full and elaborate record. Other imaginary people are often connected only with a single attribute or a single performance. Thus Davy Jones has no other function except to keep a ‘locker’ to which drowned sailors go. His name is really ‘Duffy’ Jones — ‘duffy’ being a Negro word for ghost. He is the ghost of Jones — that is to say, of Jonah of the Old Testament, whose nautical experiences are well known. His pious origin is paralleled in the nautical sphere by that of ‘Mother Carey’ (Mater Cara), whose chickens are the stormy petrels. Very different is ‘Mother Goose’ of the nursery rhymes, who was actually a Mrs. Goose and kept a little shop and sold nursery books in bygone Boston. But who is Gilroy who had the kite? People of fairly ripe age will recall how frequently, about fifty years ago, we used to talk of things being ‘knocked as high as Gilroy’s kite.’ I never heard of anyone investigating who Gilroy was. But I think I can guess it — or, as Sherlock Holmes would say, ‘deduce’ it. When the first suspension bridge was to be built over the Niagara Gorge, a prize was offered for the first kite to be successfully flown to carry a string across. Something tells me that must have been Gilroy’s kite.

But the two prize winners among imaginary people are the famous characters John Doe and Richard Roe. I defy anyone to find out their origin. It is easy enough to trace them back for five or six hundred years. That’s nothing. But what were they before that? They grew to maturity — or rather, like Pallas, they leap into full size — in the law courts of the Middle Ages. They appear as imaginary people used as legal fictions where real people could not be cited. This was chiefly in the case of claims against owners of land.

The Middle Ages — and indeed England until quite modern times — had a great regard for the sanctity of property in land. To disturb it was taboo. In an age before scientific record and documentation, possession was everything — ‘nine points of the law,’ as the old phrase had it. Hence the common law courts in England could not directly entertain suits for ejecting a man in actual possession. What was done was this. The claimant to the land conveyed all his rights to his good friend John Doe. In early times he was not restricted to John Doe; there was a rival person called, rather transparently, ‘Thomas Goodtitle.’ But he was offensively obvious and dropped out. John Doe, as soon as he got his communication (which in reality he never did, but the law acted for him), then got out a writ against a man called Richard Roe on the ground that Roe was keeping him by force out of his property. Here again there was a mediæval alternative in ’William Styles of Newbury in the County of Berks,’but Heaven knows how he ever got in, and he proved too explicit to survive. Hence John Doe and Richard Roe got the whole field and kept it for centuries.

The writ that Doe swore out against Roe accused him of terrible things — namely, that he had ‘with force of arms, that is to say, with swords and staves and knives entered into the said tenement with the appurtenances and ejected the said John out of his said tenement and other wrongs him did.’ This bloodthirsty accusation passed harmless off Richard Roe’s accustomed hide. He answered, without heat, that while he himself had no concern with the property, he was aware that such and such a person (naming the man in possession) was actually sitting on it and suggested calling him into court to say what he knew. This did the trick and the suit for ejectment went right ahead without needing John and Richard. In any case they had other things to do. They were always busy, having picked up a variety of odd functions. For example, they supplied bail for debtors, and the like. The old law did not allow a man to put up money to bail himself; but John Doe could put it up for him, so he gave it to John Doe first. This ‘common bail’ naturally proved very often ineffective and led to the demand for ‘special bail’ which Doe could n’t give, having no special existence.

Poor Doe and Roe came to an end, as far as England is concerned, with sweeping law reforms of 1852. Ejectment suits were made by a direct process; their other uses were terminated, and Doe and Roe expired by act of Parliament. The lawyers of the London Inns, who had made a harvest from them for centuries, celebrated their demise with banquets, toasts, and witty memorial verses. One such runs: —

Now Doe and Roe,’t is grief to tell,
For law’s reform you die,
And as I bid you both farewell
A tear bedims my eye . . .

on which follows an ‘Old Lang Syne’ chorus.

I understand that Doe and Roe, however, survive in the United States, or in some of the states, where they still keep one of their earlier English activities. Their names are used in the pursuit of criminals whom they are supposed to have assisted. Thus, in trying to arrest the imaginary John Doe, the law apprehends the real criminal — or fails to. But of this I speak with no certainty, being (very fortunately) unacquainted with American criminal law.

Equally conspicuous among imaginary people are those who stand for a whole nation at a time, such as, most triumphantly, John Bull and Uncle Sam. No other two nations have so successfully embodied themselves in abstraction as have the British and the American. Beside these heroes, such creations as John Chinaman, Fritz, and so forth, are hopelessly vague, and others, like Jack Canuck, feeble and ineffective. But John Bull and Uncle Sam actually live and breathe. Oddly enough, John Bull originally came out of an eighteenth-century book, long forgotten. He stepped so far out of it, and the book was forgotten so completely, that his existence has nothing further to do with it. We see the same thing happening to-day to Sherlock Holmes, who has been ‘generalized’ far beyond his creator’s pages. People in distant countries talk of him who never read a word of him. So with John Bull; he has from the eighteenth century his appetite, his rolled-top boots, his costume of a country squire in a market town — and with that he carries forward from generation to generation.

Uncle Sam had a more complicated origin. His actual name was taken out of the letters U. S., which arose with the independence of the United States. The anagram, or joke, or whatever you call it, must have occurred not to any one person only, as often narrated, but to hundreds — it is so obvious. But the character was not properly created till the ‘Comic Yankee’ had been worked out on the stage (where Uncle Sam got his clothes) and exploited by Major Jack Dowling and such chroniclers.

Once created, Uncle Sam went strong. But, as a matter of fact, he had for many years a sort of rival, or alternate, in the form of ‘Brother Jonathan.’ This was the same character, more or less, but without the full habiliment. Jonathan was a real person, a certain Jonathan Trumbull of revolutionary times, on whom George Washington greatly relied. The nickname ‘Brother Jonathan’ is right out of history, the words being Washington’s. But Uncle Sam proved the better type — and survived. A recent entertaining writer has told us that Uncle Sam exactly represents the American face and physique of the pioneering days — the ‘roaring forties.’ The days of the Revolution, he says, tended to produce the statesmanlike face of lawyers and politicians, the pioneer days the rough energetic faces of Abraham Lincoln and Uncle Sam; the modern days of city life and office existence produce a face much like an apple. Leaving out of question the apple theory, — which no foreigner would dare to endorse, — the Uncle Sam part of the idea certainly sounds good.