Sunday, July 5, 2015

I. Catchem and U. Chetem - the Fraudulent (Yet True) History of Dewey, Cheatem and Howe

In their signature, on-air sign-off, Click and Clack (the Tappert Brothers; hosts of National Public Radio’s long-running, popular Car Talk automotive repair advice radio show) claim that “Car Talk is a production of Dewey, Cheetham and Howe.”  Dewey, Cheetham and Howe is a revered name in law schools, business schools, and accounting classes, as perhaps the most common placeholder name of law firms, accounting firms or consulting firms in hypothetical case studies in classroom discussions or on exams.  In 2001, an actual fraudster used the fictitious names to perpetrate several cases of bank fraud in Texas.

Dewey, Cheetham[i] and Howe’s origins are shrouded in mystery.  Although many online sources credit the Three Stooges with first using the name, Barry Popik of the online etymology dictionary tells us that the Stooges actually used the similar firm name, “Dewey, Burnham and Howe.”  But whatever the actual origins of the specific name – the origins of the joke – in one form or another – dates back to at least 1839.  

Frederick Marryat, John Simpson 1826
 Captain Fredrick Marryat

The man who put Messrs. Catchem and Chetem (the predecessors of Dewey, Cheatham and Howe) on the humor map was the British naval captain, Fredrick Marryat.  After retirement from Naval service, Marryat became a successful author of sea-story novels, and is considered an early pioneer of that genre of fiction.  He also sketched Napoleon on his deathbed and devised the first system of signal flags for use by merchant ships, Marryat’s Code.

Napoleon on His Deathbed (After Marryat) - The Royal
 Although Captain Marryat retired from the Naval service in about 1830 to write full time, he was in Canada in 1837 and is said to have served with the British forces during the suppression of the Lower Canada Rebellion.  At the time, Marryat was on an extended tour of the United States and Canada.  He chronicled that trip in a popular, six-volume set of books,[ii] describing the countries of the New World and the idiosyncrasies of their people.  

 Whereas his French contemporary, Alexis de Toqueville, wrote an account of the United States with a serious political analysis of America’s experiment in democratic politics, Marryat’s account is more focused on the people and his reaction, as an aristocratic Englishman, to rough-edged, egalitarian Americans.  He seems to have enjoyed his time in the United States, and had a true admiration for their various national and regional characteristics.  Some of his observations ring true today.

Of Washington politicians, he noted that, “they never work at night, and do very little during the day.”

It is astonishing how little work they get done through in a session at Washington: this is owing to very member thinking himself obliged to make two or three speeches, not for the good of the nation, but for the benefit of his constituents.  These speeches are printed and set to them, to prove that their member makes some noise in the house.  The subject upon which he speaks is of little consequence, compared to the sentiments expressed.  It must be full of eagles, star-spangled banners, sovereign people, clap-trap, flattery, and humbug.  I have said that very little business is done in these houses; but this is caused not only by their long-winded speeches about nothing, but by the fact that both parties . . . are chiefly occupied, the one with the paramount and vital consideration of keeping in, and the other with that of getting in, - thus allowing the business of the nation . . . to become a very secondary consideration.

A Diary in America, Volume 2, pages 4 and 5.

Marryat also remarked on the relative prudish sensibilities of Americans vis a vis their English cousins; a trait passed down directly from the Puritans who settled in New England.  In the 1830s, it was not just the sight of a woman’s ankle that might be considered offensive; the mere mention of a leg, or the sight of a piano leg (or, put more delicately, “limb”) was considered immodest:

As she limped a little in walking home, I said, “Did you hurt your leg much.” She turned from me, evidently much shocked, or much offended; and not being aware that I had committed any very heinous offence, I begged to know what was the reason of her displeasure.  After some hesitation, she said that as she knew me well, she would tell me that the word leg was never mentioned before ladies. . . .

I was requested by a lady to escort her to a seminary for young ladies, and on being ushered into the reception-room, conceive my astonishment at beholding a square piano-forte with four limbs.  However, that the ladies who visited their daughters, might feel in its full force the extreme delicacy of the mistress of the establishment, and her care to preserve in their utmost purity the ideas of the young ladies under her charge, she had dressed all these four limbs in modest little trousers, with frills at the bottom of them!

A Diary in America, Volume 2, page 246.

Marryat also commented on American humor.  He noted how Americans had frequently been misrepresented in the European press; but offered that they may have no one but themselves to blame.  Americans, he said, were fond of “hoaxing”:

The Americans are often themselves the cause of their being misrepresented; there is no country perhaps, in which the habit of deceiving for amusement, or what is termed hoaxing, is so common.  Indeed this and the hyperbole constitute the major part of American humour.  If they have the slightest suspicion that a foreigner is about to write a book, nothing appears to give them so much pleasure as to try to mislead him; this has constantly been practiced upon me, and for all I know, they may in some instances have been successful; if they have, all I can say of the story is that “se non e vero, e si ben trovato,” that it might have happened.

A Diary in America, Volume 1, page 8.

One of the stories in his book, the precursor to Dewey, Cheatham and Howe, was presented as though true; but may have been an example of the very “hoaxing” about which he warned his readers. 

Shortly after its publication, the story went “viral” (by mid-19th century standards).  So whether the story was true, or already an old joke at the time, or sprang fully formed from his own creative powers, it seems likely that Frederick Marryat may deserve credit (or blame) for spreading the joke.

I. Catchem and U. Chetum.

There were, and I believe there still are, two lawyers in partnership in New York, with the peculiarly happy names of Catchem and Chetum.  People laughed at seeing these two names in juxtaposition over the door; so the lawyers thought it advisable to separate them by the insertion of their Christian names.  Mr. Catchem’s Christian name was Isaac, Mr. Chetum’s Uriah.  A new board was ordered, but when sent to the painter, it was found to be too short to admit the Christian names at full length.  The painter, therefore, put in only the initials before the surnames, which made the matter still worse than before, for there now appeared –

“I. Catchem and U. Chetum.”

A Diary in America, Volume 2, page 243.

The anecdote must have been struck a chord; it was picked up and reprinted in at least two British magazines shortly after publication.[iii]  Charles Dickens’ magazine, Household Words, repeated the same anecdote in 1882, giving credit to Dickens’ old acquaintance, Captain Marryat.[iv]

The joke became an old standard, repeated in various forms, with variant spellings, and without attribution; beginning as early as 1844:

What’s in a Name? – There is a firm in business at the south called Ketcham and Cheatham!

Western Statesman (Carrollton, Mississippi), November 23, 1844, page 1.

What’s In a Name?  Captain Marryatt relates that there were two lawyers in New York with the peculiarly happy names of Catchem and Cheatem.

Adelaide Observer (Australia), May 17, 1845, page 3.

Da ist, z. B. Mister I Catchem a ganzer Kerl, - wenn Ihr genug Geld habt, so reisst er Euch mit einem Habeas Corpus selbst dem Teufel aus dem Rachen, - da ist ferner der Mister I Chetum, der immer die besten Zeugen aufzutreiben weiss, die Euch vom Galgen herunter schwoeren, und wenn Ihr auch schon den Strick um den hals haettet.

Heinrich Boernstein, Die Geheimnisse von St. Louis, Erster band, St. Louis, Anzeiger des Westens, page 96.[v]

In 1869, the joke was already old:

[The attorneys] have kept their tongues in practice by attacking each other by figurative references to other firms, and the descendents of the old established firm of I. Catchem and U. Cheatem are so numerous as to deserve a critical dissection for the benefit of virtuous successors.

Robert Harrison, Colonial Sketches; or, Five Years in South Australia, with Hints to Capitalists and Emigrants, London, Hall, Virtue, 1862, page 108.

The joke was repeated dozens of times through the following years, sometimes with attribution to Marryat[vi] and sometimes not.[vii]   

The story was still repeated in the 1890s and into the early 1900s, sometimes as though it were true – and sometimes with a grain of salt:

However, when we hear of “Taylor & Cutter,” a firm of clothiers, or find that “Stickwell & Co.” are mucilage makers, there is a strong suspicion of a intentional manufacture of appropriate firm names.  And that story about the broker firm of “U. Ketcham & I. Cheatham” has been told so often that one hardly knows whether to credit it or not. – New York Times.

The Star (Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania), July 20, 1892, page 2.

As equally deceptive is the sign displayed on the glass door of the office of a prominent legal firm in New York city.  Messrs. Ketcham and Cheatham have a reputation of which they are justly proud and their business is decidedly prosperous because of the fact that they neither ensnare nor cheat their clients.

The Los Angeles Herald, May 20, 1905, page 2.

A commercial traveler who has kept up the fad of saving the cards of people with queer names has accumulated a job lot of curious cognomens from which the following are selected: Irish & English, furniture dealers, Buffalo; J. C. Storeburner, grocer, Baltimore; Duvall, Ketcham & Cheatham, Louisville . . .

The Minneapolis Journal, June 24, 1906, page 13.

The Butler Weekly Times (Butler, Missouri), June 13 1907, page 3.


Frederick Marryat joins a select group of celebrities whose best known contributions to pop-cultural history are largely unknown and completely unrelated to the accomplishments that brought them fame during their lifetime.  John S. Hawley, for example, established the Hawley & Hoops candy empire that manufactured M&Ms during the 1950s; yet he received almost no credit, even during his lifetime, for inventing the common, rubber toilet plunger.  Likewise Charles Frohmann had a long, storied career as a Broadway producer and famously drowned during the sinking of the Lusitania; but he is less well-known today than the iconic image of Alfred E. Neuman, the cover-boy of Mad Magazine, which was inspired by a poster from Frohmann’s production of The New Boy in 1895.

Despite his many accomplishments, the signal flags, the long line of successful sea-story novels, and heroic naval career, few people today have ever even heard of Marryat; but most of us have heard, at one time or another, Click and Clack, TheThree Stooges, or some law school professor, dredge up the old “Dewey, Cheatham and Howe” joke (or some other form thereof). 

Our failure to properly credit Marryat’s contribution to the comic lexicon has, for too long, deprived him of the recognition he deserved:

Did we cheat him – and how!

[i]  Cheatham, Cheatem, Cheetem or any of a number of alternate spellings.
[ii] Frederick Marryat, A Diary in America, with Remarks on its Institutions, Volumes 1-3, London, Longman, Orme, Brown, Green & Longman’s, 1839.  Three additional volumes make up Part II of his Diary, which was also published in 1839.
[iii] New Sporting Magazine (London), Volume 17, Number 100, August, 1839, page 109 (crediting Captain Marryat); Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, N. S. Number 9, March 2, 1844 (crediting Captain Marryatt).
[iv] Household Words (London), Volume 3, Number 54, May 6, 1882, page 20.
[v] Mr. I Catchem, for example, is a good man, - if you have enough money, his Habeus Corpus can free you from the clutches of the Devil himself, - and then there’s Mr. I Chetum, who knows how to dig up the best witnesses  who will testify you straight down from the gallows, even if a noose is already around your neck.
[vi] Yorkville Enquirer (Yorkville, South Carolina), January 30, 1873, page 4.
[vii] Yorkville Enquirer (Yorkville, South Carolina), May 31, 1877, page 4.

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