Friday, July 16, 2021

"A Quarter Back" - a Visual Football Pun (1893)


Life Magazine, Volume 21, Number 543, May 25, 1893, page 341.


See my other football related posts:

Jim Thorpe Punts, Catches and Scores Touchdown on the Same Play – Myth or Legend?

Spoiler alert – it’s likely true, but not in the way you may think. 


Skyrockets, the Transatlantic Cable and Pre-Civil War Militia – the Explosive History of Sis! Boom! Bah!

The cheer is onomatopoeia for the sound of the burning fuse, launch and explosion of fireworks.  It was likely invented at Princeton, during celebrations for the completion of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1858.

President Grover Cleveland


Soccer – America’s Future – and Past.

Soccer football has been threatening (and failing) to replace “real” football as America’s favorite football for more than a century.



Grantland Rice, Josh Billings and Arthur Schopenhauer – the Win-or-Lose History of “How You Play the Game.”

The expression, “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” was popularized in Grantland Rice’s poem, “Alumnus Football.”  But the sentiment of the expression can be traced back to card-game similes by the American humorist, Josh Billings, and the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.



“American Football” came from . . . . Canada?

Association football may have become the dominant form of football in the United States, if not for a visiting McGill University team that introduce the Rugby rules to Harvard in 1874.

Harvard vs. McGill - 1874


Grandstands, Armchairs and Drugstores – Second-Guessing the Origin of “Monday Morning Quarterback”.

The idiom “Monday Morning Quarterback” was preceded by several other similar expressions. 

TV Quarterback


From Stuhldreher to Castner and Crowley to Staubach – a Last-Second History of the “Hail Mary Pass.”

The history of the expression, “Hail Mary,” in football, begins with one Knut Rockne’s Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, who later played for the Packers and coached Vince Lombardi during his playing days at Fordham.

The first "Hail Mary?"


An American Football Idiom – from Canada?!? – a History and Etymology of “Moving the Goalposts.”

The idiom, “to move the goalposts,” first caught on in Canada, where they play their own version of “American” football.

Moving the goalposts - literally.


A History of the “First Rose Bowl” – 1890, 1902, 1916 or 1923?

The answer to the question, “When was the ‘first’ ‘Rose Bowl’ played,” depends on what is meant by “Rose Bowl.”  But the first football game ever played during a Tournament of Roses in Pasadena, California, was played during the first-ever Tournament of Roses in 1890, which might arguably be considered the first “Rose Bowl.”

Michigan 49 - Stanford 0; 1902.


Why the University of Florida are “Gators.”

 Sportswriters in Columbia, South Carolina first called the University of Florida football team “Alligators” following a 6-6 tie in 1911.  The UF student body adopted the name as their own the following spring, and the team were referred to as “Gators,” as well as “Alligators,” the following season. 


Tigers and Bulldogs and Gators, Oh My! – a History of the University of Florida’s “Gator Bait” Cheer.

The University of Florida banned its “Gator Bait” cheer because of an association with an archaic, racist idiom, but cheers involving the “eating” of opponents has older precedents, including cheers for the Yale Bulldogs and Princeton Tigers.






Tuesday, July 13, 2021

"I Have a Snake in My Boot" - Drunken Hallucination


The Riddleberger Boot.

In Pixar’s classic film, “Toy Story,” the lead character, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), is a child’s cowboy doll with a pull-string voice box.  One of the stock phrases elicited by pulling his string is “I’ve got a snake in my boot,” which is repeated several times throughout the movie franchise.  Fans have been debating the meaning of the cryptic expression since the original “Toy Story” debuted in 1995.

Without an opportunity to ask them directly, it is impossible to divine what the screenwriters had in mind in using the expression.  It is, however, a fact that the expression was a common idiom during the 19th century, said to have originated in the American West, which makes it a suitable line for a talking cowboy doll.

“Seeing snakes” or “seeing snakes in one’s boots” was the mid-19th century equivalent of “seeing pink elephants,” a stereotypical drunken hallucination.  “Snakes” and “Snakes in one’s boot” slowly gave way to increasingly fanciful and colorful animal hallucinations near the turn of the century, and were largely displaced by “pink elephants” by the early 1900s.  For more detail on the transition from one idiom to the other, see my earlier post, “The Colorful History and Etymology of ‘Pink Elephant.’”[i] 

The remainder of this post focuses on look at a couple early examples and explanations of the idiom not available when the earlier post was published, and a forgotten drama that played out on the floor of the United States Senate, but which was erased from the official records.  The incident involved a drunken, one-term Senator from Virginia named Riddleberger who was thought to have had “snakes in his boots.”

Western Origin

In a book of reminiscences of the life of the American humorist, Artemus Ward, an Englishman named Edward P. Hingston recalled an incident aboard a steamboat on the Ohio River in about 1862; the “Major Anderson, United States mail-packet,bound for Louisville.”  Ward had made some seemingly nonsensical comments about George Washington visiting Greece, “Blue Greeks” and “Blue Aegean brigands, dead before their breakfast!”  A fellow traveler wondered what his ramblings meant.

“Mercy me!” cried the lady. “The poor fellow is out of his mind.  Has he no friends with him?  He is much to be pitied.”

“It is nothing, madam,” replied one of our party; “nothing, I assure you.  He usually wanders in this way when he has snakes in his boot.”

“Snakes in his boots!  And has he got them now, cried the lady, rising quickly, and recoiling from the man whom she had just been regarding with tender pity.

“He has, madam.  He’s apt to see them now and then, but –- ”

An outcry of terror from the sympathetic lady led to a scene of confusion, in the midst of which the gentlemen passengers made their way to the forepart of the saloon, while some of the ladies took refuge in their state rooms.

At that time I was not better informed than the lady I have referred to, as to the meaning of the phrase, “Snakes in his boots.” On inquiry I found it to be the western idiom for delirium tremens, and it was explained to me as a curious physiological fact that the hard drinkers of the south and southwestern states, are apt to imagine that their boots are full of snakes when they themselves are suffering from the mental hallucination produced by excessive intemperance.

Edward Hingston, The Genial Showman, Being Reminiscences of the Life of Artemus Ward and Pictures of a Showman’s Career in the Western World, London, J. C. Hotten, 1871, page 30.

Equal Opportunity Snakes

If a man could see “snakes in his boots,” a woman in a similar state might see “snakes in her stockings.”

Her husband had brought home a barrel of hard cider.  Late one evening she concluded that she wanted some of it.  Having no other way of getting the coveted beverage, she inserted a straw in a gimlet hole in a barrel, and helped herself to the apple juice. 

When she retired that night her rest was broken by visions of “snakes” twining, coiling, squirming and twisting around her stockings, which she believed she still had on.  She said it was exciting.  Bit snakes, little snakes, old snakes, young snakes, green snakes, red snakes, yellow snakes, striped snakes, black snakes, double-headed and double-tailed snakes, all there, and about 14,447 of ‘em trying to twine themselves around her stockings.

She would start up in affright, only to see the snakes vanish up the chimney.  When she would lie down the circus performance would begin again and a whole menagerie of snakes would begin their contortions. 

After wrestling with them about a dozen times she got out of bed about 1 o’clock, dressed herself and went to getting breakfast, finding it impossible to rest in bed in peace and comfort.

She has foresworn hard cider, and talks of joining the temperance lodge.  She does not wear striped stockings.

The Daily Review (Wilmington, North Carolina), December 1, 1875, page 3.

Senatorial Snakes

Harrison Holt Riddleberger served as a United States Senator from Virginia for one term, from March 1883 through March 1889. “Prone to depression and excessive drinking, he held a reputation as an eccentric and even engaged in two duels on the same day.”[ii]  His reputation as a hard drinker inspired a cartoon of his boots, with snakes in ‘em, in a mock-article about footwear fashions.

Senator Riddleberger of Virginia has achieved the glory of giving his name to a popular style of boot not wholly unknown before his time, but which he wears so uninterruptedly that they have become inseparably associated with his personality.

The San Francisco Examiner, April 15, 1888, page 9.

As an example of the humorous nature of the article, another image from the same piece was a visual representation of the set-up to a then-current, viral joke.  The shoes supposedly belonged to a fashion maven named Evander Berry Wall, who was popularly known as the “King of the Dudes.”   At that time, the word “Dude” generally referred to young, high-society swells with more money than brains; Anglophiles who affected English accents and took their fashion and social cues from British aristocracy.  The joke? His pant-legs are rolled up – because it’s raining in London, hardy-har-har!!!

The model feet were resting on the sill . . . .  The day was fair and the sidewalks as dry as Berry himself [(“dry” was a joke about Berry Wall’s reputation as a social drinker)], but it will be noticed that his trouser-legs are turned up.

If, standing on the dizzy summit of the Tribune’s tall tower, you should shout through a trumpet an inquiry as to why Mr. Wall turned up his pantaloons, all New York would drop other employment and scream back at you: ‘Because it’s rainin’ in Lunnon, yeh know!”

Then all New York would giggle before returning to work.  Everybody in the metropolis knows this joke and uses it daily, without paying royalty to the venerable inventor.

The San Francisco Examiner, April 15, 1888, page 9.

A third cartoon from the same item is “cheesecake” (although not then known by that name[iii]) with an assist from a muddy day!  Va-va-va-voom!!!

The ladies (--bless ‘em!) are more obedient than men to [fashion] authority.  Their feet in San Francisco are shod precisely like their sisters’ in every other civilized city.  Here, as in New York, Washington, Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg and London, the winds of heaven and the mud of earth combine to afford opportunity to beauty, and the weary heart of the male wayfarer, who keeps his eyes open, is cheered and strengthened by the vision.

The San Francisco Examiner, April 15, 1888, page 9.

Riddleberger Bitten by His “Snakes”

Senator Riddleberger’s drinking habits contributed to a little known incident in which the Seargeant-at-Arms of the Senate wrestled a Senator to the floor of the Senate and physically dragged him from the Senate chamber.  In the interest of “its own dignity,” the Senate quickly “expunged from the Congressional Record all reference to the scene,”[iv] which may account for the fact that references to the incident do not appear in biographical sketches of the former Senator’s life and career.  For his part, Senator Riddleberger believed he had been wronged and wanted everything on the record.

The Evening Star (Washington DC), March 6, 1889, page 1.

Despite the almost instantaneous revisionist history by the Senate, the scene of the crime can be reconstructed because it was reported in the following days, and the Seargent-at-Arms involved in the expulsion gave a detailed account of it a few years later.   

One account alluded to his drinking, without addressing it head-on – “the trouble was aggravated by Mr. Riddleberger, whose condition was as bad from a total abstinence point of view as it has been at any time in his official life.”[v]  Another account was more direct – “Senator Riddleberger was in a state of gross intoxication.”  But the danger was real – Riddleberger was known to carry a firearm at all times, even on the floor of the Senate.

Riddleberger was a Republican who could muster Democratic votes, and had helped a number of his fellow Republicans secure plum appointments.[vi]  But in the closing days of the term, his final deal fell through.  His reputation as a drinker reportedly helped sink the deal.

  The republican Senators, with the exception of two or three interested in the deal, were wholly in opposition to the scheme, and a number of democratic Senators became disgusted at finding themselves placed in the attitude of followers in Mr. Riddleberger’s uncertain footsteps. . . .

It is extremely fortunate for Mr. Webb that the bargain was not carried out.  He could not afford to hold a District Commissionership as the direct representative of Senator Riddleberger and his bottle . . . .

Evening Star (Washington DC), March 4, 1889, page 4.

The rest of the session was chaotic.


The Fiftieth Congress Comes to a Sensational End.


He insists on Obstructing the Senate’s Proceedings and

Finally Telegraphs His Resignation to Virginia.

Ingalls Loses Patience.

. . . Even before the report had been disposed of, Mr. Riddleberger was on his feet endeavoring to interpose a motion to proceed to executive business.  The presiding officer, Mr. Ingalls, took no notice of him at first, but finally recognized him, put the motion, and declared it lost; whereat some of the gallery spectators laughed.  Then several private bills were passed.  In each instance there was an attempt at objection or interruption by Mr. Riddleberger; till finally, he was notified by the presiding officer that he would not be recognized further. . . .

In the meantime, Mr. Riddleberger, who had left the chamber, again made his appearance and informed the presiding officer that he had just telegraphed to the governor of Virginia, his resignation as a senator because he could have no recognition from the presiding officer.  He was not awaiting an answer which would relieve him from the responsibilities of his position.  He had found that a Republican senator from Virginia could not be recognized by the president of the senate pro tempore.

Pittsburgh Daily Post, March 4, 1889, page 1.

The presiding officer ordered him to take his seat; he refused; the presiding officer ordered the seargeant-at-arms to “see that the orders of the chair are executed”; Riddleberger complied – but then got back up.  In a few minutes, the sergeant-at-arms and an assistant “had Mr. Riddlbeberger in charge and led him out of the senate chamber into the nearest cloak room.”[vii]

It all sounds very neat and tidy – but from the Sergeant-at-Arms’ perspective, the incident entailed more danger and excitement.

“The most exciting and critical moment in my life was near midnight, March 3, 1889, when I arrested Senator Riddleberger, of Virginia,” said Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate Hon. W. P. Canaday.

“The person of a Senator is scared in the eyes of the law and the constitution,” he continued, “and no rule or regulation of the Senate authorizes the arrest of one of its members. . . .  I reminded Senator Ingalls that no power was vested in me to arrest a Senator, but he replied:

“‘You are authorized to preserve order, and to obey the presiding officer of the Senate.  When you are called upon, you will do your duty.’ . . .

“I then ordered Captain May, who is stationed in the Senate lobby, to enter the chamber and take a seat back of the boisterous Virginian.  Scarcely had Captain May taken his position, when the grim, distinct, determined order came from the chair:

“’The sergeant-at-arms will preserve order.  He will remove the Senator from Virginia from the chamber.’ . . .

“Immediately I grasped his arms from behind to prevent him from drawing a revolver which he always carried, and Captain May assisted me in lifting him bodily out of the chamber into the cloak room, the door of which was directly back of his chair.  He grasped the desk with both hands, muttering: ‘You have no right to arrest me,’ but we shook loose his hold, carried him into the cloak room, laid him upon a sofa, and kept him there.  Until the day of his death he never again entered the Senate chamber, and I am heartily sorry that his exit was so ungraceful. 

“We kept him there in the cloak room for three or four hours.  Finally he agreed to go to his hotel and remain there, and we permitted him to depart.  During his arrest his language was violent and somewhat profane, but none of it was heard in the Senate. 

“I have always regretted that it became my duty to perform that task.  Senator Riddleberger was one of the brightest and best young men I have ever known, but he fell in with wrong advisers and unsuitable companions after he came to Wasington, and his public career ended in a cloud.”

“Were you not fearful of personal injury on that momentous occasion?”

“Most assuredly, Senator Riddleberger always went armed, and he defiantly said that he would kill me if I undertook to arrest him.  Although not entirely in his right mind, he knew that I had no real authority to arrest him, and he intended to resist.  Hence I took him at a disadvantage and unawares, and his revolver was never drawn; but I was looking for it, and my nerves were strained until the dropping of a pin, almost, would have startled me.

I was complimented afterwards by nearly all the Senators, for the quiet and successful manner in which the arrest was made, but I hope never to receive congratulations again for any work so disagreeable as that was.  It was dangerous, but the most disagreeable part of it was that Senator Riddleberger was a good man at heart and a gentleman whose native abilities commanded respect and admiration.  The Republic was just one hundred years old when the first Senator was arrested, and I hope it may be many hundred years before a similar scene is enacted.”

The Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa), February 17, 1891, page 1.   

 A Final Riddle(burger)

Q: When Riddleberger left the Senate, why could no one could fill his shoes?

A: Too many “snakes in his boots.”

[i] Early Sports ‘n’ Pop-Culture History Blog, “The Colorful History and Etymology of ‘Pink Elephant,’”, August 20, 2014.

[ii], entry, Riddleberger, Harrison H. (1843-1890).

[iii] For more information on the origin of the expression, “Cheesecake,” referring to revealing photographs of women, particularly of their legs, see my earlier post, “Shipping News and Starlets – a Revealing History of Cheesecake.”

[iv] The Evening Star (Washington DC), March 6, 1889, page 1.

[v] Pittsburgh Daily Post, March 4, 1889, page 1.

[vi] Pittsburgh Daily Post, March 4, 1889, page 1 (“There is not one of the Republican officers of the senate who does not owe his position to Riddleberger’s vote, and now that they have no further use for his support they treat him as no member of the body has been treated in a long period of years.”).

[vii] Pittsburgh Daily Post, March 4, 1889, page 1.