In the early 1860s amidst growing unrest between the North and South, American humorist, journalist and political commentator David Ross Locke (1833 – 1888) debuted a fictionalized persona that would be popular with abolitionists for years to come.
Writing under the guise of Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, a whiskey-addicted Copperhead of the cruelest sort, Locke presents the Southern position against President Abraham Lincoln and the Union in a series of letters and sermons. Satirically expressed through semi-literate spelling, each letter presents (and makes ridiculous) a different aspect of the pro-slavery cause. The character of the Rev. Petroleum V. Nasby was so popular that Locke continued to write under the name until just a few years before his death in 1888.
Originally published serially in newspapers, the collected Nasby papers: Letters and sermons containing the views on the topics of the day, of Petroleum V. Nasby, was first published as a single volume in 1864. The Library of Congress has several copies of the first edition, but one in particular is worth noting for it’s connection to the Lincoln family.
This copy was gifted to the Library in December, 1958 by Frederic N. Towers, a close and trusted friend of the Lincoln family, and the attorney of Robert Todd Lincoln (1843 –1926), the eldest son of Mary Todd and President Lincoln. Accompanying the slim volume is a typewritten letter from Mary Harlan Lincoln (Mrs. Robert Todd) dated May 1931, explaining her initial gift of the volume to Mr. Towers. Not only does Lincoln’s daughter-in-law relate that the book formerly belonged to President Lincoln, but she has a further entertaining anecdote to share about this piece:
“You will note that certain pages in the forepart of the volume are burned at the outer edge. President Lincoln was very fond of reading the Papers and, my husband told me, often did so by candle-light after retiring for the night. In some manner he one night got the book too close to the candle and these pages were partially burned.”
Opening the text to page 16 reveals the evidence of President Lincoln’s minor accident, which actually charred several pages, but, luckily, did not destroy the entire text. Lincoln kept the volume regardless of its singed state, and he read it often.
By the time this book was published in 1864, Lincoln and Locke had already been acquainted for some time. The two men were introduced as early as 1858 in Illinois, and, during the Civil War, Locke visited the President in Washington on several different occasions. After one such visit in 1863, Locke published the satirical account of a meeting between President “Linkin” and the ridiculous Rev. Nasby in which Nasby insults the President by calling Lincoln, “a gorilla, a feendish ape, a thirster after blud.” One can imagine Lincoln reading this (perhaps by candle-light) and chuckling at the idiotic and inconsistent Nasby, who ends the interview by asking Lincoln for an appointment as the Postmaster.
Numerous accounts by individuals who worked with or who were close to Lincoln mention that the President read aloud from the Nasby Papers and even recited some parts of the papers from memory. One account from the evening of the 1864 election states:
“Going to the War Department in the evening, Lincoln amused the company by reading some of Petroleum V. Nasby’s amiable nonsense while the returns trickled in.”
A rather less lighthearted anecdote, however, is reported in the Library’s Information Bulletin by David C. Mearns, eminent Lincoln scholar and an employee of the Library of Congress for nearly 60 years. Mearns states, “Mr. Lincoln found pleasure and amusement in ‘Nasby’ during the last hours of his life. General Isham Nicholas Haynie entered in his diary for Good Friday, April 14, 1865:
‘At five o’clock this afternoon Governor [Richard James] Oglesby and I called at the White House. Mr. Lincoln was not in, but just as we were going away his carriage, with himself, wife, and Tad drove up. The President called us back. We went into his reception room and had a pleasant humorous hour with him. He read four chapters of Petroleum V. Nasby’s book (recently published) to us, and continued reading until he was called to dinner about six o’clock, when we left him.’
At about 10 o’clock that evening he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.”
The Nasby Papers were extremely influential in their time though they are largely forgotten today. Several editions of the collected letters were published including one illustrated edition by Locke’s friend and popular cartoonist, Thomas Nast. While Lincoln’s elevated status in American memory can render him a somewhat distant, legendary figure, his penchant for the simple satirical humor of Locke’s Nasby Papers reminds us of his humanity and relatability.
- “The Book that Made Lincoln Laugh” by David C. Mearns. Library of Congress information bulletin. [Washington, D.C.]: Library of Congress. Vol. 17, no. 49 (Dec. 8, 1958), p.675-676.
- Locke, David Ross, 1833-1888 The Nasby papers. : Letters and sermons containing the views on the topics of the day, of Petroleum V. Nasby [pseud.] Indianapolis : C. O. Perrine & co., 1864.
- Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln’s Just Laughter: Humour and Ethics in the Civil War Union. Second Eccles Centre for American Studies Plenary Lecture given at the European Association for American Studies Annual Conference, The Hague, The Netherlands. London: British Library, 2014.