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I found a rare and precious treasure at the post office.

I'm not sure exactly why I was there – mailing my taxes?  Buying stamps?  Sending a registered letter? - but I spotted the sunny yellow cover almost immediately.  I picked it up, leafed through it, and was entranced by the arcane information contained in the rows of numbers and letters that promised to aid me in my quest for prosperity and the Good Life.  That this wisdom was printed on coarse gray paper, boasted illustrations that would have shamed the advertisements that promise people who draw Winky the Chipmunk that they have the talent to land a job as an illustrator, and typography straight from another age only added to its copious charms.  

I glanced about, saw no evidence that anyone had lost this orphaned tome of wisdom, and slipped it into my purse.  I showed it to Wingding when I got home, and was pleased when he, too, found it of inestimable value.  We'd periodically haul it out and peruse its contents for whatever information it could offer, then carefully tuck it back into the upper desk drawer where we kept stamps, letter openers, a fine collection of push pins, my birth certificate, and a couple of plastic Goliath beetles that we'd occasionally leave on each other's computer keyboards.

The name of this educational publication?  Billy-Bing's Workout Book.

Its avowed aim?  Help in choosing one's lucky numbers.

Its original publication date?  1937.

That's right.  Somehow, some way, through what quirk of fate I dare not question, I'd stumbled across a 1990's reprint of a Depression-era guide to playing the old numbers game that used to drive vice cops to despair.  The text was all but unchanged despite the legalization of scratch tickets, electronic Keno, and Powerball, and if there were ads on the back cover for “BIG RED'S LUCK LINE!” and various 800 numbers one could dial for psychic advice at the low, low price of only $1.95 per minute, the interior could have come straight from a Damon Runyon story.  And despite the constant and (to say the least) disingenuous disclaimers that all of this was solely for amusement value, it was pretty clear that whomever had hidden behind the name and image of a grinning little Irish dude who looked like a reject from the Ant Hill Mob had had something more than simply entertaining his readers in mind.

I think you can see why I was so enchanted by Billy-Bing, who seems to have made extra money modeling for the Boston Celtics. And of course, me being me, I had to find out more about Billy-Bing and his brethren in bilking the unlucky into plunking down their hard-earned cash to find out how to waste yet more hard-earned cash buying sweepstakes tickets, picking random integers, and similarly enriching the real-life models for Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit.

For all that we good and kindly folk of the early 21st century tend to view the last century as a simpler, easier, more wholesome time, well, to quote those early 20th century tunesmiths the Gershwin brothers, it ain't necessarily so.  Life was hard, especially if you lived in a big, merciless metropolis like New York or Chicago.  Wages were low, doctors cost money, and despite tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, working conditions were less than ideal.  For all our boasts about being a country where a kid could start with nothing and rise to the top, it happened about as often then as it does now - which is to say, not very often.

To be vulgar about, day to day life for all too many loyal, patriotic, hardworking Americans was like one of those new-fangled Hoover vacuum cleaners: it sucked.

Being the clever and resourceful people we are, Americans, especially urban Americans, came up with a variety of ways to get by.  Some - moonlighting for Dad, taking in laundry for Mom, selling papers or babysitting for the kids - were legal.  Some - rent parties in Harlem that functioned as de facto after-hours clubs - skirted the edges of the law, especially if liquid refreshments included anything other than medicinal pints of rye during the Noble Experiment called Prohibition.  Some - sending Junior out to be a lookout for sharply dressed men with nicknames like "Bugsy" and "Mad Dog" - were actively dangerous, but if it earned enough money for new shoes, well, money was money.

And then there was the numbers racket.

For those not familiar with this popular, less than wholesome entertainment, the numbers racket or numbers game was the forerunner of today's legalized lotteries.  Favored by the poor because one could bet as little as a penny, it was operated largely by bookies in poor neighborhoods, especially Harlem and Little Italy, and reportedly was the source of large portions of Dutch Schultz and Vito Genovese's respective fortune.  The odds were comparatively good for a lottery (1:1000 was common, which sounds dreadful until one remembers that Powerball's odds are in the billions), and despite frequent crackdowns by vice cops, the numbers game had little problem retaining its popularity as a possible way to make some quick cash for a very low outlay.

Billy-Bing, who was almost certainly a nom de plume of one Ralph Anderson, was one of the foremost guides to making lots and lots of money through choosing the right numbers.  In addition to the pamphlet I found in the post office, his works included such fascinating publications Billy-Bing's Dream Book, Billy-Bing's Red Book of Relative Numbers:  “Follow-Ups,”, and that all time classic, Billy-Bing's Gold Book:  Facts About Numbers from “Prof.” Hitt's Latest Records.  That the identity of “Prof.” Hitt is somewhat obscure I can only put down to scholarly neglect and the lack of any prospect of tenure.

 That there is still a ready market for this sort of publication is evident merely from the fact that my copy of Billy-Bing's Workout Book was the 36th printing (!) of this worthy tome, or that it's possible to buy this and other works by the worthy Mr. Bing, "Big Red," and similarly colorful, less than respectable, and oh-no-not-at-all-shady-nosiree! wordsmiths.  That today's purchasers are more likely to be interested in winning Powerball than patronizing the Saturday night drawing run by Muggsy or Sudsy speaks volumes about 21st century America.

Just what this says about 21st century America is well above my pay grade.

Odd little publications like Billy-Bing's oeuvre are scarcely the only cheap, quickly produced, pseudonymous pamphlets and books that have crawled out of someone's brain in an attempt to amuse, instruct, and possibly lighten the pockets of the unwary reader.   Tonight I bring you two such books, one with a surprisingly long history that has far outlasted its alleged author, the other a tribute to the hero of a 1970's novel about ecoterrorists that has gone far, far beyond merely honoring a name to become a legend among the patrons of small presses of a less than savory ilk:

Joe Miller's Jest Book, by Joe Miller and several other people using his name - Joe (short for Joseph or possibly Josias) Miller was an English actor of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  He debuted at Drury Lane in 1709, when he was only 25, and quickly made a reputation playing comic relief parts in everything from Hamlet to newer plays like Susanna Centlivre and William Congreve.  

Miller's popularity soon found him moving among the theatrical and artistic circles of early 18th century London.  This included not only his fellow actors, but luminaries such as the great satirist William Hogarth, who enjoyed Miller's stage work so much that not only did he draw the poster for at least one of Miller's productions, but considered him a personal friend.  

Like most artists/writers/intellectuals, Miller had a favorite watering hole where he'd unwind after performances, relax with friends and cast members, and generally be himself instead of Trinculo or Sir Joseph Whittol or Young Clincher.  This was the Black Jack Tavern on Portsmouth Street, a now-lost establishment patronized not only by Miller and his buddies from Drury Lane, but by rival acting companies from Lincoln's Inn. There Miller, who evidently preferred to save his comic timing for the stage, acquired a reputation for being serious-minded to the point of being all but unrecognizable to friends and admirers alike.

This may actually have been the point; if modern stars like Gwen Stefani or Chris Evans have to resort to baseball caps, dark glasses, nondescript clothes, and natural (or fake) facial hair to be able to shop for groceries without being torn to pieces by their adoring fans, imagine what it was three hundred years ago, in a London where every theater fan would have known Joe Miller on sight.  Being stern and quiet during a post-performance pub crawl might well have been the only way Miller was able to unwind in peace, not to mention that he might have preferred to be paid for his wit rather than give it away for free to anyone with a couple of pence for gin.

Regardless, Miller's lack of humor when off-stage led to his friends deciding it would be fun to turn the tables on him.  Soon the word in theater circles was that every new joke in London, regardless of quality, had been originated (or at least popularized) by Joe Miller.  I have been unable to determine if Miller approved of this (my private opinion:  most likely not), but attributing a good new joke, especially an off-color one, to his busy and inventive brain was simply what one did.

That this continued even after Miller gave his final performance (in April of 1738) and then died (August of that same year) was perhaps not a surprise.  Good jokes survive their tellers, as anyone who's watched a Marx Brothers movie can testify.  What is unexpected is that someone who was not Joe Miller (duh) or one of his heirs (hm) decided to capitalize on Miller's reputation barely a year after his final bow.

Joe Miller's Jests, or the Wit's Vade-Mecum came out to surprisingly good sales in 1739.  A collection of 247 jokes old and new, many of them pretty rude, it ran through three editions in its first year of publication and made a pretty penny for “Elijah Jenkins, Esq.,” actually one John Mottley.  It continued to sell, usually with new jokes, and revised, expanded editions remained popular long after Mottley himself went to the great green room in the sky in 1750.  Reprints became the Bible of traveling comedians throughout the 18th, 19th, and even into the 20th century, when many of the jokes were still sending audiences into hysterics long after Joe Miller had been forgotten and his grave obliterated by a hospital car park.  

So engrained into American humor and folklore are some of these anecdotes that famously prickly, and short, author Harlan Ellison has found himself saddled with a Depression-era Joe Miller joke about his alleged interaction with a very tall woman in an elevator ("What would you say to a little fuck?"  "Hello, little fuck") despite repeated attempts on his part to point out that the joke first began circulating around the time Ellison was in short pants.

As for the jokes themselves?   Gentle readers, judge for yourself as to the quality of Joe Miller's jests, at least the originals:

A famous teacher of Arithmetick, who had long been married without being able to get his Wife with Child.  One said to her, “Madam, your Husband is an excellent Arithmetician”.  “Yes, replies she, only he can't multiply.”
BWAHAHAHAH!!!!  Isn't that a stitch?

Or how about this:

A Lady's Age happening to be questioned, she affirmed she was but Forty, and call upon a Gentleman that was in Company for his Opinion; Cousin, said she, do you believe I am in the Right, when I say that I am but Forty?  I ought not to dispute it, Madam, reply'd he, for I have heard you say so these ten Years.
AHHAHAHAHAH!!!!  That's almost as good as a script for a vintage episode of The Chicago Teddy Bears!

Readers wishing more examples of Joe Miller's (or John Mottley's) splendid wit are directed to reprints available on, Barnes & Noble, and other fine retailers.  Stick a towel under your seat and enjoy!

Get Even:  The Complete Book of Dirty Tricks, by George Hayduke - f some of you reading this are involved in the environmental movement, you may have heard of
George Washington Hayduke, aka Leopold, aka Rudolf the Red, Herman Smith, Fred Goodsell, or Crazy Horse.  This legendary character, protagonist of Edward Abbey pioneering ecoterrorist novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, is a former Green Beret explosives expert who becomes fed up with greedy corporations that destroy our public lands and decides to take direct (and violent) action.  Seemingly named after the Haiduk rebels in the Ottoman Empire, Hayduke became a hero and inspiration to direct action protest groups like the Animal Liberation Front and Earth First!  Abbey, who seemingly killed off his hero at the end of The Monkey Wrench Gang, was impressed enough in his turn that he incorporated these real-world organizations into his last book, Hayduke Lives!  

This is not the George Hayduke I speak of tonight.

That's  not to say there isn't a connection; the prolific author who currently uses the name “George Hayduke” (and possibly M. Nelson Chunder, although this is still in doubt) has stated in one of his looks that Edward Abbey was his mentor and the inspiration for his pen name.  He has also said that George Hayduke was the inspiration for his literary career, which currently stands at twenty-three and counting, most still in print.

As for the subject of Mr. Hayduke's writings...given this background, one might be justified in thinking that, like the original George Hayduke, this man is a serious ecologist, possibly involved with one of the direct action groups like Greenpeace, an anti-whaling group, or possibly the more violent organizations like Earth First!  After all, this is what Edward Abbey's George Hayduke did.

One would be wrong.

It seems that despite his name being an homage to a character who was devoted to combating land developers and corporate greed, Hayduke-the-author has somewhat less high-minded interests.  Just look at a selection of his titles:

Get Even:  The Complete Book of Dirty Tricks
Screw Unto Others:  Revenge Tactics for All Occasions
Mayhem!  More from the Master of Malice
Byte Me!  Hayduke's Guide to Computer-Generated Revenge
Advanced Backstabbing and Mudslinging Techniques

These books give precise, detailed, and quite complete instructions for getting even with those who have wronged you:  evil exes unless of course you're Scott Pilgrim, duplicitous bosses and co-workers, rapacious corporate land rapers, nosy landlords and neighbors, and so on.  Some of the dirty tricks are juvenile (fooling the customer service desk at a grocery store into paging “Jack Meoff”), while others are incredibly unhygienic (large quantities of crickets and/or adolescent mice into the walls of an apartment just before handing back the keys).  Still others could do serious damage to the mark's credit rating (don't ask about Hayduke's tips for using someone else's Social Security number), or cause illness (ditto the adulteration of gift chocolates with Ex-Lax or worse).  

All of this jolly information is prefaced with admonitions that this is just for amusement, that George Hayduke or whoever is using the name doesn't advocate doing any of this, no how, no way, don't you know that people can get hurt or sick or lose their house/job/business/spouse so just read, laugh, and don't ever ever EVER actually DO anything in these books!  It's all quite sincere, and might salve the reader's conscience, at least until s/he notices the chapter at the end giving precise, detailed, and quite complete instructions for wreaking havoc on someone else without getting caught (wear gloves, use a false name, don't buy war materiel components for one's pranks near one's house, always pay cash, etc.).  

If one is in a particular twisted mood, these books are entertaining in the warped and slightly sickening way that eating a bag of potato chips for lunch is nourishing.  At the same time, the constant disclaimers that these books are for amusement only starts to ring somewhat hollow; I would never actually try to take revenge on someone using these techniques, and doubtless you wouldn't either, but who's to say whether your next door neighbor is similarly inclined?  Or your neighbor's fourteen year old who's been bullied to the point of lashing out?  Or the co-worker you had to fire last week?  

If this weren't enough to convince the casual reader that the Master of Mayhem has gone far beyond his role model when it comes to wreaking revenge, there's the matter of his publisher (Paladin Press, best known for publishing a fictionalized account of being a hit man that was implicated in an actual murder) and a handful of books on topics like making a homemade silencer for your gun(s) and getting revenge on the “gun-grabbers” who wish to confiscate the said silencers and the (doubtless completely 100% legal obtained for legal purposes only and not stockpiled for the local militia, oh no, not a chance!) guns they are attached to.  

As for how I, a simple quilt historian, came across these books, at least the revenge titles? Let's just say that my my former husband was a great fan, shall we?  

Is it any wonder that I've taken great pains to stay out of his way ever since the divorce?


And so my friends...have you ever heard of Billy-Bing or "Prof." Hitt?  Played the numbers?  Played the lottery?  Is there a joke book, by either Joe Miller or someone else, in your knotty pine rec room?  An old copy of The Monkey Wrench Gang or one of the Master of Revenge's backlist in your downstairs powder room?  We're all friends here, so don't be afraid to share....


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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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