Little Willie from his mirror
Sucked the mercury all off,
Thinking, in his childish error,
It would cure his whooping-cough.
At the funeral, Willie’s mother
Smartly said to Mrs. Brown,
“T was a chilly day for William
When the mercury went down.”
“‘Ah, ah, ah!’ said Willie’s mother.
‘Oh, oh, oh!” said Mrs. Brown.
‘ ‘T was a chilly day for William
When the mercury went down.'”
UPDATE: Previously (see below), I believed this to be the second earliest version of a Little Willie appearing in print. I now have evidence that not only is this earlier than my previous findings, it pre-dates Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes.
In 1895 (three years before the publication of Ruthless Rhymes), Samuel Reynolds Hole, both a cleric and an authority on the cultivation of roses, authored a book that was both a travelogue and a review of the young and independent America — from an Englishman’s point of view. The book is titled A Little Tour of America and you can download the entire book at archive.org.
Hole’s travel in America took him to Cincinnati, Ohio where he toured the Rookwood Pottery. After touring Rookwood, Dean Hole (“Dean” being his clerical title) attended a luncheon that he describes as follows:
At a luncheon afterwards we had a lively interchange of reflections and experiences, grave and gay, and I made note of a short poem in which tragedy and comedy are combined, and which I had not previously heard.”
As you have likely guessed, that “short poem” was the Little Willie at the top of this page.
Does the fact that this poem pre-dates Harry Graham’s work negate the theory that Mr. Graham’s work inspired the rash of macabre Little Willies that followed the popularity of his Ruthless Rhymes?
Of course not. There’s documented evidence that one of the earliest (1905) writers of a Little Willie poem felt his own work was derivative of Mr. Graham’s. I truly believe that if Ruthless Rhymes hadn’t been published, we would not have the volume of Little Willies that we have today.
But it’s also plausible that Mr. Graham read Mr. Hole’s book and was duly inspired. Yes, think about that one. It’s getting a bit difficult to sort just which is the chicken and which is the egg.
And if you’re wondering if anyone in the 1800s was as scandalized by Little Willies as some too-gentle folks are today, just read this 1895 excerpt from Meehans’ Monthly (“a magazine of horticulture, botany and kindred subjects”):
DEAN HOLE’S IDEA OF HUMOR. — It has been the proud boast of flower-lovers that the cultivation of a love of gardening tends to broaden human sympathies. Dean or Canon Hole, of England, has a great name in connection with rose culture, and he is some sort of a leader in some branches of gardening. For this reputation he was feasted and toasted during a tour through our country last year in a manner seldom accorded to visiting horticulturists from the Old World. He has had to write a book about us, of course. In this he quotes with unction many specimens of what he regards as typical American humor. When he was in Cincinnati, the thing that most impressed him was… [a] bit of doggerel, which he heard recited in that city…
It is a matter of surprise that a gentleman of his cloth could have ever gotten into company where such heartless rubbish entered into the festivities of the evening; and still more surprising that he should have so much enjoyed it as to make a copy of it for his “book.” If Canon Hole is to be taken as a specimen of floral-cultured humanity, the less we boast of the civilizing influences of our craft, the better. Fortunately we all know that such an exhibition of callous sympathy is exceptional in our country, however it may be enjoyed in the Old World.”
Apparently, the gardening community was not delighted that Americans penned darkly twisted verse.
One last note on this bit of verse: this poem was also published in a 1904 collection of nonsense poetry called Smiles in Rimes. This is the book that contains the illustration used at the top of this page. Fair warning: if you decide to download this book from archive.org, be aware that it does contain some racially offensive verse.
And it is the first Little Willie printed as a standalone bit of humor (again, that I have found).
There are many earlier “Little Willie” poems, but they not only tend toward the sentimental and maudlin, they often proclaim the moral excellence of Willie.
Obviously, those poems are not written about the same Little Willie that we know and abhor.