Being A Veracious Account Of The Unparalleled Match Against Nature Bt The " American Proof-Readerw And The " Boston Marvel;" With Its Inevitably Tragical Termination.
Washington, D. C, April 28, 1868.
It is a barbarism of our common nature, my boy, to take a morbid pleasure in unnatural exhibitions which imperil human life; and from the circus to the grave, man has ever the same heartless fondness for breakneck equestrian acts, and foolhardy attempts to read Presidents' Messages. It is highly probable that in the coming golden age, when Southerners shall be free from mortgages, Ireland all removed to the Sixth Ward of this country, and the freed-negro race happily supplied with seal rings and the right of suffrage, philanthropy will be at liberty to protest against that cruel popular taste which craves and encourages feats of deadly daring or endurance. Until then, however, there can be no difficulty in finding remunerative patronage for the temporizing suicide of the tight-rope, the walker of a thousand miles in a thousand hours, and the mad wretch who offers for a wager to ride twenty consecutive miles upon the Erie Railroad without a life-insurance policy. In such a state of things, we have no cause for surprise if desperate men are found willing to rescue themselves from want by recklessly overtasking nature's strength for the money to be made by it.
Since my last writing, a couple of needy unfortunates, in this city, have dared to trifle with the laws of life by entering into a match to read all the Impeachment speeches in succession,* without sleeping save at nights; and the consequence was, that two poor, emaciated creatures were presently lying upon hospital cots in fits of imbecile delirium, almost constantly maundering over such phrases as, - "Is this a court?" "Your honorable body; " and "The learned counsel".
The match commenced, my boy, in a patent cylindrical Glass and Lemon Repository, whither those Congressmen who have colds, repair to steep slices of the fruit in warm tumblers for their coughs; and thither went I, on several occasions, to view the hapless wretches at their task.
Both were strong, robustious men, of some previous practice in heavy reading. The first, who is known in sporting circles as "The American Proof-reader," corrected the proofs of four directories last year without the use of stimulants. And the second, whose admirers style him "The Boston Marvel," once read two articles in the "North American Review," at a sitting. Having learned these facts, I was inclined to regard the Marvel as the more severely-tested athlete of the twain; but overhearing a whisper from one of the knowing ones, that the Proof-reader had been practising upon the leaders in "The Nation," some weeks before, I finally gave him the preference.
* These speeches, altogether, occupied over one hundred hours for their delivery.
The rash contestants were dressed in blue shirts, cotton drawers, and canvas shoes, as they were to walk incessantly while reading, in order to keep off sleep the more effectually ; and their course extended around four billard-tables. Upon one of the latter sat the second or principal backer of each, with stimulants, bottles of hartshorn, and kettledrums. On a long bench against the wall sat the timekeeper, with some hundred pounds of Impeachment speeches beside him, to be furnished to the readers as required; and near one of the tables stood a physician for the insane, to be at hand in case either foolhardy unfortunate should show symptoms of mental derangement in the course of the feat.
Promptly at the call of " Time!" the men started briskly together on the great opening speech of "the Hon. Thaddeus Butler; their elbows pressed closely to their sides; the printed slip held firmly within ten inches of their eyes; and their pace almost a trot. At first they read very fast, and were neck-and-neck on the passage about the "intention of Our Fathers in framing the Constitution;" but upon reaching the first quarter-pole, where the question arises " whether this Senate is now sitting as a court, or a jury, or a coroner's inquest," the pace of the American Proof-reader became languid, and his eyelids gave signs of heaviness. His backer promptly ran alongside of him and applied a bottle of hartshorn to his nostrils, which roused him again; but the Boston Marvel had already reached the place where "the President is shown to have lost all dignity," and his friends grew quite boisterous in their triumph. Upon gaining the point where " it is not denied that the respondent has been a serious obstacle to reconstruction," he, too, however, lagged and yawned horribly, in his turn, compelling his backer to beat a drum in order to keep him awake. So that, at the close of the first day, the two men were about even, and were led to their beds upstairs in nearly equal states of exhaustion.
On the second day, both looked haggard, and gaped repeatedly at the mere sight of the speeches; yet they started off in fair style on the argument of the Hon. Andrew Curtis, and the betting was even until they had arrived at the juncture where " we will now call the attention of this honorable Court to the first of the foreign parliamentary trials cited by the honorable Managers." Here the American Proof-reader emitted a faint snore, and the Boston Marvel came near walking through a window in a doze. Drums were beaten, pistols fired, and rockets exploded, to keep the men awake; but, at the conclusion of the heat, both readers fell to the floor in a leaden sleep, and were thus carried to their beds.
The scenes on the following days were still more horrible, as each poor wretch made more Herculean efforts to struggle through the Hon. Thaddeus Boutwell and the Hon. Andrew Nelson, without yielding to outraged nature's demand for half-hourly slumber. The men repeatedly fell, in utter exhaustion, and were picked up by attendants who rubbed them with oil, to loosen their minds, or beat drums and fumed their principals with hartshorn, to keep the faculties alive through eloquent passages. Reeling, and half-blind with intolerable weariness, the exhausted contestants went wildly into the speech of the venerable Nelson, and it was evident to all, that this would finish them. Over the questions "Who is he?" "Who is Andrew Johnson?" they stumbled piteously, with half-shut eyes; and at the first poetical quotation - "How does the little busy bee" - the Boston Marvel rolled under a billard-table in a swoon. Amid the beating of drums, firing of pistols, and showers of hartshorn, the American Proof-reader dragged himself painfully over the passage about " the Alta Vela case;" but at the second poetical quotation-"Come riddle me, riddle me, rye" - he threw up his hands, burst into a shrill laugh, and went down upon his back like a log.