“Washed and Dryed after Being Executed”: Historical Humor from the Metro Archives

by Ken Fieth, Metropolitan Nashville Archivist.

Working in an Archives is akin to teaching school: over the years you accumulate favorites. The Archives staff has discovered records displaying both deliberate and unintended humor. Several of the items presented here have proven to be the favorites of many a staff member and visitor.

Some of our earliest records are tavern licenses. These were issued to individuals who had been granted permission to run a tavern or “Ordinary” in Davidson County. Apparently, many such licenses were granted since a form was created and printed for use.

The 1780s language is quite specific as to the business requirements for the budding entrepreneur. In order to run an establishment in Nashville, one must “. . . conftantly find and provide in his or her faid Ordinary good wholefome, and cleanly lodging and diet for travellers . . . nor on the Sabbath day suffer or permit any perfon to drink any more than necessary.” [sic]

We’re still working on what, exactly, that means.

The following handwritten entry appears on the City of Nashville Arrest Blotter, December 31, 1930. “If every body that broke the law was locked up, they would be no body left to carry water. W. A. Gibbons, Lieutenant.” It must have been a long New Year’s Eve. Did the Lieutenant ever get his water?

Moving to the gentler side of things leads us to the honorable estate of marriage. The Court Clerk, William Barrow, sometimes felt duty-bound to inform future generations about his opinion of the happy couple before him. Many marriage licenses bear his often-caustic opinions.

Clerk Barrow wrote on an 1825 license: “. . . solemnized the rights of matrimony between the within parties, the groom’s first wife had been dead for at least five weeks.” Another gives a glimpse through the window of time onto Nashville’s energetic if not entirely wholesome 1820s waterfront district: “I married the within named person and his wife at the upper ferry at Nashville—no person present but a drunk stonemason whose name I do not know.”

A witness is a witness, inebriated or not.

It has been said that a last will and testament is just that. Human nature being what it is, these can make for fascinating reading. Take, for instance, the great aunt from Memphis who was concerned about the wisdom of her nephew’s choices. Her 1920 will granted him a generous portion of her estate provided “he marries no one from Jackson, Tennessee.” It was a large estate – did the prospective bride ever move to Memphis?

It is mostly ordinary people who make up the history of our city, and ordinary people haven’t really changed much in the last 216 years. History can be as dull or as lively as you wish; it just takes a little looking to find the lighter side.

By the way, the title was taken from a (literally) mangled 1830 marriage license. Leaving things in the pockets of clothes to be washed is not a new problem! But we never know what might provide a bit of amusement for later generations.