Collecting Delaware Books
Article published April 1995
One of the strangest little Delaware books is Bug House Poetry by Richard Griffin, privately published in 1917. It is a mixture of nonsense and social satire.
Griffin inserted this verse where a publisher's name is expected on the title page.
I can't find a publisher who Will give me a chance with my ditty I've canvassed among quite a few In various parts of the city. I fly to my trusty canoe And hustle it through, yes I paddle Quite over that publishing crew In spite of their critical twaddle. To Hell with such rank fiddle faddle!
Sixty-five poems are included in the 293 pages. The verses are awkward and the rhymes are sometimes forced. There is a strong rhythm at times, but is not often sustained. The doctored photographs that illustrate the book enhance the nonsense image. One shows Griffin in golf knickers smoking a pipe and playing a banjo while giant spiders crawl on him. In another he holds a lobster aloft with a cooking fork and brandishes a cleaver.
The second poem, "The Delaware Bride," first published in 1913, is the best known and the only one most people read. It is the gruesome story of Mabel, a young school teacher who was sentenced to be lashed on Delaware's whipping post.
The poem tells that Mabel is dressed in white flannel, barefoot, and stripped to the waist. There is oil-cloth on the platform to make the gore easy to clean up. Every one of the lashes is detailed.
All this brutality is described, not for entertainment but as social commentary. Mabel's crimes were breaking the chalk and talking back to the superintendent. The satirical intent is clear in the last two verses.
The Sheriff meanwhile Has put on a style, The cheering is loud as he bows to the crowd. See him smile! Oh, that smile, As he kisses his hand with countenance bland. See him wink! What a blink! Don't he stink, don't he stink! The thirty-ninth lash has been given at last, The prisoner freed from the chain that held fast. The law is supreme, the whipping is over Three cheers now for Wilmington, New Castle, and Dover.
Though Griffin was apparently opposed to the whipping post, it is not clear where he got his material. Whipping of woman was abolished in 1889, and few had been whipped since the Civil War. A similar scene is described in Max Adeler's 1874 book Out of the Hurly-Burly, and old newspaper accounts were probably available to the poet.
Griffin's interest in cruel punishment is seen in a number of other poems. "The Executioner" deals with a headsman. "Dangling Guys" describes a hangman. There is a poem "The Guillotine," and "Mutiny of the 'Somers'" tells a story based on fact of three seamen hanged at sea without a trial.
The poet seems to dote on describing cruelty and gore, yet always makes it clear he opposes the brutal institutions. For example, the mutiny poem ends satirically after the burial at sea.
Next week we will sight Dear Sandy Hook light The land of the free and the brave. All cheer Captain Mack The brave Cracker Jack.
In a number of poems, Griffin describes brutal spankings of children. He was clearly opposed and uses pathos to get the reader's sympathy. "Clytie" and the "Stinging Bee" are two such. "Mary Went Alone" and "The Noble Matron" describe women at the mercy of lazy or disinterested husbands.
In "Clytie," he shows another aspect: interest in the latest diseases. Hookworm had just been identified as the cause of widespread anemia, and its method of entry through the bare feet shown. Clytie wades in the stream and gets a hookworm. Her mother punishes her for losing her shoes. It is not clear which of the two kills her. Griffin also works beri beri into a poem.
He was a name dropper. Local politicians are chided, some identifiable today and some not. Literary allusion is frequent: Sweeney Todd and Elsie Dinsmore get roasted. The Dinsmore stories were written by a Cecil County, Maryland, woman.
Such topics do not exhaust Griffin's interests. He writes about the drinking and eating habits of the Irish, accidentally being buried alive, the Panama Canal and its insects, and the passing of the dodo. In a lighter mood, "The Woman Without Any Ears" describes the latest hair and hat styles.
My dear, hide your ear, it's a duty. Just set up your smiles and your weirs, Pure type of American beauty (One charming neat model, my dears). The woman without any ears Rightly steers.
Bug House Poetry is a true literary, psychological, and historical puzzle. One could spend years deciphering its meanings.