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A Nigger in the Woodpile

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Early in Erle Stanley Gardner’s first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, Gardner’s lawyer-detective finds himself questioning a young woman, one of the occupants of a spacious home in which a murder has just occurred. Norma Veitch has already been grilled by the police, as Mason learns: “They acted as though they thought they had discovered the nigger in the woodpile . . . They took me upstairs, and gave me what they call a third degree, I guess.”

There are two idiomatic expressions here whose meanings are clear, though their origins are uncertain. One of them leaps off the page today, and the other does not. “Third degree” means a tough interrogation, though why it means that is in dispute, and “nigger in the woodpile” means broadly a significant hidden problem. The latter idiom is striking today and would be deemed highly offensive in mainstream discourse. From a purely linguistic perspective, however, both expressions properly do their lexical duty: they convey meanings. Of the two idioms, only “third degree” signifies an action that could be called inherently bad, namely harsh questioning of a citizen by the police.

The police act as if Norma Veitch is “the nigger in the woodpile” of their murder case, because they believe that there may be more to her than meets the eye, which is semantically a kindred expression conveying a similar idea. Norma is not, as it turns out, the murderer, though by the end of Velvet Claws, we learn that the police were right to suspect that behind her innocent exterior she could be concealing something. As in most detective fiction, there are many hidden but significant problems (“niggers in woodpiles”) in Gardner’s first Mason novel.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “nigger in the woodpile” as “a concealed motive or unknown factor affecting a situation in an adverse way.” A Dictionary of American English has a somewhat different definition: “a concealed or inconspicuous but highly important fact, factor or catch in an account, proposal, etc.” The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms has “a hidden factor, person etc that is causing trouble or having a bad effect on something (esp deliberately).”

A speaker using the metaphor “nigger in the woodpile” is, in most instances, speculating or stating that a hidden factor or agent (the “nigger”) has caused a significant problem in a given situation (the “woodpile”). The “nigger” could be as inoffensive as an inadvertent factual error in a legislative document, or as dangerous as an unknown killer loose somewhere in a mansion.

Gardner’s Velvet Claws was published in 1933. In the early 1930s, “nigger in the woodpile” could still be a mainstream expression, as witnessed by its appearance in a novel from a major publisher. The strong affective connotations of “nigger in the woodpile,” which are immediately felt by all of us now, would not have been so clearly apparent to readers of the first Mason novel.

In 1897, “nigger in the woodpile” made an appearance in the Congressional Record: “like a great many others ignorant of facts, he finds ‘a nigger in the wood pile’ when there is neither wood pile nor nigger.” An advertisement in a 1918 issue of The Rotarian wisely warned that “there’s usually a nigger in the woodpile when you are offered something for nothing.” In 1952, Agatha Christie could still, in her Marple novel They Do It with Mirrors, use the expression in the same sense and in the same law-enforcement context that Gardner’s character had used it two decades earlier: “Well now, let’s have your point of view. Who’s the nigger in the woodpile? The G.I. husband?” (He is not, as it turns out.)

“Nigger in the woodpile” was once so mainstream that in 1929, Dr. Seuss, despite his liberal sympathies for blacks, made use of it in a humorous cartoon published in Judge, a satirical magazine. Shoppers in “the World’s Most Prosperous Department Store” examine unlikely products that would annoy rather than benefit anyone foolish enough to buy them: the store offers flies for ointments, monkey wrenches for machinery, and niggers for woodpiles, satisfaction guaranteed.

Although Theodor Geisel’s joke seems highly racial today, common figures of speech, humorously transformed into physical shapes, were his cartoon’s real subject. The store is exceptionally prosperous because we all encounter the problems that it sells. The cartoon’s conceit is to depict consumers voluntarily buying problems, including blacks for their woodpiles, that they did not have before. No specific bad qualities are attributed to blacks, despite the presence of a group of stereotyped blacks identified as “niggers.” The cartoon simply tells us that the addition of a nigger to a woodpile, like the addition of a fly to an ointment, would create an unnecessary problem.

The ejection of “nigger in the woodpile” from polite speech was, of course, brought about by the incremental coronation over decades of the now-fearsome n-word as the king of bad words. Even Margaret Mitchell, in 1936, felt the need to distance her South from the growing notoriety of “nigger.” In Gone with the Wind we learn, in transparent anachronisms, that Scarlett O’Hara’s mother disapproved of calling blacks “niggers” and that Yankees were much more likely do so than white Southerners. By at least the 1920s, “nigger” had acquired the potential to be a racially-charged word – hence Mitchell’s revision of linguistic history – and its power to offend would grow. As lawyer Chris Darden correctly announced during the O. J. Simpson trial, by 1995 “nigger” had become “the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language.” It was a strong word, but not the nastiest, in 1933, when words related to sex still sat atop the hierarchy of offensive vocabulary.

It is unlikely that Gardner expected his readers to visualize some black person when he put “nigger” in the mouth of his character. Back when “nigger in the woodpile” was still used unself-consciously as a normal idiom, it was often, from our perspective today, oddly detached from race. Much as aircraft pilots once attributed mysterious mechanical failures to “gremlins,” without believing in their real-world existence, so telephone repairmen once called an unidentified problem in their phone lines a “nigger in the woodpile,” without focusing their minds on real-world negroes. None of the OED’s citations of the expression, beginning with its first recorded appearance in 1852, is racially aggressive. Although in American usage “nigger” has always been closely associated with Africans, usually in the last century as a pejorative, “nigger in the woodpile” rarely derogated specific blacks. The “nigger” identified by “nigger in the woodpile” was seldom a literal negro and was often not even a person.

Racial meanings were always available in the woodpile metaphor. To suggest that a darkly-complexioned Caucasian had “a nigger in the woodpile” would be to suspect that he might have an African ancestor somewhere in his family tree. But such uses of “nigger in the woodpile” were less common than one might expect, at least in written sources. Gardner’s use of the expression is more typical, as is, at a much more elevated level, Alan Turing’s longstanding belief that “the axiom of extensionality” is “a nigger in the woodpile.” Part of the humor in Geisel’s cartoon is that speakers of “nigger in the woodpile” rarely thought of real negroes inhabiting their woodpiles, just as most speakers do not think of real monkey wrenches in their machinery, even though they use metaphorical language that seems to point at such objects. When he turned his intellect to the axiom of extensionality, Turing never, we can be sure, gave much thought to blacks living within piles of wood, though he did think of a logical rule in mathematics as “a nigger in the woodpile.”

During the Simpson trial, the word “nigger” briefly became, for the sake of racial etiquette, “an epithet well-known to the world that denotes black people and begins with an N.” A dozen years later the NAACP, without provoking widespread ridicule, ceremonially buried “nigger” in a pine box. It is possible today to write seriously in books of “n-word decorum,” because in fact such decorum does exist and must be adhered to if a non-black speaker hopes to avoid social punishment. Sentences from the past that were once racially uncontroversial can thus seem strange today, even for those of us who find talk of “n-word decorum” foolish. We have been trained to find “nigger” both surprising and offensive, and earlier generations did not receive the same training.

The following sentence, written in 1910 for a marketing publication, seems strange today, but would have appeared unexceptional to its first readers: “Every forward step taken by Politics or Economy or Business has been marked by the ejection of a ‘nigger’ hidden in some ‘woodpile.'” The author, one Krebs Beebe, an advertising manager, then gets tougher: “In Business the ‘nigger’ soon dies when dragged from cover, for he usually represents some form of Graft that cannot live in the Light.”

Technically, Beebe has turned “nigger in the woodpile” into a brief allegory, while explaining the meaning he was imposing upon it. He likely had no genuine commitment to what he was arguing, since he was trying to sell his company’s services, while complaining about unreliable circulation figures used by publishers to deceive advertisers. He writes of the “nigger” in the metaphor dying after being physically dragged from his place of concealment, but his real-world meaning is that graft cannot survive if it does not remain hidden, an elementary but important observation. The nigger is bad, and dragging him into the light is good, but in its indirect meaning Beebe’s nigger bears no relation to any real-world black person, though it may be difficult today to see that. Raceless graft is the bad phenomenon that exists in the real world, not negroes hiding in woodpiles.

Beebe’s concealed nigger stands for something bad, but the nigger could also be good. In an inventive interpretation of “nigger in the woodpile,” drawn out at some length, Anson Webb, an advocate for free coinage, turned the nigger’s lack of freedom within the woodpile into an offense by the state against the individual:

Here is the whole question of “free coinage.” Free coinage asserts that it is a free nigger. Now that is the whole sum and substance of my proposition for a free money supply. A free money supply means a free nigger in the woodpile. The wood-pile is the state and the nigger is the individual.

Webb’s nigger is not stealing from the woodpile; he just lives there and asks only to exercise his rights as a free man, rights which are presently denied to him. Since he is allowed to coin gold within the woodpile, Webb goes on to argue, he naturally must be allowed to coin silver as well: “Your nigger is not very much of a free nigger if he can only have the right to stir the particles of gold that may be in the wood-pile.” Webb’s woodpile is coterminous with the United States, and because its citizens are denied free coinage, metaphorically they are all enslaved niggers.

Webb’s lengthy defense of the nigger/citizen, unjustly deprived of the right to strike silver coins, appeared in the progressive (and silverite) journal The Arena in 1895, three decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and one year before a presidential election in which arguments for bimetallism would play a central role. His ideas would have been served better by a different figure of speech, since his own brief allegory becomes incoherent if examined too closely. Webb was, however, likely impressed by the idea that a significant feature of the black man in 1895 was his current freedom, which in living memory he did not possess. Since a common claim by proponents of bimetallism was that anti-silver policies constituted a system of financial slavery, a nigger/black seemed an appropriate category of person to represent citizens who should be free but currently are not, given the government’s opposition to free coinage.

Webb’s “nigger in the woodpile” is atypical, since it largely ignores an important idea that the expression normally implied, namely that “a nigger in the woodpile” is some person or situation that arouses the suspicion of an observer. But because Webb’s version of the woodpile metaphor turns the “nigger” into an Everyman citizen, it indicates well how racially passive this once-common figure of speech could be, even though it contained “an epithet well-known to the world that denotes black people and begins with an N.” If the electorate accepted Webb’s arguments and voted accordingly, everyone would become a free nigger inside a liberated woodpile, with William Jennings Bryan as its president.

An obvious comment is that the connotations of the word “nigger” have shifted over time, as we would expect. Webb’s “nigger” in 1895 was not Christopher Darden’s “nigger” a century later. Another explanation for this marked increase in offensiveness is that the negative generalizations carried by the word had become highly contentious by 1995, whereas they were far less contentious in 1895. Because the semantic distance between “nigger” and neutral “negro” was then so slight, the former was available for non-racial purposes.

In subsequent decades, “nigger in the woodpile” would acquire enemies. H. L. Mencken, writing in 1944, tells the story of an unsuccessful campaign several years earlier against the Noxzema Chemical Company. One of its employees, a credit manager, had used the woodpile metaphor in a circular to pharmacies that were slow at paying their bills, and as a penalty for his offense black activists tried, but failed, to have him fired.

His offense was writing “nigger” while white, since, as Mencken’s essay makes clear, blacks themselves, then as now, used “nigger” freely among other blacks but believed that the same privilege should not extend to the white majority. The unsuccessful campaign against Noxzema was explicitly described as offering its supporters an opportunity to deliver “a sock at Hitlerism.” The polemical practice of linking the normal behavior of Euro-Americans to the stigmatized behavior of nazis would become a powerful racial weapon forty years later, but it failed in this case.

Gardner must have felt the growing pressure against the n-word. “Nigger in the woodpile” appeared in three of his Mason novels published in the 1930s, but it did not appear again in the many Mason novels that followed. Its last appearance was in 1938. In The Case of the Substitute Face, an inconsistency in a company’s books, suggestive of a white-collar embezzler, is twice described as indicating that there must be “a nigger in the woodpile somewhere.” Since “nigger in the woodpile” could serve loosely as a colorful synonym for “culprit,” American authors of mystery stories must have regretted its exile from polite speech.

Because the offensive power of “nigger” grew in the 1930s, “nigger in the woodpile” became available for humor. When a social stigma or informal taboo is attached to a word, violations of the unwritten rule discouraging use of the word often become funny, especially among people who dislike the rule and violate it in their private speech.

W. C. Fields saw the comic potential. In My Little Chickadee, released in 1940, Fields has just married Mae West, or rather believes that he has, and he expects a happy night with her in the bridal suite. She has no intention of complying, so she shuts the door in his face. “Evidently,” Fields muses as he looks at the closed door, “an Ethiopian in the fuel supply. Seems to me I’m getting the old heave-ho.”

His delivery helps make the lines funny, but the humor in the scene is based on his polite restatement of “nigger in the woodpile.” Audiences were expected to decode it easily, thereby arriving at an offensive word that could not have been spoken openly. “Ethiopian in the fuel supply” alludes to the existence of a taboo, while indirectly breaking it. For some reason we find that humorous. Saying “witch” on screen but meaning “bitch” earned a laugh back when the latter was prohibited in films.

That Fields, in Chickadee and elsewhere, interpreted “woodpile” as a fuel supply reflects a specific understanding of the expression’s origin. “Nigger in the woodpile” was traditionally traced back to the antebellum South. It derived, authorities once generally believed, from the frequency with which blacks stole property from whites. The woodpile metaphor, according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, was “originally a way of accounting for the disappearance of fuel.” If a homeowner discovered firewood missing from his woodpile, or some other property missing from his yard, he would suspect that a black was stealing it.

During Reconstruction, when many blacks felt liberation from fear of punishment, black vagrancy and thievery increased, making “nigger in the woodpile” more relevant and encouraging its spread. A white homeowner’s “woodpile” stood for his moveable property in general, which blacks were prone to remove from his possession. In the real world, the metaphor’s “nigger” lurked around someone else’s home looking for an opportunity to steal; in the metaphor itself he is presented as though he were physically inside the woodpile, secretively removing firewood, much as a “gremlin” in an airplane invisibly damages machinery from within. To discover the black thief, “the nigger in the woodpile,” was to resolve the mystery of why the woodpile kept dwindling in size, a troublesome problem caused by a previously unknown factor.

Other accounts by competent authorities trace “nigger in the woodpile” to the Underground Railroad. Escaped slaves travelling north by foot often, Charles Funk conjectured, concealed themselves behind or within woodpiles to elude capture. A woodpile might therefore have been loosely thought of as the temporary residence of a black fugitive on his way to freedom.

Another explanation, reported in 1901 by the Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois, also associates “nigger in the woodpile” with the Underground Railroad but locates its origin in a specific incident: “runaways were usually forwarded from [Chicago] to Canada by way of the Lakes, there being several steamers available for that purpose. On one occasion thirteen were put aboard a vessel under the eyes of a United States Marshal and his deputies. The fugitives, secreted in a woodshed, one by one took the places of colored stevedores carrying wood aboard the ship.” Other authorities point to a similar story from New York.

Since the earliest written examples of “nigger in the woodpile” do not come from slave states, explanations for its origin that involve fugitive slaves heading north may seem plausible. They do not, however, account well for the meaning of the expression. An escaping slave temporarily hiding behind a pile of wood, or temporarily posing as a stevedore after hiding in a woodshed, does not readily suggest a significant hidden problem or the OED‘s unknown factor affecting a situation in an adverse way. On the other hand, the traditional explanation’s originating scenario works much better: a homeowner notices a gradual depletion of his fuel supply, which he values, and he speculates correctly that a black thief could be the cause of his problem.

In 1904, the traditional account received something like a definitive form in a short film by Biograph Studios. In a promotional summary, Biograph described the plot of its A Nigger in the Woodpile as follows:

This is a clever comedy production in several scenes. In the opening scene the hired man is complaining to Farmer Jones that the woodpile is being depleted by thieves. Farmer Jones decides to adopt drastic measures and loads one of the sticks with dynamite. In the next scene a colored deacon, one of the shining lights in the African Church, is seen making away with the wood. The next scene shows the home of the deacon, where he is taking his comfort at the kitchen fire, while his wife is busy with the washing. The loaded stick is, of course, put into the fire, and there is a terrific explosion and the building is ruined. Farmer Jones and his man appear at the critical moment and the colored thieves are given a punishment they will not soon forget.

We can be reasonably confident that by 1904, users of “nigger in the woodpile,” if they thought about its ur-scenario at all, must have envisioned something close to what Biograph’s film presented. In popular understanding at least, and likely in real language history as well, the once-common idiomatic expression that put a black person inside a woodpile owed its origin not to blacks escaping from bondage, but to blacks stealing from whites. Biograph’s film takes a colloquial figure of speech and tells a typical story of how it came into existence and why it spread.

No one should blame enslaved blacks for stealing from whites, especially if the whites being robbed were their owners; but from the perspective of the person being robbed, black theft in the antebellum South presented a problem. After the end of slavery, the problem grew. In 1904, the fact that Africans in America are a troublesome problem for whites was largely uncontested and could therefore be dramatized in a commercial medium, with no expectation of audience complaints.

“Nigger in the woodpile,” throughout its history, put that fact into everyday language. The “nigger” in the woodpile metaphor almost invariably stood for the cause of some troublesome problem, just as in the real world the black population constituted a persistent problem for whites. The presence of blacks among whites, like wasps at a picnic, produced a large reservoir of irritants, a reservoir that naturally became a source of colorful expressions.

What makes “nigger in the woodpile” especially notable is the lack of racial aggression that characterized its most common uses, as well as the distance of real-world blacks from the problematic situations it typically described. While the theft of property from a homeowner’s yard reasonably suggests a black criminal, a suspicious discrepancy in a company’s books does not. Yet an idiom that developed from the former could end up describing the latter. The black problem had become so generalized and so universally acknowledged among whites that an expression based on recognition of its existence could refer to a variety of other problems – like trouble in a phone system or an upscale murder in a mansion – that have little or nothing to do with real-world blacks and their characteristic patterns of misbehavior. In the woodpile metaphor, “nigger” could serve as a flexible tool for speculating about the hidden causes of a wide array of disparate problems, because negro and troublesome problem had become so closely associated.

A remarkably prescient cartoon, entitled “The Man Who Won the Elephant at the Raffle,” appeared in a New York broadsheet in 1863. Thomas Jefferson believed there are “indelible lines of distinction” between blacks and whites that prevent them from living together as free citizens under the same government; the anonymous illustrator appears to have held similar views.

The Union army had recently acquired effective ownership of a large black population, and the cartoon questioned whether it had won a prize or taken on a liability. The expected victors in the Civil War would not only defeat the Confederacy but would also, the illustrator suggested, acquire for the reunited nation a substantial racial problem, represented in the cartoon as a freed slave in the form of a black elephant. Although the Union had won a prize in the raffle, in this particular raffle losing would be much better than winning.

In the 1860s, “winning an elephant in a raffle” was an established idiom for a person’s acquisition of something he does not really want. The now popular “elephant in the room” would enter English about a century later, but the illustrator anticipated the idea by presenting a massive racial problem in an appropriately massive shape.

We can look at the old woodpile metaphor as a response in language to the same problem. It was a small, unobtrusive reminder in everyday speech of a massive fact. It lived in the elephant’s shadow and politely hinted at his presence.

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6 Comments

  1. Randy
    Posted March 17, 2017 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of the woodpile, reading Sir Arthur Keith’s “The Antiquity of Man” and disappointed to understand that Cro-Magnon man were likely mixed Negroes. Hence much of these reported ‘3% African’ appearing on DNA profiles maybe traceable to there.

  2. Carpenter
    Posted March 16, 2017 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting.

    My first encounter with the metaphor was in the genealogical sense. In fact, I was totally unaware it could be used in any other way.

    After doing some family history research, I asked my dad if he knew he was part Irish. He did not, thinking he was only of English and German descent. He responded (jokingly?), “Well, there’s a nigger in every woodpile.”

    • Posted March 17, 2017 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

      He responded (jokingly?), “Well, there’s a nigger in every woodpile.”

      Jimmy Carter’s brother once got himself into trouble for using “nigger in the woodpile” in the same sense.

      At a cocktail party in Oakland, an NAACP activist, Carter Gilmore, jokingly asked Billy Carter to explain why they were not related, since they both had a “Carter” in their names, and he joked back with “I hate to say it, but we all left a nigger in the woodpile someplace.” In other words, it was possible that they really were related.

      Initially Billy Carter’s joke got a laugh, but the black Carter later demanded an apology, which Billy refused to provide. He speculated that, because Carter Gilmore was then running for public office, he thought some fake anger over a racial slur would help his chances, but “I ain’t apologizing.”

      I get the story from a 1977 issue of *Jet* magazine, where it is reported as only a humorous incident. The black reporter telling the story clearly didn’t find Billy’s joke especially offensive. Carter Gilmore, the story reads, “just didn’t realize that Billy Carter is strictly down-to-earth.”

      Today, of course, the reaction would be much different.

  3. Creighton James
    Posted March 16, 2017 at 2:45 am | Permalink

    In one of the Flashman books (I can’t recall which – “Flashman and the Great Game” maybe?) old Flashy says “I stuck out like a nigger in Norway.”

    This article made me think of that line.

    Incidentally, I’m not sure niggers stick out in Norway anymore, unfortunately.

  4. Proofreader
    Posted March 15, 2017 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    The picture at the top of this article recalls Ambrose Bierce’s definition in The Devil’s Dictionary:

    “Negro, n. The pièce de résistance in the American political problem. Representing him by the letter n, the Republicans begin to build their equation thus: ‘Let n = the white man.’ This, however, appears to give an unsatisfactory solution.”

    Indeed it does.

  5. rhondda
    Posted March 15, 2017 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    The English language is full of idioms that say the truth about a situation. When the feminists tried to make the ‘c’ word positive, they failed miserably. Maybe like Blacks they felt good about calling each other that, but no one else did and they created another alienation among women. I have noticed in mixed race situations that the language becomes more formal and stunted. The lack of emotionally real content from both sides makes communication difficult. I suppose ‘raining cats and dogs’ will offend animal lovers and ‘barking up the wrong tree’ devalues dogs. I think too the idiom in writing is different from saying it with the emotional content behind it. It matters how you say it and the context in writing. Talking about whales when you really mean fat women also can cause this whole innuendo crescendo reach absurd heights. On the other hand, perhaps that is just what is necessary. After all what are ‘memes’?

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