What Happens When You “Give Someone the Finger”
Written and contributed by Ben Feld
Based on article in Watertown Gazette, 01 06 1881
It may seem surprising that the name of the feisty young man of this anecdote was never revealed in the newspapers, but perhaps James W. Moore, editor of the Watertown Gazette felt it prudent to refrain from revealing his name. Moore had been heading up The Democrat less than ninety days and may still have been hesitant about indiscriminately embarrassing certain families.
This much he did reveal: the subject was a male who lived in a village northwest of Watertown, a male who was apt to drink more than prudence would allow and, when he did, he became a bit feisty. But names are not important in this incident.
What is important is that this final Fair Day of the year 1880, was quite chilly and the young man, having become uncomfortably cooled on his journey into town, felt it necessary to find warmth and fellowship in a 5th Ward saloon that day, and availed himself of sustenance for the inner man, much of it consisting of “the ardent” as it was often referred to in journalistic circles. And it wasn’t long before he had reached the state in which he became obnoxious and managed to irritate the bartender who, for the good of his business, invited the young man to leave.
But the young man, knowing how cold it was outside, did not take kindly to the invitation and was determined to stay inside where it was much warmer. Words and threats not being effective, the bartender took matters and the body of the young man into his own hands and attempted to throw the obnoxious patron into the frigid outdoors.
In his attempt to avoid being ejected by the bartender and a few sympathizing patrons, the obstreperous one grabbed hold of the bar and held on “like grim Death to a decayed African,” as the Watertown Democrat put it, until someone whipped out a knife and with one swift slash performed a surgical operation which induced the trouble-maker to let go, whereupon he was summarily escorted out the door sans coat, we assume, but definitely without one finger.
What subsequently happened to the victim? How did he explain to his friends and family the loss of one digit? Did he require medical attention? Did he ever regret not leaving the saloon quietly and with all ten fingers? The answers to those question must, of necessity, be pure conjecture; completely fictional for the newspapers do not address themselves to the welfare and comfort of the victim.
More intriguing is the account of what happened to the finger. Following the amputation, it obviously fell to the sawdust-covered floor and was ignored until the next morning when the bartender, as he went about his daily routine of tidying up the place, discovered the finger, well covered with blood, mingled with the sawdust on the floor. His immediate reaction was: What should be done with it? Does it deserve a decent burial? Should it be consigned to the trash bin? Should it be displayed in a place of prominence as a warning to future patrons considering resisting eviction? What would be the right, the decent, and the gentlemanly thing to do?
He rejected all of the above and instead, gingerly picked up the finger and put it in an old glove he selected from his supply of lost or forgotten gloves which he had accumulated over the years. Now he had a new problem; what should he do with the glove now containing a finger? Easy! He took a short walk and when he felt he was not being observed, he calmly dropped the glove and finger in a ditch a short distance west of the Northwestern Railroad track.
Problem solved? Not quite. He hadn‘t reckoned with the frugality of a young man living several miles west of the city, who, that same day, on seeing the glove in the road as he approached Watertown, picked it up, put it in his pocket, and in the course of the day stopped at a different 5th Ward saloon where he proceeded to consume a modest amount of warming spirits while enjoying the camaraderie of fellow patrons for the better part of the afternoon.
As he was about to leave the place, cognizant of the cold weather outside, he removed from his pocket the glove he had found on the road, and slipped his hand into it. Imagine his surprise when he discovered the finger in that glove!
As the Watertown Democrat described the scene: “His face grew pale, his lips began to quiver, and his knees trembled so violently that he was obliged to seat himself on an empty beer keg”.
It wasn’t the sight of the bloody finger which made him feel so faint, The Democrat said, but the fear that the mere finding of that freshly carved appendage in his possession would be sufficient evidence to convict him of, he was sure, cold-blooded murder.
And so, for the second time the presence of the finger presented a grave problem for the unfortunate possessor. And this time the solution was again like the first solution -- Get rid of it!
Which he did. Calmly, as calmly as he was able to act in his present agitated mental state, left the saloon, and a short distance away threw the glove-encased finger over a woodpile and left the place trusting that some hungry dog would come along and get away with it.
Nothing was ever again mentioned in the newspapers about the problem-causing finger, but one can’t help wondering if the original owner ever learned of the fate of the finger he lost while trying so desperately to remain in that 5th Ward saloon just a little longer.
Moral -- It’s not nice to give anyone the finger.