8

There's a little poem that goes something like this:

Here lies the body of Thomas Grey,
Who died defending his right of way.
He was perfectly right as he sped along,
But he's just as dead as if he'd been wrong".

Looking up this poem reveals many versions, with any number of variations on the name of the dead man (Edward Gray, Mike O'Day, and even Captain May who sailed along) and sometimes variations on the rest, too. For instance, "He was right, dead right, the whole way along", and "John's light was green, the other red, John was right but now he's dead".

Where's the earliest version of this that can be found, what was it then, and is it known who wrote it?

4
  • 1
    Here s one from1918, in the periodical Rough Notes. Google books finds this poem in a number of places labeled 1917, 1918, and 1919. But the few hits that are labeled with years before 1918 are either are in bound volumes of periodicals that extend over several years (and so actually appeared in 1918 or later) or are labeled with the incorrect year. So I suspect that it was written around 1918.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Apr 3, 2021 at 12:26
  • The actual wording of the rhyme from Rough Notes: "Here lies the boyd [sic] of William Jay, who died maintaining his right of way. He was right as he sped along—but he's just as dead as if he'd been wrong."
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Apr 3, 2021 at 12:28
  • One of the early versions credits the poem to the Boston Transcript, so if someone has access to the Boston Transcript archives (if these exist online) it might be worth checking there to see if their version was earlier.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Apr 3, 2021 at 12:33
  • Thanks! I left this to see if anybody else answered but then forgot about it until now. If you make this an answer I'll tick it.
    – A. B.
    Commented Apr 20, 2021 at 5:32

2 Answers 2

4

The poem is ‘An Epitaph’ by Edgar A. Guest, first published in the Detroit Free Press on 1st October 1916 in Guest’s ‘Breakfast Table Chat’ column.

Scan of the newspaper, transcribed below.

An Epitaph.

Here lies the body
    Of William Jay,
Who died maintaining
    His right of way.
He was in the right
    As he sped along,
But he’s just as dead
    As if he’d been wrong.

Edgar A. Guest (1916). ‘An Epitaph’. In the Detroit Free Press, 1 October 1916, p. 72. Detroit, Michigan.

Edgar A. Guest was a popular writer of light verse who worked at the Detroit Free Press. He was extraordinarily prolific—Wikipedia credits him with “some 11,000 poems”—and his verse was widely syndicated in American newspapers.

I found this by entering phrases from the poem into the Elephind newspaper search engine. This turned up an early appearance in the Clare Sentinel, 16 November 1916, p. 4, where the poem was credited to Guest. Reading Guest’s biography at Wikipedia, it seemed likely that the poem had first appeared in his column at the Detroit Free Press, and this was easy to verify using the paper’s searchable archives.

4

If you look at Google books, it finds several instances of this rhyme labeled 1917, 1918, and 1919, and a few from earlier years. Looking at these more carefully, the earlier hits are all mislabeled, and the hits labeled 1917 are in bound volumes of periodicals that extend over several years, so they actually appeared in 1918 or later. Here is the earliest one I found, from May 1918, in the periodical The National Underwriter. Gareth Rees, found one slightly earlier, in the Bowser Business Boomer 16:11 (December 1917), page 138.

The early ones all have nearly identical wording, which goes as follows:

Here lies the body of William Jay,
who died maintaining his right of way.
He was right as he sped along—
but he's just as dead as if he'd been wrong.

One of the early versions credits the poem to the Boston Transcript. If somebody has access to the Boston Transcript archives, it would be worth checking to see whether their version was earlier.

5
  • 1
    Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) cites it from the Boston Transcript and describes it as "once printed", which I think implies not so recently.
    – Alex
    Commented Apr 22, 2021 at 0:05
  • 1
    Case and Comment Vol. 26 (1920) cites it from the Boston Transcript as "recently".
    – Alex
    Commented Apr 22, 2021 at 0:29
  • Do we know what specifically it's referring to? Is it a motor car?
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 13, 2022 at 9:31
  • @StuartF: Like all poetry, this verse is open to interpretation. Some of the early reprints explicitly made reference to motor cars, but others appeared in magazines dealing with trains. We don't have access to the first appearance in The Boston Transcript, which might (or might not) tell us what the author intended.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 14:57
  • 1
    Here's a slight antedating in the Bowser Business Boomer 16:11 (December 1917), page 138, courtesy of the Internet Archive. Commented May 7, 2023 at 21:04

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.