This modest exhibition of profiles, in which I have attempted to preserve no chronological sequence, ends with the silhouette of Dr. Joseph Moses.
If Boston in the colonial days had her Mather Byles, Portsmouth had her Dr. Joseph Moses. In their quality as humorists, the outlines of both these gentlemen have become rather broken and indistinct. “A jest’s prosperity lies in the ear that hears it.” Decanted wit inevitably loses its bouquet. A clever repartee belongs to the precious moment in which it is broached, and is of a vintage that does not usually bear transportation. Dr. Moses—he received his diploma not from the College of Physicians, but from the circumstance of his having once drugged his private demijohn of rum, and so nailed an inquisitive negro named Sambo—Dr. Moses, as he was always called, had been handed down to us by tradition as a fellow of infinite jest and of most excellent fancy; but I must confess that I find his high spirits very much evaporated. His humor expended itself, for the greater part, in practical pleasantries—like that practiced on the minion Sambo—but these diversions, however facetious to the parties concerned, lack magnetism for outsiders. I discover nothing about him so amusing as the fact that he lived in a tan-colored little tenement, which was neither clapboarded nor shingled, and finally got an epidermis from the discarded shingles of the Old South Church when the roof of that edifice was repaired.
Dr. Moses, like many persons of his time and class, was a man of protean employment—joiner, barber, and what not. No doubt he had much pithy and fluent conversation, all of which escapes us. He certainly impressed the Hon. Theodore Atkinson as a person of uncommon parts, for the Honorable Secretary of the Province, like a second Haroun Al Raschid, often summoned the barber to entertain him with his company. One evening—and this is the only reproducible instance of the doctor’s readiness—Mr. Atkinson regaled his guest with a diminutive glass of choice Madeira. The doctor regarded it against the light with the half-closed eye of the connoisseur, and after sipping the molten topaz with satisfaction, inquired how old it was. “Of the vintage of about sixty years ago,” was the answer. “Well,” said the doctor reflectively, “I never in my life saw so small a thing of such an age.” There are other mots of his on record, but their faces are suspiciously familiar. In fact, all the witty things were said aeons ago. If one nowadays perpetrates an original joke, one immediately afterward finds it in the Sanskirt. I am afraid that Dr. Joseph Moses has no very solid claims on us. I have given him place here because he has long had the reputation of a wit, which is almost as good as to be one.