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The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas by Mayne Reid


The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas by Mayne Reid

The lunch table in the AbeBooks staff room is certainly never dull. Different combinations of staffers from various departments congregate to eat their lunches, and the conversation can run the gamut from heated political discussion, to pop culture, to local events and more. The only topic off-limits is work, though that rule is bent whenever someone has a problem or a particularly good idea.

Yesterday’s discussion veered onto the origins of phrases, when it was mentioned that someone didn’t know what succotash (as in “Sufferin’ Succotash!”, the famous cartoon utterance of Sylvester the Cat, and more rarely, Daffy Duck) was. Brief research revealed that succotash is a foodstuff, and while recipes vary widely, it appears the staples of corn and beans are key to its foundation.

Satisfied thus far, the next topic was the phrase “Jumpin’ Jehosaphat!”.

What was Jehosaphat? Was it too a foodstuff? Someone’s name? A dance move? Back to the internet! We discovered that the origins of the phrase Jumpin’ Jehosaphat could be traced back centuries and centuries. Jehoshaphat (note the extra H, later dropped in pop culture), son of Asa and father of Jehoram, was a king of the Kingdom of Judah for 25 years some time (historians disagree on precise dates) around 870-850 BCE.

As to the origins of “Jumpin’ Jehosaphat” specifically, our search eventually led back to a book (doesn’t everything, eventually?).

Apparently, the first recorded instance of the phrase can be found in the 1866 novel The Headless Horseman by (Thomas) Mayne Reid. The novel is based on Texan folklore detailing the exploits of an Irish hero in the U.S.-Mexican war of the mid-19th century. Here are the opening paragraphs of the novel, sure to pull the reader in:

“The stag of Texas, reclining in midnight lair, is startled from his slumbers by the hoofstroke of a horse.
He does not forsake his covert, nor yet rise to his feet. His domain is shared by the wild steeds of the savannah, given to nocturnal straying. He only uprears his head; and with antlers o’ertopping the tall grass, listens for a repetition of the sound.
Again is the hoofstroke heard, but with altered intonation. There is a ring of metal – the clinking of steel against stone. The sound, significant to the ear of the stag, causes a quick change in his air and attitude. Springing clear of his couch, and bounding a score of yards across the prairie, he pauses to look back upon the disturber of his dreams. In the clear moonlight of a southern sky, he recognizes the most ruthless of his enemies – man. One is approaching upon horseback. Yielding to instinctive dread, he is about to resume his flight: when something in the appearance of the horseman – some unnatural seeming – holds him transfixed to the spot. ”

The novel is a story of love, jealousy, revenge, raiding Comanche Indians and assassination on the plains of Texas. Mystery abounds, and a healthy spot of violence as well. And from the sounds of it, the writers of television series “Breaking Bad” may have found an idea or two in its pages.

AbeBooks has just six 1866 copies of The Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid for sale. And now we know that is the first published occurrence of “Jumpin’ Jehosaphat!” in literature.

And further literary fact goodies: Isaac Asimov‘s famous character Lije Baley (from The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn, chiefly) frequently exclaims “Jehosaphat!” as a curse word throughout the books.

So if you didn’t know, now you know. Jumpin’ Jehosaphat!

The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas by Mayne Reid

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