"The Good-for-Nothing"
March 9, 1876
The Independent

Dublin Core


"The Good-for-Nothing"
March 9, 1876
The Independent


The Good-for-Nothing.

Tarrytown, like every other Pennsylvania village, had its great man and its town fool. People boasted of the magnitude of the one and measured themselves by the littleness of the other. In any case they were complacent. Let what might come, Tarrytown was always complacent. The great man was Judge Samuel Rice. He was never on the bench, but everybody called him Judge. The little man was Johnny Twit; baptized John, no doubt, but everybody called him Johnny. Judge Samuel stood six foot two in his stockings—gray yarn stockings. “None of yer fancy silk for me, though I’ve got two hundred thousand dollars to pay for ’em, if I like,” he used to say, slapping his breeches pocket. His head and shoulders were broad and heavy as those of his own oxen, his hair and beard long and snow-white, his voice sonorous, with a cruel creak in it like the crack of a whip. You could not find a better figure-head for a town-meeting, or for a public dinner, or for a church. For forty years he presided in all and drove the Tarrytownists here and there as he pleased. If they rebelled, he slapped his breeches pockets and bellowed and gored and trampled them down, ox-like. He was known all through the state as the public-spirited Judge Rice. He was regarded as the foundation of Tarrytown, its one underpinning. When he was taken away, the whole thing would crumble down. All this without the gift of one of his dollars to any public enterprise. He paid his taxes and church dues; but not a penny over. He paid everybody to an exact fraction; and on the ground of the money he kept in his breeches pocket he bullied all poorer men. “Look at me!” he used to roar at a town meeting. “I began without a cent, and I could buy out Tarrytown! Do I have Brussels carpets on my floors? They’re bare and my da’aters scrub ’em. Do I hand fal-lal picters on my walls? I leave picters and pianos and china jimcracks[1] to some men I could name, whose pockets are as lean as their wits. You know what they’ve got in the bank, and you know what I’ve got. There’s my argyment.”

While his own table was niggardly and his floors bare, he was always willing to squander unlimited money on his son, who lived in Ohio. Once a year he went to Columbus, to see “Tom” in the senate; would wait all day in the gallery to hear him vote, or sit in their gorgeous drawing room at night to watch Tom’s wife entertain her guests. He was apt to choose somebody to whom to confide his delight, and would nudge him and chuckle as they sat apart on the sofa: “She’s a high-flyer—Tom’s wife—I tell you! Knows how to make money go! It all comes from me. I arned every dollar of it. Began, sir, breakin’ stones for the pike. When I think how I used to work in the blazin’ sun in the buff to my waist, and look at Tom’s wife and her cloes, it shows, sir, how honesty and virtue pays in this country.”

One day the Judge died, and there was a very hurly-burly of lamentation. The papers and Tom’s wife went into mourning. The town-house was draped with black muslin. Sermons were preached, muffled drums beat, unending funeral parades went up and down. Remembering how he had fought for the dogmas of his church, how he had harried the village with his loud-mouthed merit for nigh half a century, it really did seem as if, in the words of the editor of The Standard, “Virtue ‘for a moment bade the world farewell.’”[2] At the end of a month Tom Rice withdrew his father’s money from the bank. When it was gone the gap suddenly healed over which the Judge had left, and people began to wonder if that was all that there had been of him. Was it the $200,000 in his breeches pocket that had ruled them so long? Was the public spirit and the honesty and blatant virtue a mere frothy bubble, and the money the reality?

At the end of the year nobody ever spoke of the Judge but Johnny Twit. To Johnny he was still a modern Cato, Franklin, and a smaller Washington.[3] Twit had his photograph hanging up in his office, with an autograph letter below. “A good and great man,” he would say, shaking his little bald head. “I am proud to have known him.” Johnny, people said, was more “cracked” than ever.

Tarrytown was settled by thrifty, hard, Scotch-Irish stock. Not the kind of folk to have much patience with a man who had lived to be fifty-four and had not laid away a dollar; could barely manage, indeed, to keep body and soul together. It was the extent of charity in them to pass over Johnny’s shortcomings on the ground of a cracked brain. “The fellow,” they would tell you, “had good birth (a matter of weight in Tarrytown) and good education. He studied law. Why, Johnny could give you the points of a case or precedents as well as any man in Tarrytown. But he’d take to chasing the subject through the books like a hound after a hare, and there was an end of all practical good of him for a month. Or, if you wanted a deed, he’d go to ferreting out the title back to the tomahawk claims, and to hunting up the history of all the owners.” It was better than a play, he said, to make searches for a title. Business soon left that office, of course. The office was a large, whitewashed room, lined with rough shelves of old books, a stove in one corner, where Johnny cooked his own meals, a neat bed behind a check curtain, and, scattered miscellaneously, two or three dogs, some of the neighbors’ children, a dozen tame canaries, a goldfinch, and a parrot. Outside there was a queer old garden, full of herbs and roses, a poultry-yard, tamed squirrels, pigeons, more dogs. It was but additional proof of Johnny’s half-idiocy to the townspeople that he chose to spend his life studying queer books, in tongues that nobody understood, to making money. As to the animals and children, they took to him naturally, as though he were one of themselves.

Johnny was always busy. Besides his books, he brewed from his herbs draughts, salves, lotions, for almost every disease, which he gave away. (If he sold them, they would have lost virtue.) If anybody was sick or dead, Johnny was sent for at once. Nobody was so good a nurse. Nobody was so tender in trouble as the apple-cheeked, bald-headed little man. He was a sort of foster-father to the whole village; had kept a record of births, deaths, etc., for many years. Of course, nobody had the least respect for Johnny. He was queer, flighty, had an absurdly high opinion of every living soul with whom he came in contact—saw virtue in them which only insanity could have imagined. All the village wits made a butt of him. Every Tarrytowner had an opinion of his own, fixed as that of the Pope. Johnny never offered an opinion in his life. He never said so much as that virtue was right and vice wrong. When people were sick or in trouble, and sent for him, he would sometimes pull out his old Bible, and, putting on his spectacles, read in his humble, squeaking voice, usually from the Gospel of St. John. I remember how comical we children thought him, with his feet on the rung of his chair, and his bald head and round, boyish face. But there was a wonderful pathos in his voice, and what he read was real to us.

All this was long ago. Johnny died soon after the Judge. Books, dogs, birds were all scattered. “A good-for-nothing fellow,” said the smart young druggist who had just opened a shop. “Live all his life here, and his whole belongings sold for ten dollars. Fact! I was at the vendue.”

But there was not a man or woman in Tarrytown who did not feel a sudden gap in their everyday life, out of which something good and helpful had gone. And there was not a child who has not now, in middle age, a tender and grateful memory of poor Johnny.


1. Jimcrack or gimcrack is a cheap, showy object.

2. A phrase used frequently from the Revolutionary era to Byron’s poetry; may be a version of Biblical verse, such as Acts 18:21.

3. Cato the Younger (95-46 BC), Roman statesman; Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and George Washington (1732-1799), U.S. “Founding Fathers.” Each figure is considered a symbol of moral integrity.


S. M. Harris



“"The Good-for-Nothing"March 9, 1876The Independent,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed February 20, 2019, http://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/144.