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A taxing poem mystery, Chapter 1

Dr. Watson, you've seen the poem in some version or other. Recently it appeared in the Hill City Times, titled simply "Taxes." The first of 36 lines in a similar mood were "Tax the farmer, tax his fowl./Tax the dog and tax his howl."

The final couplet read "Tax them all and tax them well./And do your best to make life H--L." It was submitted for publication to the local editor, Jim Logback. He tells me it was offered on a yellowing page from Woman's Comfort Magazine, April 1971, author unknown.

I have verified it did appear in Woman's Comfort that year. Editor Logback said "that would suggest the problem is none too new," referring to the current political atmosphere. As Paul Harvey would have said, "And now the rest of the story."

I donned my legendary Deerstalker cap, lit my pipe, and set out to name the unknown creator. Little did I know how many blood hounds I would exhaust.

The earliest version I could locate was in the Pomeroy (Iowa) Herald of May 12, 1921. Denise at the neighboring Rockwell City Library kindly emailed me a PDF copy of the relevant page. The title was somewhat more specific: How We're Taxed. And the first two lines read "Tax the people and tax with care./To help the tax commissionaire." Commissionaire is a word of British origin meaning an attendant or security guard. Puzzling choice. The final line read "Tax 'em to the gates of -- the poor house." But there are just 20 lines. No author is cited.

A month later, the Kokomo (Indiana) Daily Tribune picked it up. The publisher led in with this comment, "A soul in pain has asked us to print the following pom' (sic)...which we suspect to be old stuff but here it is:" The identical 20 lines, but ending with dashes: "Tax ''em to the gates of


. You see, printing hell in the Hoosier State offends the ladies -- raising it is quite acceptable.

In spring 1923, a slightly different version appeared in sister publications, The Bean-Bag Journal and the Peanut Promoter, main offices in Chicago and branches in several states. (I will pass along the perhaps irrelevant fact that the millionaire publisher and editor Otto C. Lightner was born in 1887 in Norwich, population 491).

Our poem of interest was then entitled "About Tax Free Securities." And now the poem has 40 lines, four more than the Woman's Comfort/Hill City Times version. Added are two at the beginning: "Tax the people, tax with care /Tax to help the millionaire." And two more at the end: "But close your eyes, so you can't see/The Tax Exempt Security." Tax exempt securities referred to municipal bonds, interest not taxable, or not taxable at all government levels. The intended message, then, is not broadly about taxation, but about fair taxation -- not one that favors the wealthy at the expense of the commoner. A significant difference, Watson.

Eureka! The author is cited as "Don Lupton in the Denver Post." However, without a precise date my hired researcher Sarah Gilmor at History Colorado in Denver was unable to locate it, doubtless owing to my inability to specify an exact time of publication. It is, thus far, an uncertain needle in a great deal of hay. Ms. Gilmor did find a 20-line version in the Post of Oct. 8, 1922, identical to those published in 1921 in Iowa and Indiana. In this case, however, the poem targeted the Denver school board's bond issue campaign of the day. The boxed, boldfaced, all-capital headline read "HYMN OF SCHOOL BOARD IS TAX, TAX, TAX, AND THEN TAX SOME MORE." No author is credited. A useful re-direction to suit the moment, I suppose. And there's more ...

The Roaring Twenties, among more positive things, were also a time of national indebtedness incurred in World War I. A balance-the-budget push came -- as it has today. The tax-free securities mentioned previously were seen as just another way for the rich to avoid paying their share, and common people were grumbling.

Unregulated speculation on Wall Street was beginning to be worrisome. Ordinary people were growing nervous about stocks they had bought on margin (or paying for anything else they had acquired on credit. Union busting was common to keep wages low -- mostly justified by Red Scare paranoia and militant flag-waving. Psychologically and perhaps in other ways, it was a time not unlike our own. Eh?

Bear with me now, Watson, for some perhaps boring tax data in our next episode, Chapter 2. We will then momentarily shift our focus to the mystical city of Washington D.C.

Bob Hooper is a fourth-generation western Kansan who writes from his home in Bogue.

celtic@ruraltel.net