Fact Check

Climax of Horrors

Calamity after calamity piles up in this tale of saving the worst news for last.

Published Jan 11, 2001

Legend:   Calamity after calamity piles up in a tale of saving the worst news for last.

Example:   [Brunvand, 1993]

A man returning home after a few months away is met by his servant who tells him his dog died from eating burnt horseflesh after the barn burned down from a spark blown from the fire that consumed his house.

The house fire started from candles placed around the coffin of his mother-in-law who died after learning that her daughter ran off with the hired man.

"Other than that," the servant said, "there's no news."

Origins:   This story has been presented in many forms over the long years it has been in existence. Folklorists have collected samples of what has come to be called "The Climax of Horrors" dating well into the nineteenth century. In 1879, a version titled "How to Tell Bad News" appeared in McGuffey's Fifth Eclectic


But it's even older than that. According to Cerf, a version was harvested from an 1841 English miscellany, and one of our readers points out its appearance as a French song dating back to at least the 1500s.

Since then, the story has gone through many incarnations, following a typical form of a servant's beginning by reporting the death of an animal (dog or pet bird who ate burnt horseflesh, or horses who perished in a barn fire); escalating through a fire that wiped out the barn and main house, the death of a family member, and culminating with the news that the man's wife ran off with a hired man. Some versions end (begin?) by killing off the wife and having all the couple's children perish in the fire.

The humor of the tale relies as much on the style in which the story is told as upon the absurd placement of the first (and deemed worst) chronological event at the end of the rendition:

[Cerf, 1946]

The latest version begins with a wealthy planter returning from a trip to New York, and greeting the faithful retainer at the station with a "Well, you old rascal, anything happen at the estate while I was gone?" "Nuthin wuth mentionin', boss," answers the retainer cheerily, "'Cept, of course, de two hands what died fum eatin' all dat burnt hoss flesh."

"Where on earth did they get hold of burnt horse flesh?"

"Dat was when de stables caught fire, boss."

"The stables?"

"Yassuh! Sparks fum de big house, dey figger."

"The big house! Sparks! How did the fire start?"

"Fum de candles round de coffin, suh. Place burned to de groun' afore we could do a thing."

"Good heavens, man! Whose coffin?"

"Your ma, boss. I s'pect she died fum de shock."

"What shock?"

"Yo' wife, boss. She done run away wid de butler."

Barbara "ask Jeeves where she went" Mikkelson

Last updated:   18 January 2007


  Sources Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Baby Train.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.   ISBN 0-393-31208-9   (p. 92-94).

    Cerf, Bennett.   Anything For a Laugh.

    New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1946.   (p. 203).

    Top, Stefaan.   "Modern Legends in the Belgian Oral Tradition."

    FOAFTale News.   March 1990   (p. 5).

  Sources Also told in:

The Big Book of Urban Legends

    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 101).

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