Quote or No Quote 1: Churchill and Poisoned Tea

Welcome to our first episode of Quote or No Quote, Buzzkillers. In these shows, we’ll check into well-known, well-worn, and worn-out quotes that supposedly originated from the brains and mouths of famous historical figures. Too often, historical (and mortal) humans are turned into prophets or demi-gods by generations of us repeating their quotes as if they were divinely inspired. When those quotes turn out to be bogus, it should be obvious that we’ve been putting our faith in the wrong things and the wrong people.

One Winston Churchill’s most famous ripostes supposedly occurred at a social occasion in the 1920s, and went like this:

Lady Astor (never one of Winston’s admirers) said, “If I were married to you, I’d put poison in your tea.”
Churchill replied, “And if I were married to you, I’d drink it.”

Verdict? No Quote. Although it has appeared in some biographies of Churchill, there is no solid evidence that he ever said it. The references to this quote in those biographies are unsourced, and it’s therefore hearsay.

At the very least, Churchill did not invent it, and he certainly wasn’t the first person to say it. Various versions of this type of exchange appeared in “human interest” sections of newspapers and in vaudeville/music hall comedy routines in the early years of the 20th century. Fred Shapiro, in The Yale Book of Quotations, tracked the phrase to a joke line from January 3, 1900 story in The Chicago Tribune. And Garson O’Toole of The Quote Investigator, has traced it to an “overheard story” in the “Listener” section of The Oswego Daily Times, on November 18, 1899.

So Churchill didn’t skirt death by not being married to Lady Astor, but here’s a genuine quote from him about doing just that, narrowly avoiding death:

“Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”

Source: Winston S Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898).

As a young soldier, Churchill was part of the relief force that helped lift the Siege of Malakand (1897), one of the many battles during the long period of the Anglo-Afghan wars in the late 19th century. And he clearly saw some “exhilarating” action during that campaign.

Churchill was probably correct to say that being shot at without result would get your blood racing, but we don’t recommend trying it at home. Too risky, Buzzkillers.

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