Today, a light-hearted classic—a very funny tale that began life as a humorous news story in the late-1800s and has since taken on various forms. In 1932, hugely popular American comedian Fred Allen got hold of it, tweaked it, and used it as a gag on his radio show. A decade after his death, it was included in a collection of his letters—simply titled Fred Allen: Letters—which is long out-of-print but really worth tracking down if this sort of thing tickles you, as it does me. As luck would have it, it can also be found in the new edition of the Letters of Note book, and on its audiobook, read by the great Alan Cumming. You can enjoy that reading by hitting play somewhere up there. Enjoy.
June 18, 1932
State of New York Insurance Department
The soullessness of corporations is something to stun you. I am myself a victim; and instead of being a man of wealth and honor to the community, I am now a relic of humanity just from the hands of a surgeon who made an honest effort to restore me to the form in which I grew while reaching manhood’s estate.
Let me review my case. I carry an accident insurance policy in the New York Indemnity Company, by terms of which the company agreed to pay me $25 a week during such time as I was prevented from working because of an accident.
I went around last Sunday morning to a new house that is being built for me. I climbed the stairs, or rather the ladder that is where the stairs will be when the house is finished, and on the top floor I found a pile of bricks which were not needed there. Feeling industrious, I decided to remove the bricks. In the elevator shaft there was a rope and a pulley, and on one end of the rope was a barrel. I pulled the barrel up to the top, after walking down the ladder, and then fastened the rope firmly at the bottom of the shaft. Then I climbed the ladder again and filled the barrel with bricks. Down the ladder I climbed again, five floors mind you, and untied the rope to let the barrel down. The barrel was heavier than I was, and before I had time to study over the proposition, I was going up the shaft with my speed increasing at every floor. I thought of letting go of the rope, but before I had decided to do so I was so high that it seemed more dangerous to let go than to hold on. So I held on…