A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from August 21, 2018
“If Gladstone should fall into the Thames, that would be a misfortune…” (political joke)

A joke about the difference between an accident (or mishap or misfortune) and a calamity (or catastrophe or misfortune) appears to have been first told in France and was published in the the Leeds (UK) Mercury on May 28, 1861, and with this slightly Americanized version in the Chicago (IL) Daily Tribune on June 26, 1861:

“THE EMPEROR’S JOKE.—The latest joke, not to be found in Punch, but heard at the clubs, is said to come from the other side of the channel, though mayhap of home manufacture, and not unworthy of Sir Robert Peel, jr., in his merry mood. Here it is. The Prince Imperial and the Emperor were in discussion about educational subjects, and from pothooks had got to synonyms and equivalents or words when the juvenile imperial blood asked his parent to explain to him the difference between the words ‘accident’ and ‘misfortune,’ which have a certain closer affinity in French than in English, and seem to require a little elucidation. After a pause for an illustration, his Majesty said, ‘I will tell you, my boy, the exact difference. It would be an accident if your cousin, Prince Napoleon, were to tumble into the Seine—but it would be a misfortune if any one were to help him out again.’”

A popular form of the joke, involving Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) allegedly saying this about William Gladstone (1809-1898) falling into the Thames, was printed in the London Court Journal and reprinted in many newspapers in 1880.

“A tragedy is a ship full of bankers sinking. A catastrophe is when they can all swim” is a modern banking version.

[This saying was also researched by the Quote Investigator.]


Wikipedia: Benjamin Disraeli
Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, KG, PC, FRS (21 December 1804 – 19 April 1881) was a British statesman of the Conservative Party who twice served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He played a central role in the creation of the modern Conservative Party, defining its policies and its broad outreach. Disraeli is remembered for his influential voice in world affairs, his political battles with the Liberal Party leader William Ewart Gladstone, and his one-nation conservatism or “Tory democracy”.

Wikipedia: William Ewart Gladstone
William Ewart Gladstone, FRS, FSS (/ˈɡlædstən/; 29 December 1809 – 19 May 1898) was a British statesman of the Liberal Party. In a career lasting over sixty years, he served for twelve years as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, spread over four terms beginning in 1868 and ending in 1894. He also served as Chancellor of the Exchequer four times.

28 May 1861, Leeds (UK) Mercury, “London Correspondence,” pg. 2, cols. 4-5:
The latest joke, not to be found in Punch, but heard at the clubs, is said to come from the other side of the channel, though mayhap of home manufacture, and not unworthy of Sir Robert, in his merry mood. Here it is. The Prince Imperial and the Emperor were in discussion about educational subjects, and from pothooks had got to synonymes and equivalents or words, when the juvenile Imperial blood asked his parent to explain to him the difference between the words “accident” and “misfortune,” which have certainly a little closer affinity in French than English, and seem to require a little elucidation. After a pause for an illustration, His Majesty said, “I will tell you, my boy, the exact difference. It would be an accident if your cousin, Prince Napoleon, were to tumble into the Seine—but it would be a misfortune if any one were to help him out again.“

26 June 1861, Chicago (IL) Daily Tribune, pg. 4, cols. 3-4:
THE EMPEROR’S JOKE.—The latest joke, not to be found in Punch, but heard at the clubs, is said to come from the other side of the channel, though mayhap of home manufacture, and not unworthy of Sir Robert Peel, jr., in his merry mood. Here it is. The Prince Imperial and the Emperor were in discussion about educational subjects, and from pothooks had got to synonyms and equivalents or words when the juvenile imperial blood asked his parent to explain to him the difference between the words “accident” and “misfortune,” which have a certain closer affinity in French than in English, and seem to require a little elucidation. After a pause for an illustration, his Majesty said, “I will tell you, my boy, the exact difference. It would be an accident if your cousin, Prince Napoleon, were to tumble into the Seine—but it would be a misfortune if any one were to help him out again.”

Google Books
15 November 1862, The Spectator (London, UK), pg. 1273, col. 2:
A flash of wit to be recorded amongst the most successful is one for which credit has been given to a French Academician, one of the leaders of the Orleanist party, a quondam Minister of Louis Philippe. Being asked by a lady what was the exact difference between the word accident and the word malheur, he replied immediately:

“Supposons que l’Empereur tombe dans un puits, c’est un accident; supposons que vous l’en retiriez, c’est un malheur.”—“Suppose the Emperor falls into a pit, that’s an accident; suppose you help him out, that’s a misfortune.”

29 November 1862, Illustrated Times (London, UK), “Sayings and Doings,” pg. 502, col. 3:
AN ORLEANIST WIT once defined the difference between an accident and a misfortune. Speaking to a friend he said, “If Louis Napoleon were to fall into a pit, that would be an accident; if you were to help him out, that would be a misfortune.” If a garotter chanced to strangle Sir Joshua Jebb, should it properly be called an accident or a misfortune?

Google Books
Napoleon III the Third and his Court
By a Retired Diplomatist
London, UK: John Maxwell and Company
1865
Pg. 253:
‘ACCIDENT’ ET ‘MALHEUR.’
The little imperial prince once applied to his father to learn from him the difference between the words accident and malheur.

“My dear son,” the emperor answered, “if our cousin Napoleon, for instance, were to fall into the water, that would be an accident; but if he were fished out again, that would be a malheur.”

Google Books
19 January 1867, Punch, or The London Charivaria (London, UK), “Polite Conversation,” pg. 22, col. 2:
Mr. Snigger. … Have you heard this riddle?
Miss Millikins. O no, tell me. I adore riddles.
Mr. Snigger. What is the difference between an accident and a misfortune?
Miss Millikins (eagerly). I don’t know.
Mr. Snigger. I’ll give you an illustration. If Mr. Bright were to fall into a river, that would be an accident.
Miss Millikins. Ah, I don’t understand politics.
Mr. Snigger (aside). Stupid idiot! (To her.) But it isn’t exactly political. It may be anybody. (Sotto voce.) Let us say Sir Bilberry. If he were to fall into a river it would be an accident.
Miss Millikins. Yes.
Mr. Snigger (aside). O, she understands that. (To her.) But if he were to get out again, that would be a misfortune.
Miss Millikins. O, delightful!

9 May 1868, The Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia, PA), pg. 3, col. 2:
Pomp: “Cuff, can you give me the difference between and accident and a misfortune?” Cuff: “Gives it up, Pomp. Can you?” Pomp: “If an infernal revenue ossifer should fall into the ribber, that would be an accident; if somebody should pull him out, that would be a misfortune.”

Google Books
December 1868, Lippincott’s Magazine, pg. 674, cols. 1-2:
The following anecdote is also current in Paris, illustrative of the well-known ill-feeling existing between the Emperor and his Republican cousin, the Prince Napoleon: The Emperor’s son asked his father to explain the difference between the words accident and malheur. His Majesty replied: “If your cousin should fall into the river Seine, that would be an accident, but if he should be rescued, that would be a malheur.”

26 July 1880, Minneapolis (MN) Tribune, pg. 3, col. 2:
A Nice Distinction.
London Court Journal.
A rather grim joke has found its way into print which “the most eminent statesman of the late administration” is said to have perpetrated about his rival. According to our contemporary, this eminent statesman was asked a few days ago, “What is the difference between a mishap and a misfortune?” His answer was, “Well, I should call it a mishap if Mr. Gladstone were to fall into the Thames, and a misfortune if anybody were to pull him out again.”

Google Books
Benjamin Disraeli: An Unconventional Biography
By Wilfrid Meynell
New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company
1903
Pg. 146:
“What is the difference between a misfortune and a calamity?”—somebody asked a new definition from Disraeli. The questioner, being no literalist, but a man of liberal understanding, got the reply: “Well, if Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune; and if anybody pulled him out, that, I suppose, would be a calamity!”

Google Books
1922, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, “America’s Interest in the Rehabilitation of Europe” by William S. Culbertson, pp. 60-61:
Two English ladies were once discussing the difference between a misfortune and a calamity. Disraeli, who happened to be present, was called upon to decide the controversy. He said, “That’s very easy. If my political opponent, Gladstone, should fall into the Thames, that would be a misfortune, but if somebody should help him out, that would be a calamity.”

Google Books
The Oxford Union:
Playground of Power

By David Walter
London: Macdonald
1984
Pg. 220:
Disraeli was once asked to define the difference between a calamity and a catastrophe. He said, ‘If Mr Gladstone were to fall into the Thames, that would be a calamity. If someone were to fish him out again, that would be a catastrophe.”

Miami (FL) Herald
Florida congressman jokes ‘it would be a catastrophe’ if Trump were saved from drowning
BY ALEX DAUGHERTY

August 20, 2018 11:23 AM
Updated August 20, 2018 12:48 PM
WASHINGTON
Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings joked about President Donald Trump drowning in the Potomac River during a campaign rally on Sunday night, prompting laughter from the audience.

Hastings, a longtime congressman who represents a heavily Democratic district in Broward and Palm Beach Counties, relayed a joke he learned from former state representative Barry Silver’s son.

“Do you know the difference between a crisis and a catastrophe?” Hastings said, quoting Silver’s son. “A crisis is if Donald Trump falls into the Potomac River and can’t swim… and a catastrophe is if anybody saves his ass.”

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • Tuesday, August 21, 2018 • Permalink