On February 17 2021, the death of right-wing talk radio presence Rush Limbaugh prompted a number of social media users to post a quote generally attributed to Mark Twain (or American lawyer of note Clarence Darrow), saying “I’ve never killed a man, but I’ve read some obituaries with great pleasure”:
To quote Mark Twain:
I've never killed a man, but I've read many an obituary with a great deal of satisfaction.
— Leo Pelley (@LeoPelley) February 17, 2021
Clarence Darrow "I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with a lot of pleasure." Yes I will pray about my reaction to a radio broadcaster's death.
— Deb Banton, MBA (@debbanton) February 17, 2021
“I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.”
— Clarence Darrow
— David Cole, AIA (@DavidColeAIA) August 23, 2019
“I never killed a man, but I have read a few obituaries with a twinkle in my eye.” – Mark Twain
— Aaron Kinsfather (@AaronKay47) February 17, 2021
Circulating phrasings of the sentiment included:
- “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with a lot of pleasure”;
- “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure”;
- “I have never killed a man, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction”;
- “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with a smile”;
- “I never killed a man, but I have read a few obituaries with a twinkle in my eye,” and;
- “I’ve never killed a man, but I have enjoyed several obituaries.”
Fox News tweeted news of Rush Limbaugh’s death at 12:11 PM Eastern time:
Rush Limbaugh, conservative talk radio pioneer, dead at 70 https://t.co/xQ4ErOlXMq
— Fox News (@FoxNews) February 17, 2021
Google Trends data indicated an initial spike of searches for “I never killed a man but” at 12:29 PM on February 17 2021; related searches included “Mark Twain” and “Clarence Darrow”:
An undated entry on BrainyQuote.com attributed the quote “I never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure” quote to Clarence Darrow. Information in the footer included a link labeled “citation,” but it only led to stylistic direction on using the unsourced page as a cite:
APA Style Citation
Clarence Darrow Quotes. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved February 17, 2021, from BrainyQuote.com [link]
Chicago Style Citation
Clarence Darrow Quotes. BrainyQuote.com, BrainyMedia Inc, 2021 [link]
MLA Style Citation
“Clarence Darrow Quotes.” BrainyQuote.com. BrainyMedia Inc, 2021. 17 February 2021 [link]
A 2012 post to Reddit’s r/quotes attributed the quote to Darrow, and commenters used BrainyQuote.com as a source:
A brief scan of previous efforts to properly attribute the quote indicated that it had a tendency to appear on Twitter and across the internet in general following the death of polarizing figures. A May 3 2011 The Atlantic piece was titled “Mark Twain Didn’t Say That Thing About Obituaries,” and it began:
“I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.” That quote, attributed to Mark Twain, popped up in a lot of places [on May 2 2011], as some people found themselves struggling with their feelings after the death of Osama bin Laden. If you’re against killing on principle, but still no great fan of bin Laden, the Twain quote might have seemed perfectly suited to the occasion.
Just one problem: Twain never said it. In fact, no one ever said it in precisely that form.
The Atlantic cited a May 2 2011 Wired piece that addressed the quote in passing; that article was headlined, “How to Explain to Your Kids Why It’s OK to Celebrate Osama bin Laden’s Death.” The quote and its provenance was addressed in its final paragraph:
Now back to explaining the joy at bin Laden’s passing, and why it’s OK: There’s been a quotation making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook since the announcement last night of bin Laden’s death, though it’s been misattributed to Mark Twain and misquoted to boot: the real quotation, by famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, is (with the line before it that improves it) “All men have an emotion to kill; when they strongly dislike some one they involuntarily wish he was dead. I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.” That really sums it up nicely: You don’t have to think that someone deserved to die to be pleased at their passing. I told my kids, truthfully, that I cheer for bin Laden’s death not because a human being is dead but because a man who in my mind was far more evil than good, and who was responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent people, will never be able to hurt anyone ever again. And that is surely a good thing.
On May 5 2011, presumably also in relation to the death of Bin Laden, niche fact-checking site QuoteInvestigator.com did a bit more digging into the origin and originator of the “I’ve never killed a man, but …” commentary — also arriving at the attribution to Darrow, and concurring about the truncation of the phrase.
In a page titled “I Have Never Killed Any One, But I Have Read Some Obituary Notices with Great Satisfaction,” QuoteInvestigator.com explained:
Clarence Darrow did deliver a similar quip on several occasions. The earliest instance located by QI occurred during a speech in 1922. He also spoke a version during congressional testimony in 1926. The remark was popular, and he included another version in his autobiography “The Story of My Life” in 1932.
In 1922 Darrow addressed the “Illinois Conference on Public Welfare” with a speech simply titled “Crime”. He described candidly his feelings about reading obituaries, but the prolixity of his remark reduced its wittiness. In later versions Darrow presented more concise statements [CDPW]:
One reason why we don’t kill is because we are not used to it. I never killed anybody, but I have done just the same thing. I have had a great deal of satisfaction over many obituary notices that I have read. I never got into the habit of killing. I could mention the names of many that it would please me if I could read their obituaries in the paper in the morning.
Subsequently, the site sourced a more concise version to Darrow’s 1932 autobiography:
I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.
QuoteInvestigator.com referenced an unnamed book reviewer saying in part that “we can’t recall when perusing any other obituary afforded us so much pleasure,” and concluded their fact-check by observing:
In conclusion, Darrow began to express his satisfaction about reading death notices in 1922 or earlier. He refined his words over time and that led to a humorous one-liner that is now swapped in the 21st century. Thanks for your timely query.
Limbaugh’s death on February 17 2021 led to a spike in social media reiterations of the quote “I’ve never killed a man, but I’ve read some obituaries with great pleasure,” frequently attributed to either Mark Twain or Clarence Darrow. Although the style of the commentary arguably sounded like Twain, its widespread appearance in May 2011 (due to the death of Osama Bin Laden) prompted sleuthing into its origin, which proved to be useful again nearly a decade later.