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 December 09, 2009
“The difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets”

"Death and taxes” are two things that have been called inevitable. Syndicated newspaper wit Robert Quillen (1887-1948) wrote many jokes about “the difference between death and taxes,” beginning in 1921. Quillen wrote in 1931: “Another difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time the legislature meets.” By at least 1934, the joke had been amended to include “congress or the state legislature.”

Actor and humorist Will Rogers (1879-1935) is often credited with the line, but no early citations credit Rogers.


The Phrase Finder
Nothing is certain but death and taxes
Meaning

A rather fatalistic and sardonic proverb. It draws on the actual inevitability of death to highlight the difficulty in avoiding the burden of taxes.

Origin
Several famous authors have uttered lines to this effect. The first was Daniel Defoe, in The Political History of the Devil, 1726:

“Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believed.”

Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) used the form we are currently more familiar with, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, 1789, which was re-printed in The Works of Benjamin Franklin, 1817:

“‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Wikipedia: Robert Quillen
Verni Robert Quillen (March 25, 1887 - December 9, 1948) was an American journalist and humorist who for more than a quarter century was “one of the leading purveyors of village nostalgia” from his home in Fountain Inn, South Carolina.
(...)
Syndicated journalist
By 1932 his work, which included editorials, paragraphs, cartoons, and one-liners, was regularly appearing in four hundred newspapers in the United States, Canada, England, and the Far East. Quillen wrote for such major periodicals such as the Baltimore Sun, the Saturday Evening Post, and The American Magazine, and he “took the greatest pride” in one-liners picked up by Literary Digest. According to a biographer, he was known as the best “paragrapher” of his day. With the assistance of Chicago newspaper executive Eugene P. Conley, Quillen also syndicated two single-panel cartoons (drawn by John H. Striebel), “Aunt Het” and “Willie Willis"—the latter of which was translated into Dutch as “Pimmie Pimmel.” As early as 1924, Quillen’s income from syndicated material alone was probably more than $25,000—easily ten times that amount in early twenty-first century dollars.

In 1934 Hollywood screen writer Lamar Trotti and producer George Marshall visited Quillen to use him as a prototype for a Will Rogers film, Life Begins at Forty, in which Rogers played a small-town newspaper editor. The film credits mentioned Quillen for “contributing dialogue.”

Facile with words, Quillen took inconsistent political, economic, and racial positions; but he was “not afraid to bare his soul, express personal views, and even vent scorn and anger.” For instance, he hated patent medicine, people who put on airs, late night noises (both human and natural), and the cats and jays that killed his beloved song birds. Although a shy man who refused to speak in public, he became something of a “one-man welfare and relief agency for the poor and needy of Fountain Inn.”

15 April 1921, Gazette-Telegraph (CO), “Oh, By the Way!” by Robert Quillen, pg. 4:
Another difference between death and taxes is that you don’t have to work like fury to pay for the dying you did last year.

23 May 1921, Fort Wayne (IN) News Sentinel, “Paragraphs” by Robert Quillen, pg. 4:
Another difference between death and taxes is that taxes leave nothing for your relatives to fight over.

6 October 1921, Oxford Mirror (Oxford Junction, IA), pg. 3, col. 5:
The Difference.
‘There’s one big difference between death and taxes.” “What is it?” “Death can only hit you once.”

14 January 1922, Fort Wayne (IN) News-Sentinel, “Paragraphs” by Robert Quillen, pg. 4, col. 6:
Another difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t appear to have a spite at rich men.

7 February 1922, Fort Wayne (IN) News Sentinel, “Paragraphs” by Robert Quillen, pt. 1, pg. 4:
Another difference between death and taxes is that death calls for an executor and taxes for a receiver.

2 February 1923, New Castle (PA) News, pg. 4, col. 5:
The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t soak you harder when you work like the devil and prosper.

9 February 1923, New Orleans (LA) Times-Picayune, pg. 8, col. 4:
The difference between death and taxes is that death is satisfied with one lick at you.

28 February 1923, Portsmouth (OH) Daily Times, pg. 12, col. 6:
Paying Taxes Is a Steady Job
Another difference between death and taxes is that you can do all of your dying at one time and get through with it.—Baltimore Sun.

1 March 1923, Gazette-Telegraph (CO), “Oh, By the Way!” by Robert Quillen, pg. 4:
Another difference between death and taxes is that death is a perennial, not an annual.

26 May 1930, New Orleans (LA) Times-Picayune, pg. 27, col. 2:
Another difference between death and taxes is that when you die you can select the person to waste your money.—Los Angeles Times.

6 April 1931, Lincoln (NE) Star, “Paragraphs” by Robert Quillen, pg. 8, col. 5:
Another difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time the legislature meets.

Google Books
The Literary Digest
v. 109 - 1931
Pg. 13:
ANOTHER difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time the Legislature meets. — Akron Beacon-Journal

Google News Archive
18 September 1933, St. Petersburg (FL) Evening Independent, pg. 2, col. 6:
Miami Herald; The difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time the legislature meets.

28 February 1934, Estherville (IA) Enterprise, pg. 4, col. 4:
The main difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get any worse every time congress or the state legislature meets.

Google Books
February 1935, Tax Facts, pg. 39, col. 2:
There is an old saying that nothing is certain but death and taxes. Ed Wynn says the difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets.

18 March 1943, Dallas (TX) , “The State Press,” sec. 2, pg. 2:
“The difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time the State Legislature meets.” This profound and biting bit of rumination is from the Texhoma Times by way of the Denton Record-Chronicle.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • (0) Comments • Wednesday, December 09, 2009 • Permalink