Grant’s exploding cigar

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In this week’s Friday funny, author and journalist Eugene Byrne tells a story about Dr Horace Norton, founder of Norton College in Chicago, and a practical joke Norton allegedly played on his grandson some 60 years after his death

The joke

At a dinner for alumni of Norton College, Chicago in 1932, Winstead Norton, grandson of the college founder, Dr Horace Norton produced the cigar which, as all the graduates would have known, once belonged to President Grant himself.

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Grant had given Horace Norton a cigar on being introduced to him, back in the 1870s. Norton had decided not to smoke it but rather keep it as a souvenir, and it had been preserved in a glass case at the college ever since. Now that Norton College was to close, though, the founder’s grandson considered this an appropriate moment to actually smoke the cigar.

As he lit the cigar, he continued speaking: “And as I light this cigar with trembling hand it is not alone a tribute to him whom you call founder, but also to that Titan among statesmen who was never too exalted to be a friend, who was …”

*BANG!!*

President Grant had presented Horace Norton with a joke exploding cigar, only for it to go off in the face of his grandson, 60 years later.

The story

American Civil War General, and later US President, Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) was a chain-smoker. He got through 24 cigars in a single day during a tense period of the Wilderness campaign, and at the War’s end he was presented with several thousand cigars by an admirer. He was very rarely photographed without a cigar in his hand or mouth, so it’s no great surprise that he died of throat cancer.

The story, though, is probably apocryphal. The tale appears to originate in an American newspaper story of the 1930s, and has been re-told, with slight variations, ever since; in another version the cigar is lit up at a Norton family reunion.

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Grant wasn’t known for his sense of humour, and it seems bizarre, to say the least, that he would demean the office of President by handing an exploding cigar to a man he had only just met. If there’s any truth in the story at all, it seems more likely that someone had exchanged the Grant cigar for an exploding one in the meantime. Or perhaps someone at the dinner told a big fib to a newspaper reporter.