Historical and Hysterical


Cabots, Lowells, and a Quatrain You Don’t Really Know

by A.M. Juster

For more than a century, these frequently anthologized lines (or some version of them) have evoked and skewered longstanding class divisions in New England:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to the Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God. [1]

If this quatrain (which The New York Times once called “immortal”) is familiar to you, you probably cannot recall much about it. Is it an excerpt or an epigram? What is the title? Who is the author?

For the 1910 Holy Cross College Alumni Midwinter Dinner in Boston, the featured speaker was Yale alumnus Samuel Clarke Bushnell, a popular minister based in nearby Arlington. Accounts of who read what when at that dinner vary widely, but Bushnell declared in a 1923 letter that during the dinner John Collins Bossidy, a distinguished local ophthalmologist, read the soon-to-be-famous toast. [2]

Bossidy’s untitled quatrain went as close to viral as a performance could in 1910; there is a wonderful article yet to be written on how it became a cultural phenomenon. Right from the beginning, though, reporters displayed confusion about the exact text, the title, and the author; they often cited Bushnell as the author of what generally came to be known as “A Boston Toast.” Indeed, most of the recent light verse anthologies by major presses still misattribute these four lines to Bushnell.

Bushnell, a New England aristocrat, brought Bossidy’s mockery of the New England aristocracy to a wider audience in January 1915 when he recited the toast at the Second Annual Dinner of the Yale Alumni Association of the Naugatuck Valley. Surprisingly, The Washington Post, The Bookman, and other publications covered this dinner. [3]

Bushnell’s diary describes the Yale dinner. He had sent a copy of “The Boston Toast” to Yale Dean Fred S. Jones prior to the banquet, and Jones had responded with this limerick:

Here’s to the Town of New Haven
The Home of the truth and the light
Where God talks to Jones
In the very same tones
That He uses with Hadley and Wright.

When Bushnell “was called upon for a few remarks,” he recited a slightly altered version of the Bossidy quatrain, and then Jones recited his limerick. [4] According to Bushnell, Jones’ reply “brought down the house.” [5]

As “The Boston Toast” became wildly popular, Bushnell did his best to credit Bossidy as the author. The Library of Congress holds his  generous July 26, 1923 “To whom it may concern” letter, in which Bushnell makes it clear that Bossidy composed “A Boston Toast;” Bushnell printed copies of his letter for wide distribution. [6] There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of this letter. Reverend Bushnell had a deserved reputation for the highest level of integrity and he does not appear to have known Bossidy except through their accidental literary connection; when Bushnell had eye troubles he consulted a different doctor.

Despite Bushnell’s diligence in correcting the record, confusion about authorship continued, and even when Bossidy received his due as the author, he frequently endured the label of “Harvard man.”  Descriptions of Bossidy as a “Harvard man” were ironic because “A Boston Toast” is rooted in class-based resentments toward Harvard and its local cultural dominance; Harvard at this time generally would not accept Irish applicants regardless of their merits. Although there is debate about how prevalent the phrase “Irish need not apply” was in employment advertisements, almost all of the venerable Boston institutions excluded the Irish into my lifetime; I briefly practiced law with the legendary first Irish partner of Boston’s biggest law firm, Edward B. Hanify, another graduate of Holy Cross.

Some of the confusion about authorship stems from the fact that Bossidy’s toast played off of a popular toast recited by an unidentified member of the Harvard Class of 1880 “of the west” at a 1905 Harvard reunion; the press covered this event extensively due to the attendance of Theodore Roosevelt. [7] These are the lines from the 1905 reunion that Bossidy parodied:

Here’s to old Massachusetts,
The home of the sacred cod,
Where the Adamses vote for Douglas [8],
And the Cabots walk with God.

This toast, in turn, may owe its initial inspiration to a line that appears in many Williams College songs: “Here’s to old Fort Massachusetts.” Once a reader understands that the third line is not a reference to Lincoln’s 1860 presidential opponent, but to an obscure Massachusetts politician, 1905 line “the Cabots walk with God” seems more descriptive than satirical.

Descriptive would not be enough for the witty Dr. Bossidy, who was born into a middle-class Irish family in Monterey, Massachusetts on June 17, 1860.  As an undergraduate he had a reputation for partying hard and studying hard. He played varsity baseball (the Irish dominated baseball in this period and Bossidy later became an expert on the history of baseball in New England), and he won his college’s silver cross (second to a gold cross) for his poetry. He also enjoyed Latin, particularly Horace’s odes and Ars Poetica. [9]

Bossidy graduated from The College of the Holy Cross in 1881 and from Georgetown Medical School four years later.  In 1882, while still a medical student, he became a civil servant and worked for almost a decade for the Interior Department and the Pension Office. From 1889 to1891 he was detailed to work for the Sioux Indian Commission, which Congress established after the Battle of Wounded Knee to resolve land claims involving about eleven million acres of the upper Midwest. [10]

Although the Sioux disliked the Commission members, they adopted Bossidy as a member of their tribe. This experience shaped the rest of his career, and in talking about it he always expressed sympathy for the underdog Sioux—sometimes paired with his resentment toward Boston Brahmins and their contempt for the underdog Irish. Bossidy regularly stated that he “was prouder to be an adopted Indian than (if it could be) the leader of the Mayflower Pilgrims.” He also declared that “the Indian of the plain never lied, was true to his marriage obligations, and never violated a woman captive…and we tried to civilize them.” [11]

In 1891 Bossidy left federal service. He worked for two years at the London Eye Hospitals, then returned to Boston to practice ophthalmology. In 1896 he moved his practice to the poshest new medical office building in town [12], but also served impoverished patients at Boston City Hospital, Deer Island Hospital and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. He specialized in diseases of the eye, and published a piece on uniocular polyopia in the The Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 91:582 (September 21, 1912).

In addition to his literary and scientific interests, Bossidy continued his involvement in civic issues. In 1917 he travelled on the SS Saxonia  to join the English Medical Service and assist in the war against Germany. After the war he returned to western Massachusetts and became active in public health initiatives. On May 5, 1928, while fighting a flu epidemic in Western Massachusetts, he drafted an unsent letter recommending that John D. Rockefeller receive an honorary degree from Georgetown for his financial support for “the lessening or killing of cholera, malaria, hookworm and other blights.” [13] Doctor Bossidy, a lifelong bachelor, himself succumbed to the flu on July 8, 1928 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The New England Journal of Medicine noted his passing: “He had a gift of mimicry and was a delightful conversationalist, always welcome in any company.” [14]

Some critics have minimized the creativity of Bossidy’s toast by referring to it as a paraphrase or refinement of the anonymous 1905 Harvard toast. That interpretation underestimates the satirical genius of his great literary moment. By mocking the elitism of the Brahmin establishment even within its own ranks, he transformed a Harvard man’s dull welcome into an indirect but clever and effective plea for a more egalitarian society. The many would-be poets who have tried to embroider or update Bossidy’s work have never come close to striking the enduring chord that he did.

Bossidy’s undergraduate poems and any later occasional poems have not survived—with one exception. In his last year of life he submitted this untitled four-line poem to a publication of his alma mater:

Some classmates lie in holy ground, one sleeps beneath the sea,
And none are left of Eighty-one, save Lawrence, Mike and me;
And when our night shall come, boys, and we are called to go,
I know we’ll meet the ones we loved fully fifty years ago. [15]

It is sentimental, yes, but also sincere and devout, as well as the work of a humanitarian who deserved his flash of fame.


1) The text of the toast varies considerably even in its earliest incarnations. It often starts “I am from” or “Here’s to.” Sometimes the Cabots and the Lowells “speak” instead of “talk,” and some versions invert the order of “the Cabots” and “the Lowells” in the third and fourth lines. For the lack of a better approach, I have taken the 1923 New York Times version based on Bushnell’s interview as definitive. “An Immortal Poem” The New York Times July 6, 1923 p.12. Bushnell’s July 26, 1923 “To Whom It May Concern” letter now in the Library of Congress is consistent with the New York Times version.

2) One less-convincing account has Bushnell reading the quatrain from his own shirt cuff. (Manuscripts and Memories p. 120.) Unfortunately, Bushnell’s multivolume diary has a three-week gap in January of 1910 and I have not found a reliable first-hand description of the quatrain’s debut.

3) “Yale Beats Boston Boast in Matching Toasts at Banquet” The Washington Post February 14, 1915 p. E-8. One has to wonder whether the Post reporter had Yale sympathies because his article touts the poetic response to “A Boston Toast” by Dean Jones. Most of the coverage seems to be based on article that first appeared in the Waterbury American.

Some of my description of this event comes from Bushnell’s account in his July 26, 1923 “To Whom It May Concern” letter in the Library of Congress.

4) January 22, 1915 Bushnell diary, p. 362.

5) June 18, 1923 Bushnell diary, p. 286.

6) June 19, 1923 Bushnell diary, p. 287 “Mailed a lot of pamphlets ‘To Whom it May Concern’—giving Dr. J.C. Bossidy credit for the quatrain on Boston as the home of the bean and the Cod where the Lowells talk to the Cabots And the Cabots talk only to God—taking 50 of them to Dean Jones on our way to the game. Saw many friends—and came away happy.” [Grammar, capitalization and punctuation as in the original.]

7) Photograph of 25th reunion group of Harvard Class of 1880 www.commonwealth.org.commonwealth:73666f97q. The photograph was taken at the Oakley Country Club in Watertown, Massachusetts, three blocks from my home.

8) This line refers to an undistinguished pro-labor Democrat, William L. Douglas, who served as Governor of Massachusetts from 1907-1908. “Boston Quatrains” Los Angeles Times July 10, 1927.

9) Bossidy obituary Worcester Telegram July 22, 1928.

10) Holy Cross Purple Vol. 3 No. 1 (June 1896)

11) The information in this paragraph comes primarily from an undated Holy Cross College alumni publication in the college’s archives. Bossidy’s resentment against the Brahmin elite also appeared in an essay that he wrote for a Holy Cross publication in which he tactfully smoldered about a comment made to him that Irish physicians were “second-rate.”

12)    Designed by Ball, Dabney and built in 1896, the Warren Chambers Building at 419 Boylston Street was Boston’s premier medical building. It lacks a plaque recognizing Bossidy’s civic, medical and literary achievements, an oversight which Boston’s new mayor should consider correcting as Boston further defines its “literary cultural district,” which includes this site. “Literary cultural district showcases Boston as city of ideas” The Boston Globe August 21, 2014.

13)    This letter is available in the Holy Cross archives. Bossidy also participated in more parochial public debates, such as the unending turf war between optometrists and ophthalmologists. “Spirited Debate on Massachusetts Bill” The Optical Review April 1909 p.79

14) New England Journal of Medicine Volume 199:247 (1928).

15) Bossidy obituary Worcester Telegram July 22, 1928. The other named individuals from a class of almost 150 students were both Irish-American priests: Michael C. McDonough of Lewiston, Maine and Lawrence W. Slattery of Newton, Massachusetts.

Selected Sources

Amory, C. The Proper Bostonians New York: E.F. Dutton, 1947.

Ancestry.com.uk September 5, 1917 John Collins Bossidy Passport Application.

Bossidy, J. “A Case of Uniocular Polyopia, Existing in Both Eyes” JAMA September 21, 1912.

Earls, Michael Manuscripts and Memories: Chapters in Our Literary Tradition  Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing, 1935.

Herringshaw, T. The American Physician and Surgeon Blue Book: A Distinct Cyclopedia of 1919 Boston: American Blue Book Publishers.

McPhee, J. Giving Good Weight New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1994.

154th Annual Report of the New England Society in the City of New York for the year 1959.


I am grateful to The College of the Holy Cross Archives and Special Collections for allowing me access to records relating to John Collins Bossidy, and in particular to Hannah Kolesar for her skillful and collegial assistance. I am also grateful to Yale University Library Manuscripts and Archives for allowing me access to its Samuel Clarke Bushnell papers.


A.M. Juster has two books coming out later this year: Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles (University of Toronto Press) and Sleaze & Slander: New and Selected Comic Verse 1995-2015 (Measure Press). Against all odds, he has also begun tweeting at @amjuster.