[Ads-l] Skulduggery (antedating to 1845)

Bonnie Taylor-Blake b.taylorblake at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jul 25 14:11:03 EDT 2021

I don't think we've done "skulduggery" recently, so I thought I'd give it a

OED gives examples from 1867 as its first usages of this originally
American-English word. It also recognizes "scullduggery" "skullduggery"
from the same period and links the word to the older "sculdudry,"
"sculduddry", and "skulduddery" from Scottish-English.

Michael Quinion's column from 2015 explains the possible connection to
"sculdudry" (and variants) and pushed the American "skulduggery" back to
1858 (see https://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-sku1.htm). Other
analyses of the word have generally pushed this back to the mid-19th
century, without -- as far as I can tell -- providing specific examples.

One of the OED's 1867 usages is this:

"1867   A. D. Richardson Beyond Mississippi xi. 134   From Minnesota had
been imported the mysterious term ‘scull-duggery’, used to signify
political or other trickery."

Most of the early appearances of the word (ca. 1854) and its variants
indeed can be placed to Minnesota (specifically, Saint Paul), which has led
some to consider a link to Norwegian or Swedish.

But here's "scullduggery" and "skulduggery" in Tennessee in 1845 and 1846
and Iowa a little later.

The usages from 1845 and 1846 are attributed to a Mr. Glenn, apparently a
Whig member of the Tennessee legislature; he represented Tipton County,
just NNE of Memphis.

-- Bonnie


At this instant, said he, he (Mr Glenn) took the Speaker's stand and put
the question (which Mr Buchanan ought to have put) of adjournment until 9
o'clock, A.M., on Monday. Mr. G. said he saw at once that Mr. B. had some
of his *scullduggery* on hand. He thought that this was the act of a small

(From "Tennessee Legislature; ADJOURNMENT OR NO ADJOURNMENT," The
Republican Banner [Nashville, TN], 15 December 1845, p. 1.)


But while I rejoice at the fact of its annexation, I must say that I do not
approve the trickery and politically "skulduggery," (to borrow an
expression of the gentleman from Tipton,) by which the act was conceived
and matured -- and in voting joy and gladness at the annexation.

(From "Speech of Mr. Richardson, On the Federal Resolutions of Mr. Guild,
and of the Committee on Federal Relations, delivered in the House of
Representatives, on the 15th instant, The Republican Banner [Nashville,
TN], 30 January 1846. "Skulduggery" found on p. 3 of the newspaper. The
"gentleman from Tipton" is Mr. Glenn.)


It turns out that in Muscatine county, there has been obtained by
bargaining and swapper and a general system of skullduggery, a larger
aggregate Democratic vote than party numbers entitled it to!

(From "Traveling out of the Way for a Compliment -- Ignorance --
Disclosures of Trickery," Muscatine [IA] Journal, 18 August 1852, p. 2.)


If the result has been extrajudicially brought about; if collusion and
"skullduggery" have been practised over at the capitol between the
executive and judicial officers -- as is freely charged about the streets
-- and innocent and justice-loving citizens have been made cat's-paws to
shield Gov. Gorman from the odium of turning loose upon the community a
justly condemned culprit, in order to do a personal favor for a friend and
brother officer, let the whole affair be enquired into and the facts all
brought to light.

(From "Pardon of Monroe," The Daily Minnesotan [Saint Paul], 25 May 1854,
p. 2.)


We have done no such thing, but in all our articles have stated explicitly
that we attributed to "bad motives, no collusion or skullduggery" to the
gentleman in question.

(From "That Pardon Once More," The Minnesota Weekly Times [Saint Paul], 6
June 1854, p. 2.)


(Several other examples of "skullduggery" and its alternate spellings
appeared in Saint Paul newspapers in 1854 and successive years. I'm going
to skip these just so I can add some more interesting later uses. -- Bonnie)


The ordinary political terms, such as "wire-pulling," "trickery,"
"corruption," "bribery," &c., entirely fail to do the subject justice. It
is best characterized by a local term, rather odd and certainly expressive
-- "skull-duggery" -- which is meant to include all known methods of
trickery and cunning, together with many others believed to be unknown
outside of St. Paul's.

(About Minnesota politics, from "Minnesota; Outrage -- Railroad Charter --
"Skullduggery" Army Matters -- Land Sales -- Weather, &c.," The New York
Times, 3 October 1854, p. 2.)


Yet it is done, and we fear that our citizens have become so accustomed to
the system of tactics that they do not sufficiently consider the ruinous
results to which it will ultimately lead. "Skullduggery," under this system
of political tactics, is mistaken for statesmanship, and self-interests for
fidelity to principles.

(From David Olmsted, "Shriek of Locality," The Winona [MN] Express, 4
September 1855, p. 2.)


Mr. Rice, knowing the utter impossibility of securing a re-nomination by
fair means from a party he had betrayed and nearly ruined, commenced a
system of "skullduggery" -- if you will permit me to use a Western phrase,
indicative of low cunning -- by which means he foisted on to the Democratic
unprincipled Whigs and a delegation from Wisconsin -- thus adopting
Stringfellow and Atchison's tactics in the management of Kansas affairs.

(From "What is said of the Contest Abroad," The Winona [MN] Express," 18
September 1855, p. 2. This appears to have been written by a correspondent
for the New York Evening Post," hence "a Western phrase.")


Have attended an indefinite number of political meetings, have become
acquainted with scores of politicians, studied practical *skull duggery*,
&c., in Lawrence, which has heretofore maintained a position which its
citizens were proud of; and never until now, have I felt regret at the
prospect of visiting it after an absence from its streets and excitements.

(From The Indiana American [Brookeville, IN], 13 June 1856, p. 4.)


>From the frozen regions of the North and the WATCHFUL Clancy, grown more
than ever lynx-eyed by another year's experience, will serve the Territory
in the capacity of sentinel, to watch the avenues of Scull-Duggery, lest
the Evil One, with hoofs and horns, enter into our Legislative Sanctuary.

(From "The Legislature," The Bellevue [NE] Gazette, 8 January 1857, p. 2.
This was perhaps reprinted the "Florence Courier," which appears to have
been an Omaha newspaper.)


Our first, and chief executive officer, Gov. Burt, whose name is held with
respect and veneration, by all who were familiar with him -- had selected
this spot for the location of the capitol of the Territory, but the icy
hand of death deprived him of his most ardent wish, and the power fell into
the hands of unscrupulous demagogues, whose only ambition was self
aggrandisement, and who betrayed the best interest of the place they were
under moral obligation to sustain, and by "skulduggery" and intrigue,
Government patronage was withheld from us, and Bellevue robbed of her just
and sacred rights.

(From "Elk Hill," signed "Stephanus." The Bellevue [NE] Gazette, 3 December
1857, p. 3.)


In many of these operations, those who are behind the scenes use a good
deal of "scullduggery." -- This is a new word, which had its origins in the
west, and is not found in either Webster or Walker. It is like all such new
words, comprehensive and difficult to define. Its meaning is nearly the
same as the quaint though vulgar phrase, "whipping the devil around the

(From "Life in Nebraska," The Lafayette [IN] Daily Journal, 1 July 1857, p.
2. The article is prefaced with "Correspondence of the Buffalo Commercial."
That's Buffalo, New York.)


"Scull-duddery" is the elegant term in use in Kansas to signify political

(From "Tit-Bits," The Meigs County [Pomeroy, OH] Telegraph, 7 December
1858, p. 4.)

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list