A Sawbuck Worth Twenty Dollars: Forseman Vs. Dryfus

From the Times (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) Sun., Feb. 10, 1895


Sawbuck ClipThe Sawbuck was not the wooden kind, but the slang name for a Ten-Dollar Bill. That is the general acceptation of the term, but in the leading case the ruling was the other way.

The day I was arrested as a tramp in Lafayette, Indiana, was a refreshing day for me. I was a tramp sure enough, in one sense, a tramp printer, but dear knows not a vagabond in looks, for I was worried sick with my inability to get work, and I showed it, which no tramp ever did or does. Nobody but a country Constable would ever have taken me up on suspicion. Taken up I was, however, and I went off to court willingly. I was looking for something to turn up, and this was something. The situation gave me a chance to take a comic view of myself; even if through the Constable’s stupidity I landed in the calaboose there was the satisfaction of knowing that the worst was over; and I couldn’t help reckoning on the chance that Lafayette wasn’t as bad as it looked and that if it found out (through the newspaper) that I was a martyr out of work it might lend me a hand—or a dollar. I head read of Judges who when they discovered a man was a victim and not a parasite on society, helped him to a chance to set himself up in business again. But I struck something better yet—a Judge and a case that gave me something to laugh at for the rest of my days. I was spectator and auditor of the celebrated “sawbuck” case, which has passed into history and law in Indiana. This was the case of Foresman vs. Dryfus, heard before a Justice of the Peace of Lafayette, which settled the value of a sawbuck in all mercantile transactions forever.

The case was this. Joseph Foresman, a cattle buyer, sold stock to Ferdinand Dryfus. Among the lot which Dryfus inspected was a heifer that Foresman intended keeping. Dryfus offered him a “sawbuck” for the heifer, and finally, in view of the fact that the beast was a little wild, Foresman said he would take the offer, though he thought he ought to have more money.

The stock was driven to the slaughterhouse, the heifer among the lot, and an order given to Foresman for his pay. When he received his check, he discovered that he had been allowed but $10 for the heifer. He refused to accept that amount, saying that he had paid $10 for her, and that Dryfus had agreed to pay him a “sawbuck,” which according to custom, was $20.

Dryfus, in his turn, asserted that a “sawbuck” meant a ten, and at that he stuck. So Foresman took the $10 Dryfus offered, declaring that he accepted it only account and that he still held Dryfus responsible for the balance. And then in due course of time he sued.

Court convened at 9 o’clock. There was the usual delay incident to the preparation for the hearing, but the case had no sooner got under way than the whole court was by the ears. I had never heard the term before, and a “sawbuck” might have been either fifty cents or a thousand dollars; I never expected to see that much money again, whichever it was. But to the neighborhood it was a burning question, and I began to reckon there might even be a fight in it. At first all was easy sailing. The lawyers on either side were primed for fun, and they started the ball rolling with appeals to heaven to see justice done and with displays of sly rhetoric, which the listeners enjoyed tremendously. Both the plaintiff and defendant were mad, clear through, and that was a great assistance to the hilarity of the occasion, as it naturally would be. There was no dispute as to the facts, and they simply got up on the stand and contradicted each other flatly as to the value of a sawbuck. One said ten, the other said twenty, and they couldn’t repeat it too often. The lawyers had called no experts to testify; they confined themselves to the face of the transaction. Foresman’s lawyer argued that no man could be such a slack-twisted, turnip-fed, broken-hinged, colander-faced Sheriff’s levy jackass as to sell a heifer for which he had paid $18 for a sawbuck if a sawbuck was only ten dollars.

Was Foresman to sacrifice this beautiful animal—a full-blooded—Jersey—for a little more than one-half of what she had cost him as a calf, and without recovering for her feed and keep for a year or more? “Preposterous! Absurd! An outrageous imposition upon the face of it!” vigorously cried the lawyer. In replay Dryfus’ attorney pointed to the damaging fact that Foresman had put the ten dollars in his pocket, and that the whole transaction was nearly ten years old. “If a sawbuck is twenty dollars,” he asked in great indignation, “why does this man Foresman put ten dollars in his pocket and go about spending in riotous extravagance for nigh ten years before he finds he’s hard up and don’t know where to look for any more money unless he can squeeze some out of my client here. Sawbuck? Of course, a sawbuck is ten dollars. Your Honor knows that well enough.”

This was all very gay, but in the meantime the inhabitants of Lafayette had begun to take sides. Officers, lawyers, fledglings, hangers-on and even the culprits awaiting to be tried fell to arguing about the matter. Soon the courtroom was a babel of voices. The face of the Judge was a study of judicial perplexity, the pandemonium increased, and the noise was likely to attract the entire population to the court. Every man in Lafayette seemed to have a different opinion as to what was meant by a sawbuck. The noise increased. Pandemonium reigned and a riot seemed imminent that would arouse and embroil the entire population of the town. Suddenly the clang of the town bell hushed everyone into silence. The clerk, after vainly pounding his mallet on the desk for silence, had thought of the bell as a happy inspiration and pulled the bell-rope, which hung against the wall almost immediately back of him.

The “Squire” roused from his reverie and himself vigorously pounded his desk for order.

When the noise had subsided sufficiently for his voice to be heard, his Honor gave out his decision. He said it was a new point to the Court, as had no list of Supreme Court decisions to guide him in arriving at a judicial definition of the word. After hearing all the evidence, however, and revolving the matter over in his mind, the Court gave Foresman judgment for $10, the balance due, with interest from the date of the sale, which ran up to something like $12. To this, he added the costs of the court and Foresman’s attorney’s fees.

This, I believe, to be the first instance on record where the definition or moneyed value of the expression “sawbuck” has ever gotten into the courts and been fixed by judicial fiat. The term is common in the West, so I found, and most people understand it to mean a ten-dollar note. Possibly from the fact that the sawhorse generally has two Xs-one at each end of a round inserted through the middle of each X, where they are spliced—the Court may have taken its cue as to the meaning of the agreement between Foresman and Dryfus. A sawhorse with but one X to stand upon would not amount to much. Tho fact, too, that Foresman had said at the time that he had paid $18 for the animal and that $20 was not really enough to pay him for his trouble may have had weight with the “Squire” in rendering his finding. I do not know whether or not the case was appealed or whether or not the costs were paid, and the question dropped.

When it came to my turn, the Squire was no longer puzzled. A sawbuck might throw him off his balance, but for all that he was more sensible than his Constables, and the moment his eyes lighted on me he said: “You are no tramp.” I saw my opportunity and pitched in with my hard luck story as best I knew how.

The Squire listened attentively. He was evidently something of a character, and I could see by the way he looked at me that he was meditating on something original to spring on the courtroom. At last he said: “Look here, young man, thar ain’t no doubt but that you’ve been tramping, and so I ought to fine you. On the other hand, thar ain’t no doubt but what you ain’t a tramp, so I ought to let you off. So, I tell you what I’ll do. You put me in mind of a piece of poetry a tramp once made who asked me for a meal an’ swore he was lookin’ for work. As yours is the last case, I’ll just sentence you to listen to it an’ then you can sit.”

You think I’d better go to work? Well, that’s my own idea:

I’ll do it w’en I find the work that’s suitable fer me.

Won’t give me bread because ye think I’m strong enough to work?

Well, w’en I find my kind of toil, I’ll labor like a Turk.

“Keep strugglin’ on,” our pastor said, “Keep strugglin’ in life’s race.

For ev’ry man who toils an tries, will allus find his place;

For natur’ never made a man, but at the same time, too,

She made some fittin’ special work for that same man to do.”

An’ so I started out in life resolved to never shirk,

To hunt the wide worl’ up an’ down to find my special work.

I started out to find my work, all ready to begin it.

But all the work I ever foun’ had too much labor in it.

At first I worked on father’s farm, but soon I come to see

That never was the kind of work that natur’ meant for me.

She surely never meant that kind for sich as me to do.

For work was far too numerous an’ rest was far too few.

An’ next I went into the store at Deacon Is’rel Brown

For opportunities ‘twould give for rest an’ settin’ down.

But customers kep’ droppin’ in to wake me from my doze,

An’ they broke in on my sleep so much I couldn’t have repose

An’ then I lef’ the deacon’s store an’ run away to sea,

“I’m boun’ to find the work,” says I, “that natur’ meant fer me.”

I kinder liked to sail aroun’ beneath them foreign skies,

But sill I foun’ that work was mixed with too much exercise.

Sense then I’ve tramped about the yearth to try if I could see

Some kind of unlaborious work that natur’ meant fer me.

And so to help a brave young man to boldly push ahead

I frankly ask ye fer a loan of jest a piece o’bread.

That’s right! I knew you’d fetch it out soon ‘s my tale was tol’,

You are a gent at’s glad to aid a strong an’ ‘ungery soul,

Neow you might fetch, to quench my thirst, I’m feelin’ rather dry,

A glass er milk, some jelly cake, an’ sev’rul kinds of pie.

During the respectful silence that greeted the delivery of these lines, I edged myself as close as possible to a red-headed youth whom I had already spotted for the reporter of the local newspaper. As soon as the Squire finished and discharged me, I fastened myself to the red-headed man’s side. I set myself to striking up an acquaintance with him, which did not prove difficult. As he was in a very good humor, he made no objection to my accompanying him to the newspaper office, and there his good offices secured me a temporary job.


From the Journal and Courier, January 13, 1936

Who Was Ferdinand Dryfus?

Ferdinand Dryfus was born in Bavaria, Germany on March 26, 1860 and died January 10, 1936 in Lafayette, Indiana. He was an esteemed member of the Jewish and Greater Lafayette community.

Ferdinand Dryfus, who has just passed on at the age of 75, had been a resident of this city 61 years, coming to Lafayette when 14 years of age, in 1874. Few citizens have rendered over so long a period such valuable service as that given by Ferdinand Dryfus.

Through his constructive activities in the packing industry, in connection with a company started by his brother, Leopold Dryfus, in 1871, Ferdinand Dryfus contributed in a very large way to the upbuilding, prosperity and stability of the community.

As a public official, serving the people in the city council for 20 years, Mr. Dryfus not only distinguished himself as a faithful public servant, but endeared himself to the citizenry as an exemplar of duteous and honest governmental performance.

Popular confidence in the leadership and sterling worth of Ferdinand Dryfus was expressed in many ways. He was welcomed into financial and banking councils and gave of his abilities to various enterprises having to do with the advancement of Lafayette as a business center. At the time of his death, he was a director in the Lafayette Union Stock Yards, the Citizens Building and Loan Association, and the Lafayette Telephone Company. Also, he was a member of the American Meat Packers.

The record made by Ferdinand Dryfus as a loyal and useful citizen and civic leader will long be treasured in memory and the business monument he helped to erect will be an enduring reminder of his forcefulness, his integrity and his high character.


Published by lafayettecitizen

This site was created to give a voice to the silent majority in the Greater Lafayette area. The local Mockingbird Media does not represent We, The People.

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