Joke Origin: A Clear Conscience Is Usually a Sign of a Bad Memory

Mark Twain? Steven Wright? Senator Sorghum? Philander Chase Johnson? Neal O’Hara? Felix Nieto del Rio? Anonymous?

Quote Investigator®
7 min readApr 28, 2023
Colorful brain illustration from Elisa Riva at Pixabay

Question for Quote Investigator: A morally upright individual strives to maintain a clear conscience. Yet, satisfying this goal is not always praiseworthy:

Often a person with a clear conscience merely has a poor memory.

This quip has been credited to famous humorist Mark Twain and popular comedian Steven Wright. I am skeptical of these attributions because I have not seen convincing citations. Would you please help?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match for this joke located by QI appeared in 1902 within “The Evening Star” newspaper of Washington, D.C. The punchline was spoken by the fictitious Senator Sorghum. Boldface added to excerpts by QI

A Delicate Distinction.

“That friend of yours seems to have a clear conscience.”
“No,”
answered Senator Sorghum, “not a clear conscience; merely a bad memory — which with some people answers the purpose much better.”

QI hypothesizes that U.S. journalist and humorist Philander Chase Johnson crafted the above instance of the joke. He worked at the “The Evening Star”, and he created the character Senator Sorghum. Also, in 1906 he published a collection of barbs and quips under the title “Senator Sorghum’s Primer of Politics”.² However, Johnson did not place this particular remark into his book.

This jest is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. Here is an overview listing the key vocabulary employed in different versions over time:

1902 Jul: bad memory
1911 Oct: poor memory
1915 Dec: convenient memory
1917 Apr: short memory
1923 Jan: forgetful
1933 May: dumb

Mark Twain implausibly received credit by 2008. Steven Wright received credit by 1998 several decades after the joke entered circulation.

Below are two precursors and additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1896 a precursor passage appeared in a short story titled “Sister Sencilla” by Arthur Griffiths published in “The Pall Mall Magazine” of London. An individual described having a clear conscience while admitting an imperfect memory. The statement was not presented as an adage or general principle:³

He implied that I was recovering from a debauch; and although my conscience was clear, so far as my poor memory, my dazed and dumfounded faculties served, I felt all the torments of the awakened drunkard: the parched throat, the swollen tongue, the racking pains across the brow, the leaden heaviness, the utter prostration and helplessness of body and mind.

Another precursor statement appeared in “The Kansas City Star” of Missouri which acknowledged the humor magazine “Puck”. An article titled “Feminettes” contained several statements about women:⁴

Women never play in a game unless there is another game under it.

Ladies fight with pretty words that are full of fists.

Gospel will be a pretty word in a woman’s mouth when women can distinguish between a poor memory and a clear conscience.

In 1902 the remark ascribed to Senator Sorghum appeared in “The Evening Star” of Washington, D.C. as mentioned previously. It was reprinted in other newspapers such as “The Camden Chronicle” of Tennessee which acknowledged the “Washington Star”. This was another name for “The Evening Star”:⁵

“That friend of yours seems to have a clear conscience.”
“No,”
answered Senator Sorghum, “not a clear conscience; merely a bad memory — which with some people answers the purpose much better.” — Washington Star.

In 1911 William Jay Schieffelin, retiring President of the National Wholesale Druggists’ Association, addressed the annual convention and presented a version using “poor memory” which he attributed to an old Black philosopher:⁶

“A man often thinks he has a clear conscience, but what he has is nothing but a poor memory.”

In 1915 “The Topeka State Journal” of Kansas printed a set of miscellaneous statements under the title “Journal Entries” including a version of the quip with the phrase “convenient memory”:⁷

The man with a clear conscience must have a convenient memory.

In 1917 the widely reprinted column “Bits Of Byplay” by Luke McLuke published the following version:⁸

Our Daily Special.
A Lot Of People Mistake A Short Memory For A Clear Conscience.

In 1922 Thomas L. Masson published “Our American Humorists” which included a chapter about Johnson:⁹

PHILANDER CHASE JOHNSON, who for more than thirty years past has contributed verse, dialogue, editorial paragraphs, and dramatic criticism to the Washington (D.C.) Star, was born in Wheeling, W. Va. . . .

Philander Johnson established a connection with the Washington Star, and developed the characters “Senator Sorghum,” “Farmer Corntossel,” “Uncle Eben,” “Mr. and Mrs. Torkins” and a number of others that have long been prominently identified with current newspaper humor.

In 1923 “The Evening Star” of Washington, D.C. printed another version attributed to Johnson’s character Uncle Eben:¹⁰

“A man is liable,” said Uncle Eben, “to think he has a clear conscience, when he’s only forgetful.”

In 1933 “The Birmingham News” of Alabama printed the following filler item using “dumb”:¹¹

Yet many a person thinks he has a clear conscience when he just has a dumb one.

In 1939 “The Reader’s Digest” printed this item:¹²

Sometimes a man with a clear conscience only has a poor memory.
— A country editor, quoted by Neal O’Hara

Also, in 1939 columnist by Frederick C. Russell of “The Sunday Star” in Washington, D.C. aimed the barb at automobile drivers:¹³

Many a driver who thinks he has a clear conscience merely has a very bad memory.

In 1947 “The Reader’s Digest” attributed the remark to a diplomat:¹⁴

All too often a clear conscience is merely the result of a bad memory.
— Proverb quoted by Nieto Del Rio, Chilean delegate to U.N.

The important reference work “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” contained an entry on this topic with the following interesting citation:¹⁵

1953 Joseph Nuttin, Psychoanalysis and Personality, translated from the German (of 1949) by George Lamb (New York: Sheed & Ward) 69:

“Perhaps the saying ‘All too often a clear conscience is merely the result of a bad memory’ is applicable to the father of the [Freudian] theory that absent-mindedness comes from repression?”

In 1998 a message titled “Steven Wright says: (HUMOR)” appeared in the Usenet newsgroup alt.med.fibromyalgia. Wright received dubious credit for numerous statements including this one:¹⁶

A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.

In 2001 a columnist in the “Philadelphia Daily News” of Pennsylvania also credited Wright:¹⁷

“A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.” — Steven Wright.

In 2008 a webpage on the “Goodreads” website credited Mark Twain:¹⁸

“A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.”
― Mark Twain

In conclusion, Philander Chase Johnson is currently the leading candidate for creator of this joke based on the 1902 citation. There were precursors in the 19th century, but they were distinct. The attribution to Mark Twain is unsupported, and the joke was circulating before Steven Wright was born.

Image Notes: An illustration of a brain with colorful splotches from ElisaRiva at Pixabay. The image has been resized.

Acknowledgements: Great thanks to William Ahern and Sara Cadman whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Ahern pointed to the 1911 citation together with the 1939 and 1947 citations in “The Reader’s Digest”. Cadman mentioned the modern attribution to Steven Wright. Also, thanks to Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro who conducted research for “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” and located citations beginning in 1949. Additional thanks to researcher Barry Popik who focused on the attribution to Steven Wright and found citations beginning in 1998.

[1] 1902 July 21, The Evening Star, Shooting Stars: A Delicate Distinction, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (Chronicling America)

[2] 1906, Senator Sorghum’s Primer of Politics: Or, Helpful Hints on the Science of Not Getting the Worst of it by Philander Chase Johnson, (The phrase “clear conscience” is not present in this book), Henry Altemus Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link

[3] 1896 July, The Pall Mall Magazine, Volume 9, Number 39, Sister Sencilla by Arthur Griffiths, Start Page 356, Quote Page 363, Publishing Office of The Pall Mall Magazine, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[4] 1897 October 17, The Kansas City Star, Feminettes (acknowledgement to Puck), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Kansas City, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)

[5] 1902 October 17, The Camden Chronicle, A Delicate Distinction, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Camden, Tennessee. (Chronicling America)

[6] 1911, Proceedings of The National Wholesale Druggists’ Association, Thirty-Seventh Annual Meeting at New York City Hotel Astor on October 10 to 13, 1911, Speech delivered at banquet held on October 13, 1911, “The National Wholesale Druggists’ Association”, Response by Dr. William Jay Schieffelin (Retiring President), Start Page 407, Quote Page 410, Burr Printing House, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link

[7] 1915 December 7, The Topeka State Journal, Journal Entries, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Topeka, Kansas. (Chronicling America)

[8] 1917 March 24, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Bits of Byplay by Luke McLuke, Our Daily Special, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)

[9] 1922, Our American Humorists by Thomas L. Masson, Chapter 19: Philander Chase Johnson, Quote Page 184, Moffat, Yard and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

[10] 1923 January 31, The Evening Star, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (Newspapers_com)

[11] 1933 May 24, The Birmingham News, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 1, Birmingham, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)

[12] 1939 February, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 34, Number 202, Patter, Quote Page 96, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)

[13] 1939 March 26, The Sunday Star, Automotive Hints by Frederick C. Russell, Quote Page C9, Column 8, Washington, D.C. (Chronicling America)

[14] 1947 March, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 50, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 28, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)

[15] 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 42, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[16] Usenet discussion message, Date: December 28, 1998, Newsgroup: alt.med.fibromyalgia, From: Jenn, Subject: Steven Wright says: (HUMOR). (Google Groups Search; Accessed April 26, 2023) link

[17] 2001 November 27, Philadelphia Daily News, BYKO! by Stu Bykofsky, Quote Page 39, Column 3, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

[18] Website: Goodreads, Article title: Mark Twain > Quotes > Quotable Quote, Timestamp on first ‘Like’: March 9, 2008, Website description: Goodreads is a large community for readers that provides book recommendations; Amazon owns the site. (Accessed goodreads.com on April 27, 2023) link

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Quote Investigator®

Garson O'Toole specializes in tracing quotations. He operates the QuoteInvestigator.com website which receives more than 4 million visitors per year