Lt. George Horatio Derby was a West Point graduate, classmate of Ulysses S. Grant and a hero of the Mexican-American War. In 1849, he was sent to survey and map the newly acquired western part of the country.
He needed extra money, so in Oregon he and Grant went into partnership selling pigs. They both lost money.
Derby found better success writing some very funny stuff, which he sold to San Francisco newspapers.
He first signed his pieces Squibob. When a competitor stole the name, Derby changed to Professor John Phoenix. His articles poked irreverent fun at politicians, the Army, cities, religion and anyone who took themselves too seriously. He apparently didn't make a dime from a book of his writings, "Phoenixiana," but it became a best-seller and by 1877 had gone through 12 editions.
When mapping California's central valleys, Derby came to Benicia on Oct. 1, 1850. He made fun of this little town and its pretensions to outdo San Francisco as the state's most important port. First published by the Alta California, that article went nationwide and made the town famous.
"Leaving the metropolis last evening by the gradually increasing in popularity steamer, 'West Point,' I 'skeeted' up Pablo Bay, with the intention of spending a few days at the world renowned seaport of Benicia. ... It was 9 o'clock and very dark at that, when we were roped in by the side of the 'ancient and fishy' smelling hulk that forms the broad wharf of Benicia. As I shouldered my carpet bag and stepped upon the wharf among the dense crowd of four individuals that were there assembled, and gazing upon the mighty city whose glimmering lights, feebly discernible through the Benician darkness, extended over an area of at least five acres, an overpowering sense of the grandeur and majesty of the great rival of San Francisco affected me."
Derby wrote about the "best and only" hotel in the city where after watching two "enterprising citizens" playing a never-ending game of billiards, he went to bed and was attacked.
"But oh! The fleas! Skipping, hopping, crawling, biting!"
His Benicia experience may have led to his "Antidote for Fleas," which advised boiling a quart of tar "until it becomes quite thin" and then applying it smoothly over your clothes.
"While the tar remains soft the flea becomes entangled in its tenacious folds and is rendered perfectly harmless; but it will soon form a hard, smooth coating entirely impervious to his bite. ... The whole coat should be removed every three or four weeks. The remedy is sure and having the advantage of simplicity and economy should be generally known."
The Army sent Derby to Florida, where he suffered a "softening of the brain." He resigned from the Army in 1859, dying two years later at the age of 38.
It is said that his writings influenced Mark Twain, who called him America's greatest humorist.
Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at email@example.com.