Word Origins: Earl of Sandwich John Montagu and Sandwiches Part 2

About the history and biography of John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich whose name is the origin for the word sandwich.

SANDWICH ('san(d)wich) n. A slice of bread covered with a filling (as of meat, cheese, fish, or various mixtures) which is usually covered with another slice of bread.

In an age studded with libertines, Lord Sandwich stone brightest. Under a nom de debauche he became a member of the notorious Hell-Fire Club, infamous for its wild orgies and black masses, but soon fell out with his friend the great wit John Wilkes, M.P., and lord mayor of London, one of the club's founders. Wilkes had dressed a black baboon with horns and hoops and let him loose while Sandwich was invoking the devil during a black mass, the earl's embarrassment exceeding even his initial fright, when he ran out of the chapel shouting, "Spare me, gracious Devil. I am as yet but half a sinner. I have never been as wicked as I intended!" The 2 became bitter enemies, but when Sandwich sought revenge before the House of Lords by reading Wilkes's indecent "Essay on Woman," a parody (now lost) on Pope's "Essay on Man," the strategy backfired. On that same day, John Gay's Beggar's Opera happened to be playing in London and Sandwich became identified in the public's mind with the play's villain, the "despicable cad" who betrays the hero, his nickname remaining Jemmy Twitcher ever after.

Sandwich also knew notoriety for the 16-year-old mistress he took, Margaret or Marth Reay--a "commoner" he educated at the best schools in Paris and who bore him 5 children in the some 20 years they lived together. She was killed by a rejected suitor in 1779, making her paramour's private life a matter of public controversy just when he was having his worst troubles with the Admiralty. In 1782, the earl left the Navy when his party fell from power but the scandals associated with him plagued him the rest of his life. He died 10 years later, aged 74, an embittered man who never realized how history would honor him. Only one celebrated riposte mars his popular historical reputation. Though attributed to a number of people, the most famous political put-down in history probably made Lord Sandwich its victim. It appears that the earl had verbally attacked his archenemy Wilkes, shouting, "You, Wilkes, will either die on the gallows or from syphilis!" The great wit Wilkes simply turned, tapped his snuff-box, and looked Sandwich squarely in the eye. "That depends, my Lord," he said, matter-of-factly, "on whether I embrace your principles of your mistress."

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