‘from marbles to manslaughter’: meaning and origin

The phrase from marbles to manslaughter is used to emphasise that any possible thing, event, or situation is either envisaged or actually found.

Aided by the similarity between the initial sounds of marbles and of manslaughter, the image is of a scope ranging from the most innocuous activity (represented by marbles, denoting a children’s game) to the most harmful (represented by manslaughter, denoting the crime of killing a human being).

The phrase in use—for example in the column Sportline, by Ford Eastman, published in The News-Palladium (Benton Harbor, Michigan) of 9th June 1942:

In Benton Harbor […], the children from the grade schools on up, are participating in competitive sport and are enjoying it.
Supervised by L. N. Wellborne and Miss Betty Winebrenner, co-directors of grade school physical education, children as young as 11 years take part in basketball, softball, and volleyball.
Under the local system, the youngsters are taken from the streets and alleys, and instead of being allowed to engage in any pursuit from marbles to manslaughter, they are taught sportsmanship, fairplay, and how to avert injury while playing games.

The earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from the accounts of the speech delivered by James Bronterre O’Brien 1 at the Chartist 2 meeting held in London on 16th March 1839—accounts published in several British and Irish newspapers from 18th to 27th March 1839; the following for example is from The Standard (London) of the 18th (a petition was being signed in order to be presented at the House of Commons):

Mr. James Bronterre O’Brien […] said that there were 1,200,000 signatures already affixed to the petition. But he knew that the House of Commons would reject it whatever would be the number of signatures, unless there was a similar number of pikes a short distance behind them. (Laughter and cheers.) As the Convention anticipated the rejection of their demands, so were they determined to proceed to ulterior measures. (Cheers.) As the House of Commons was elected by only 700,000 out of 25,000,000 he did not consider that it existed by the consent of the nation. If he should see the petition signed by millions, he would consider that he had a right to try any measures from marbles to manslaughter for carrying out that petition. (Vehement applause.)

1 James Bronterre O’Brien (1805-1864) was an Irish Chartist leader, reformer and journalist.
2 Named after a manifesto called The People’s Charter (published on 8th May 1838), Chartism (1837-48) was a parliamentary reform movement in the United Kingdom, calling for universal suffrage for men, equal electoral districts, voting by secret ballot, abolition of property qualifications for MPs, and annual general elections.

The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from The Author to the Public, the preface to De Montfort: Or, The Old English Nobleman (London: Richard Bentley, 1842), a novel by G. C. Munro:

The Author’s absence from England prevented his having an opportunity of revising the whole of it [= this novel]. These circumstances form the ground of the apology which he begs to offer for a work, disfigured both by inaccuracies and excrescences; mongrel in kind, meagre in design, yet so heterogeneous as regards its contents, that it literally comprises a sample of every thing—frommarbles to manslaughter.’

The phrase then occurs in Chapter III of The wooing and the wedding of Ermel Franz, an unsigned short novel published in The literary miscellany for English readers abroad and at home (Nuremberg: Frederick Campe – London: Williams & Norgate) of 15th April 1848:

Franz listened with a throbbing heart and burning brow. From marbles to manslaughter, he was just now ready for any thing.