Part 4 out of 29
Abram Curry, one of the original owners of the celebrated Gould and Curry
mine--"Curry--old Curry--old Abe Curry," as he called himself--had not
tendered the use of a hall rent free, the first legislature would have
been obliged to "sit in the desert." Furthermore, Orion had met with
certain acute troubles of his own. The government at Washington had not
appreciated his economies in the matter of cheap office rental, and it
had stipulated the price which he was to pay for public printing and
various other services-prices fixed according to Eastern standards.
These prices did not obtain in Nevada, and when Orion, confident that
because of his other economies the comptroller would stretch a point and
allow the increased frontier tariff, he was met with the usual thick-
headed official lack of imagination, with the result that the excess paid
was deducted from his slender salary. With a man of less conscience this
condition would easily have been offset by another wherein other rates,
less arbitrary, would have been adjusted to negotiate the official
deficit. With Orion Clemens such a remedy was not even considered;
yielding, unstable, blown by every wind of influence though he was,
Orion's integrity was a rock.
Governor Nye was among those who presently made this discovery. Old
politician that he was--former police commissioner of New York City--Nye
took care of his own problems in the customary manner. To him, politics
was simply a game--to be played to win. He was a popular, jovial man,
well liked and thought of, but he did not lie awake, as Orion did,
planning economies for the government, or how to make up excess charges
out of his salary. To him Nevada was simply a doorway to the United
States Senate, and in the mean time his brigade required official
recognition and perquisites. The governor found Orion Clemens an
impediment to this policy. Orion could not be brought to a proper
political understanding of "special bills and accounts," and relations
between the secretary of state and the governor were becoming strained.
It was about this time that the man who had been potentate of the pilot-
house of a Mississippi River steamer returned from Humboldt. He was fond
of the governor, but he had still higher regard for the family integrity.
When he had heard Orion's troubled story, he called on Governor Nye and
delivered himself in his own fashion. In his former employments he had
acquired a vocabulary and moral backbone sufficient to his needs. We may
regret that no stenographic report was made of the interview. It would
be priceless now. But it is lost; we only know that Orion's rectitude
was not again assailed, and that curiously enough Governor Nye apparently
conceived a strong admiration and respect for his brother.
Samuel Clemens, miner, remained but a brief time in Carson City--only
long enough to arrange for a new and more persistent venture. He did not
confess his Humboldt failure to his people; in fact, he had not as yet
confessed it to himself; his avowed purpose was to return to Humboldt
after a brief investigation of the Esmeralda mines. He had been paying
heavy assessments on his holdings there; and, with a knowledge of mining
gained at Unionville, he felt that his personal attention at Aurora might
be important. As a matter of fact, he was by this time fairly daft on
the subject of mines and mining, with the rest of the community for
His earlier praises of the wonders and climate of Tahoe had inspired his
sister Pamela, always frail, with a desire to visit that health-giving
land. Perhaps he felt that he recommended the country somewhat too
"By George, Pamela," he said, "I begin to fear that I have invoked a
spirit of some kind or other, which I will find more than difficult to
allay." He proceeds to recommend California as a residence for any or
all of them, but he is clearly doubtful concerning Nevada.
Some people are malicious enough to think that if the devil were set
at liberty and told to confine himself to Nevada Territory, he would
come here and look sadly around awhile, and then get homesick and go
back to hell again .... Why, I have had my whiskers and mustaches
so full of alkali dust that you'd have thought I worked in a starch
factory and boarded in a flour barrel.
But then he can no longer restrain his youth and optimism. How could he,
with a fortune so plainly in view? It was already in his grasp in
imagination; he was on the way home with it.
I expect to return to St. Louis in July--per steamer. I don't say
that I will return then, or that I shall be able to do it--but I
expect to--you bet. I came down here from Humboldt, in order to
look after our Esmeralda interests. Yesterday, Bob Howland arrived
here, and I have had a talk with him. He owns with me in the
"Horatio and Derby" ledge. He says our tunnel is in 52 feet, and a
small stream of water has been struck, which bids fair to become a
"big thing" by the time the ledge is reached--sufficient to supply a
mill. Now, if you knew anything of the value of water here, you
would perceive at a glance that if the water should amount to 50 or
100 inches, we wouldn't care whether school kept or not. If the
ledge should prove to be worthless, we'd sell the water for money
enough to give us quite a lift. But, you see, the ledge will not
prove to be worthless. We have located, near by, a fine site for a
mill, and when we strike the ledge, you know, we'll have a mill-
site, water-power, and payrock, all handy. Then we sha'n't care
whether we have capital or not. Mill folks will build us a mill,
and wait for their pay. If nothing goes wrong, we'll strike the
ledge in June--and if we do, I'll be home in July, you know.
He pauses at this point for a paragraph of self-analysis--characteristic
So, just keep your clothes on, Pamela, until I come. Don't you know
that undemonstrated human calculations won't do to bet on? Don't
you know that I have only talked, as yet, but proved nothing? Don't
you know that I have expended money in this country but have made
none myself? Don't you know that I have never held in my hands a
gold or silver bar that belonged to me? Don't you know that it's
all talk and no cider so far? Don't you know that people who always
feel jolly, no matter where they are or what happens to them--who
have the organ of Hope preposterously developed--who are endowed
with an unconcealable sanguine temperament--who never feel concerned
about the price of corn--and who cannot, by any possibility,
discover any but the bright side of a picture--are very apt to go to
extremes and exaggerate with 40-horse microscopic power?
In the bright lexicon of youth,
There is no such word as Fail--
and I'll prove it!
Whereupon, he lets himself go again, full-tilt:
By George, if I just had a thousand dollars I'd be all right! Now
there's the "Horatio," for instance. There are five or six
shareholders in it, and I know I could buy half of their interests
at, say $20 per foot, now that flour is worth $50 per barrel and
they are pressed for money, but I am hard up myself, and can't buy--
and in June they'll strike the ledge, and then "good-by canary." I
can't get it for love or money. Twenty dollars a foot! Think of
it! For ground that is proven to be rich. Twenty dollars, Madam-
and we wouldn't part with a foot of our 75 for five times the sum.
So it will be in Humboldt next summer. The boys will get pushed and
sell ground for a song that is worth a fortune. But I am at the
helm now. I have convinced Orion that he hasn't business talent
enough to carry on a peanut-stand, and he has solemnly promised me
that he will meddle no more with mining or other matters not
connected with the secretary's office. So, you see, if mines are to
be bought or sold, or tunnels run or shafts sunk, parties have to
come to me--and me only. I'm the "firm," you know.
There are pages of this, all glowing with golden expectations and plans.
Ah, well! we have all written such letters home at one time and another-
of gold-mines of one form or another.
He closes at last with a bit of pleasantry for his mother.
Ma says: "It looks like a man can't hold public office and be
honest." Why, certainly not, Madam. A man can't hold public office
and be honest. Lord bless you, it is a common practice with Orion
to go about town stealing little things that happen to be lying
around loose. And I don't remember having heard him speak the truth
since we have been in Nevada. He even tries to prevail upon me to
do these things, Ma, but I wasn't brought up in that way, you know.
You showed the public what you could do in that line when you raised
me, Madam. But then you ought to have raised me first, so that
Orion could have had the benefit of my example. Do you know that he
stole all the stamps out of an 8-stamp quartz-mill one night, and
brought them home under his overcoat and hid them in the back room?
He had about exhausted his own funds by this time, and it was necessary
that Orion should become the financier. The brothers owned their
Esmeralda claims in partnership, and it was agreed that Orion, out of his
modest depleted pay, should furnish the means, while the other would go
actively into the field and develop their riches. Neither had the
slightest doubt but that they would be millionaires presently, and both
were willing to struggle and starve for the few intervening weeks.
It was February when the printer-pilot-miner arrived in Aurora, that
rough, turbulent camp of the Esmeralda district lying about one hundred
miles south of Carson City, on the edge of California, in the Sierra
slopes. Everything was frozen and covered with snow; but there was no
lack of excitement and prospecting and grabbing for "feet" in this ledge
and that, buried deep under the ice and drift. The new arrival camped
with Horatio Phillips (Raish), in a tiny cabin with a domestic roof (the
ruin of it still stands), and they cooked and bunked together and
combined their resources in a common fund. Bob Howland joined them
presently, and later an experienced miner, Calvin H. Higbie (Cal), one
day to be immortalized in the story of 'Roughing It' and in the
dedication of that book. Around the cabin stove they would gather, and
paw over their specimens, or test them with blow-pipe and "horn" spoon,
after which they would plan tunnels and figure estimates of prospective
wealth. Never mind if the food was poor and scanty, and the chill wind
came in everywhere, and the roof leaked like a filter; they were living
in a land where all the mountains were banked with nuggets, where all the
rivers ran gold. Bob Howland declared later that they used to go out at
night and gather up empty champagne-bottles and fruit-tins and pile them
in the rear of their cabin to convey to others the appearance of
affluence and high living. When they lacked for other employment and
were likely to be discouraged, the ex-pilot would "ride the bunk" and
smoke and, without money and without price, distribute riches more
valuable than any they would ever dig out of those Esmeralda Hills. At
other times he talked little or not at all, but sat in one corner and
wrote, wholly oblivious of his surroundings. They thought he was writing
letters, though letters were not many and only to Orion during this
period. It was the old literary impulse stirring again, the desire to
set things down for their own sake, the natural hunger for print. One or
two of his earlier letters home had found their way into a Keokuk paper--
the 'Gate City'. Copies containing them had gone back to Orion, who had
shown them to a representative of the Territorial Enterprise, a young man
named Barstow, who thought them amusing. The Enterprise reprinted at
least one of these letters, or portions of it, and with this
encouragement the author of it sent an occasional contribution direct to
that paper over the pen-name "Josh." He did not care to sign his own
name. He was a miner who was soon to be a magnate; he had no desire to
be known as a camp scribbler.
He received no pay for these offerings, and expected none. They were
sketches of a broadly burlesque sort, the robust horse-play kind of humor
that belongs to the frontier. They were not especially promising
efforts. One of them was about an old rackabones of a horse, a sort of
preliminary study for "Oahu," of the Sandwich Islands, or "Baalbec" and
"Jericho," of Syria. If any one had told him, or had told any reader of
this sketch, that the author of it was knocking at the door of the house
of fame such a person's judgment or sincerity would have been open to
doubt. Nevertheless, it was true, though the knock was timid and halting
and the summons to cross the threshold long delayed.
A winter mining-camp is the most bleak and comfortless of places. The
saloon and gambling-house furnished the only real warmth and cheer. Our
Aurora miners would have been less than human, or more, if they had not
found diversion now and then in the happy harbors of sin. Once there was
a great ball given at a newly opened pavilion, and Sam Clemens is said to
have distinguished himself by his unrestrained and spontaneous enjoyment
of the tripping harmony. Cal Higbie, who was present, writes:
In changing partners, whenever he saw a hand raised he would grasp
it with great pleasure and sail off into another set, oblivious to
his surroundings. Sometimes he would act as though there was no use
in trying to go right or to dance like other people, and with his
eyes closed he would do a hoe-down or a double-shuffle all alone,
talking to himself and saying that he never dreamed there was so
much pleasure to be obtained at a ball. It was all as natural as a
child's play. By the second set, all the ladies were falling over
themselves to get him for a partner, and most of the crowd, too full
of mirth to dance, were standing or sitting around, dying with
What a child he always was--always, to the very end? With the first
break of winter the excitement that had been fermenting and stewing
around camp stoves overflowed into the streets, washed up the gullies,
and assailed the hills. There came then a period of madness, beside
which the Humboldt excitement had been mere intoxication. Higbie says:
It was amazing how wild the people became all over the Pacific
coast. In San Francisco and other large cities barbers, hack-
drivers, servant-girls, merchants, and nearly every class of people
would club together and send agents representing all the way from
$5,000 to $500,000 or more to buy mines. They would buy anything.
in the shape of quartz, whether it contained any mineral value or
The letters which went from the Aurora miner to Orion are humanly
documentary. They are likely to be staccato in their movement; they show
nervous haste in their composition, eagerness, and suppressed excitement;
they are not always coherent; they are seldom humorous, except in a
savage way; they are often profane; they are likely to be violent. Even
the handwriting has a terse look; the flourish of youth has gone out of
it. Altogether they reveal the tense anxiety of the gambling mania of
which mining is the ultimate form. An extract from a letter of April is
a fair exhibit:
Work not yet begun on the "Horatio and Derby"--haven't seen it yet.
It is still in the snow. Shall begin on it within 3 or 4 weeks--
strike the ledge in July: Guess it is good--worth from $30 to $50 a
foot in California....
Man named Gebhart shot here yesterday while trying to defend a claim
on Last Chance Hill. Expect he will die.
These mills here are not worth a d--n--except Clayton's--and it is
not in full working trim yet.
Send me $40 or $50--by mail-immediately. I go to work to-morrow
with pick and shovel. Something's got to come, by G--, before I let
By the end of April work had become active in the mines, though the snow
in places was still deep and the ground stony with frost. On the 28th he
I have been at work all day blasting and digging, and d--ning one of
our new claims--"Dashaway"--which I don't think a great deal of, but
which I am willing to try. We are down, now, 10 or 12 a feet. We
are following down under the ledge, but not taking it out. If we
get up a windlass to-morrow we shall take out the ledge, and see
whether it is worth anything or not.
It must have been hard work picking away at the flinty ledges in the
cold; and the "Dashaway" would seem to have proven a disappointment, for
there is no promising mention of it again. Instead, we hear of the
"Flyaway;" and "Annipolitan" and the "Live Yankee" and of a dozen
others, each of which holds out the beacon of hope for a little while and
then passes from notice forever. In May it is the "Monitor" that is sure
to bring affluence, though realization is no longer regarded as
To use a French expression, I have "got my d---d satisfy" at last.
Two years' time will make us capitalists, in spite of anything.
Therefore we need fret and fume and worry and doubt no more, but
just lie still and put up with privation for six months. Perhaps 3
months will "let us out." Then, if government refuses to pay the
rent on your new office we can do it ourselves. We have got to wait
six weeks, anyhow, for a dividend--maybe longer--but that it will
come there is no shadow of a doubt. I have got the thing sifted
down to a dead moral certainty. I own one-eighth of the new
"Monitor Ledge, Clemens Company," and money can't buy a foot of it;
because I know it to contain our fortune. The ledge is six feet
wide, and one needs no glass to see gold and silver in it....
When you and I came out here we did not expect '63 or '64 to find us
rich men--and if that proposition had been made we would have
accepted it gladly. Now, it is made. I am willing, now, that
"Neary's tunnel" or anybody else's tunnel shall succeed. Some of
them may beat us a few months, but we shall be on hand in the
fullness of time, as sure as fate. I would hate to swap chances
with any member of the tribe . . . .
It is the same man who twenty-five years later would fasten his faith and
capital to a type-setting machine and refuse to exchange stock in it,
share for share, with the Mergenthaler linotype. He adds:
But I have struck my tent in Esmeralda, and I care for no mines but
those which I can superintend myself. I am a citizen here now, and
I am satisfied, although Ratio and I are "strapped" and we haven't
three days' rations in the house.... I shall work the "Monitor" and
the other claims with my own hands. I prospected 3/4 of a pound of
"Monitor" yesterday, and Raish reduced it with the blow-pipe, and
got about 10 or 12 cents in gold and silver, besides the other half
of it which we spilt on the floor and didn't get....
I tried to break a handsome chunk from a huge piece of my darling
"Monitor" which we brought from the croppings yesterday, but it all
splintered up, and I send you the scraps. I call that "choice"--any
d---d fool would.
Don't ask if it has been assayed, for it hasn't. It don't need it.
It is simply able to speak for itself. It is six feet wide on top,
and traversed through with veins whose color proclaims their worth.
What the devil does a man want with any more feet when he owns in
the invincible bomb-proof "Monitor"?
There is much more of this, and other such letters, most of them ending
with demands for money. The living, the tools, the blasting-powder, and
the help eat it up faster than Orion's salary can grow.
"Send me $50 or $100, all you can spare; put away $150 subject to my
call--we shall need it soon for the tunnel." The letters are full of
such admonition, and Orion, more insane, if anything, than his brother,
is scraping his dollars and pennies together to keep the mines going. He
is constantly warned to buy no claims on his own account and promises
faithfully, but cannot resist now and then when luring baits are laid
before him, though such ventures invariably result in violent and profane
protests from Aurora.
"The pick and shovel are the only claims I have any confidence in now,"
the miner concludes, after one fierce outburst. "My back is sore, and my
hands are blistered with handling them to-day."
But even the pick and shovel did not inspire confidence a little later.
He writes that the work goes slowly, very slowly, but that they still
hope to strike it some day. "But--if we strike it rich--I've lost my
guess, that's all." Then he adds: "Couldn't go on the hill to-day. It
snowed. It always snows here, I expect"; and the final heart-sick line,
"Don't you suppose they have pretty much quit writing at home?"
This is midsummer, and snow still interferes with the work. One feels
the dreary uselessness of the quest.
Yet resolution did not wholly die, or even enthusiasm. These things were
as recurrent as new prospects, which were plentiful enough. In a still
subsequent letter he declares that he will never look upon his mother's
face again, or his sister's, or get married, or revisit the "Banner
State," until he is a rich man, though there is less assurance than
desperation in the words.
In 'Roughing It' the author tells us that, when flour had reached one
dollar a pound and he could no longer get the dollar, he abandoned mining
and went to milling "as a common laborer in a quartz-mill at ten dollars
a week." This statement requires modification. It was not entirely for
the money that he undertook the laborious task of washing "riffles" and
"screening tailings." The money was welcome enough, no doubt, but the
greater purpose was to learn refining, so that when his mines developed
he could establish his own mill and personally superintend the work. It
is like him to wish us to believe that he was obliged to give up being a
mining magnate to become a laborer in a quartz-mill, for there is a grim
humor in the confession. That he abandoned the milling experiment at the
end of a week is a true statement. He got a violent cold in the damp
place, and came near getting salivated, he says in a letter, "working in
the quicksilver and chemicals. I hardly think I shall try the experiment
again. It is a confining business, and I will not be confined for love
As recreation after this trying experience, Higbie took him on a tour,
prospecting for the traditional "Cement Mine," a lost claim where, in a
deposit of cement rock, gold nuggets were said to be as thick as raisins
in a fruitcake. They did not find the mine, but they visited Mono Lake--
that ghastly, lifeless alkali sea among the hills, which in 'Roughing It'
he has so vividly pictured. It was good to get away from the stress of
things; and they repeated the experiment. They made a walking trip to
Yosemite, carrying their packs, camping and fishing in that far,
tremendous isolation, which in those days few human beings had ever
visited at all. Such trips furnished a delicious respite from the
fevered struggle around tunnel and shaft. Amid mountain-peaks and giant
forests and by tumbling falls the quest for gold hardly seemed worth
while. More than once that summer he went alone into the wilderness to
find his balance and to get away entirely from humankind.
LAST MINING DAYS
It was late in July when he wrote:
If I do not forget it, I will send you, per next mail, a pinch of
decom. (decomposed rock) which I pinched with thumb and finger from
Wide West ledge a while ago. Raish and I have secured 200 out of a
company with 400 ft. in it, which perhaps (the ledge, I mean) is a
spur from the W. W.--our shaft is about 100 ft. from the W. W.
shaft. In order to get in, we agreed to sink 30 ft. We have sublet
to another man for 50 ft., and we pay for powder and sharpening
This was the "Blind Lead" claim of Roughing It, but the episode as set
down in that book is somewhat dramatized. It is quite true that he
visited and nursed Captain Nye while Higbie was off following the
"Cement" 'ignus fatuus' and that the "Wide West" holdings were forfeited
through neglect. But if the loss was regarded as a heavy one, the
letters fail to show it. It is a matter of dispute to-day whether or not
the claim was ever of any value. A well-known California author--[Ella
Sterling Cummins, author of The Story of the Files, etc]--declares:
No one need to fear that he ran any chance of being a millionaire
through the "Wide West" mine, for the writer, as a child, played
over that historic spot and saw only a shut-down mill and desolate
hole in the ground to mark the spot where over-hopeful men had sunk
thousands and thousands, that they never recovered.
The "Blind Lead" episode, as related, is presumably a tale of what might
have happened--a possibility rather than an actuality. It is vividly
true in atmosphere, however, and forms a strong and natural climax for
closing the mining episode, while the literary privilege warrants any
liberties he may have taken for art's sake.
In reality the close of his mining career was not sudden and spectacular;
it was a lingering close, a reluctant and gradual surrender. The "Josh"
letters to the Enterprise had awakened at least a measure of interest,
and Orion had not failed to identify their author when any promising
occasion offered; as a result certain tentative overtures had been made
for similar material. Orion eagerly communicated such chances, for the
money situation was becoming a desperate one. A letter from the Aurora
miner written near the end of July presents the situation very fully. An
extract or two will be sufficient:
My debts are greater than I thought for--I bought $25 worth of
clothing and sent $25 to Higbie, in the cement diggings. I owe
about $45 or $50, and have got about $45 in my pocket. But how in
the h--l I am going to live on something over $100 until October or
November is singular. The fact is, I must have something to do, and
that shortly, too.... Now write to the Sacramento Union folks, or
to Marsh, and tell them I'll write as many letters a week as they
want for $10 a week. My board must be paid. Tell them I have
corresponded with the N. Orleans Crescent and other papers--and the
If they want letters from here--who'll run from morning till night
collecting material cheaper? I'll write a short letter twice a
week, for the present for the 'Age', for $5 per week. Now it has
been a long time since I couldn't make my own living, and it shall
be a long time before I loaf another year.
Nothing came of these possibilities, but about this time Barstow, of the
Enterprise, conferred with Joseph T. Goodman, editor and owner of the
paper, as to the advisability of adding the author of the "Josh" letters
to their local staff. Joe Goodman, who had as keen a literary perception
as any man that ever pitched a journalistic tent on the Pacific coast
(and there could be no higher praise than that), looked over the letters
and agreed with Barstow that the man who wrote them had "something in
him." Two of the sketches in particular he thought promising. One of
them was a burlesque report of an egotistical lecturer who was referred
to as "Professor Personal Pronoun." It closed by stating that it was
"impossible to print his lecture in full, as the type-cases had run out
of capital I's." But it was the other sketch which settled Goodman's
decision. It was also a burlesque report, this time of a Fourth-of-July
oration. It opened, "I was sired by the Great American Eagle and foaled
by a continental dam." This was followed by a string of stock patriotic
phrases absurdly arranged. But it was the opening itself that won
"That is the sort of thing we want," he said. "Write to him, Barstow,
and ask him if he wants to come up here."
Barstow wrote, offering twenty-five dollars a week, a tempting sum. This
was at the end of July, 1862.
In 'Roughing It' we are led to believe that the author regarded this as a
gift from heaven and accepted it straightaway. As a matter of fact, he
fasted and prayed a good while over the "call." To Orion he wrote
Barstow has offered me the post as local reporter for the Enterprise at
$25 a week, and I have written him that I will let him know next mail, if
There was no desperate eagerness, you see, to break into literature, even
under those urgent conditions. It meant the surrender of all hope in the
mines, the confession of another failure. On August 7th he wrote again
to Orion. He had written to Barstow, he said, asking when they thought
he might be needed. He was playing for time to consider.
Now, I shall leave at midnight to-night, alone and on foot, for a walk of
60 or 70 miles through a totally uninhabited country, and it is barely
possible that mail facilities may prove infernally "slow." But do you
write Barstow that I have left here for a week or so, and in case he
should want me, he must write me here, or let me know through you.
So he had gone into the wilderness to fight out his battle alone. But
eight days later, when he had returned, there was still no decision. In
a letter to Pamela of this date he refers playfully to the discomforts of
his cabin and mentions a hope that he will spend the winter in San
Francisco; but there is no reference in it to any newspaper prospects--
nor to the mines, for that matter. Phillips, Howland, and Higbie would
seem to have given up by this time, and he was camping with Dan Twing and
a dog, a combination amusingly described. It is a pleasant enough
letter, but the note of discouragement creeps in:
I did think for a while of going home this fall--but when I found
that that was, and had been, the cherished intention and the darling
aspiration every year of these old care-worn Californians for twelve
weary years, I felt a little uncomfortable, so I stole a march on
Disappointment and said I would not go home this fall. This country
suits me, and it shall suit me whether or no.
He was dying hard, desperately hard; how could he know, to paraphrase the
old form of Christian comfort, that his end as a miner would mean, in
another sphere, "a brighter resurrection" than even his rainbow
imagination could paint?
THE NEW ESTATE
It was the afternoon of a hot, dusty August day when a worn, travel-
stained pilgrim drifted laggingly into the office of the Virginia City
Enterprise, then in its new building on C Street, and, loosening a heavy
roll of blankets from his shoulders, dropped wearily into a chair. He
wore a rusty slouch hat, no coat, a faded blue flannel shirt, a Navy
revolver; his trousers were hanging on his boot tops. A tangle of
reddish-brown hair fell on his shoulders, and a mass of tawny beard,
dingy with alkali dust, dropped half-way to his waist.
Aurora lay one hundred and thirty miles from Virginia. He had walked
that distance, carrying his heavy load. Editor Goodman was absent at the
moment, but the other proprietor, Denis E. McCarthy, signified that the
caller might state his errand. The wanderer regarded him with a far-away
look and said, absently and with deliberation:
"My starboard leg seems to be unshipped. I'd like about one hundred
yards of line; I think I am falling to pieces." Then he added: "I want
to see Mr. Barstow, or Mr. Goodman. My name is Clemens, and I've come to
write for the paper."
It was the master of the world's widest estate come to claim his kingdom:
William Wright, who had won a wide celebrity on the Coast as Dan de
Quille, was in the editorial chair and took charge of the new arrival.
He was going on a trip to the States soon; it was mainly on this account
that the new man had been engaged. The "Josh" letters were very good, in
Dan's opinion; he gave their author a cordial welcome, and took him
around to his boarding-place. It was the beginning of an association
that continued during Samuel Clemens's stay in Virginia City and of a
friendship that lasted many years.
The Territorial Enterprise was one of the most remarkable frontier papers
ever published. Its editor-in-chief, Joseph Goodman, was a man with rare
appreciation, wide human understanding, and a comprehensive newspaper
policy. Being a young man, he had no policy, in fact, beyond the general
purpose that his paper should be a forum for absolutely free speech,
provided any serious statement it contained was based upon knowledge.
His instructions to the new reporter were about as follows:
"Never say we learn so and so, or it is rumored, or we understand so and
so; but go to headquarters and get the absolute facts; then speak out and
say it is so and so. In the one case you are likely to be shot, and in
the other you are pretty certain to be; but you will preserve the public
Goodman was not new to the West. He had come to California as a boy and
had been a miner, explorer, printer, and contributor by turns. Early in
'61, when the Comstock Lode--[Named for its discoverer, Henry T. P.
Comstock, a half-crazy miner, who realized very little from his
stupendous find.]--was new and Virginia in the first flush of its
monster boom, he and Denis McCarthy had scraped together a few dollars
and bought the paper. It had been a hand-to-hand struggle for a while,
but in a brief two years, from a starving sheet in a shanty the
Enterprise, with new building, new presses, and a corps of swift
compositors brought up from San Francisco, had become altogether
metropolitan, as well as the most widely considered paper on the Coast.
It had been borne upward by the Comstock tide, though its fearless,
picturesque utterance would have given it distinction anywhere. Goodman
himself was a fine, forceful writer, and Dan de Quille and R. M. Daggett
(afterward United States minister to Hawaii) were representative of
Enterprise men.--[The Comstock of that day became famous for its
journalism. Associated with the Virginia papers then or soon afterward
were such men as Tom Fitch (the silver-tongued orator), Alf Doten, W. J.
Forbes, C. C. Goodwin, H. R. Mighels, Clement T. Rice, Arthur McEwen,
and Sam Davis--a great array indeed for a new Territory.]--
Samuel Clemens fitted precisely into this group. He added the fresh,
rugged vigor of thought and expression that was the very essence of the
Comstock, which was like every other frontier mining-camp, only on a more
lavish, more overwhelming scale.
There was no uncertainty about the Comstock; the silver and gold were
there. Flanking the foot of Mount Davidson, the towns of Gold Hill and
Virginia and the long street between were fairly underburrowed and
underpinned by the gigantic mining construction of that opulent lode
whose treasures were actually glutting the mineral markets of the world.
The streets overhead seethed and swarmed with miners, mine owners, and
adventurers--riotous, rollicking children of fortune, always ready to
drink and make merry, as eager in their pursuit of pleasure as of gold.
Comstockers would always laugh at a joke; the rougher the better. The
town of Virginia itself was just a huge joke to most of them. Everybody
had, money; everybody wanted to laugh and have a good time. The
Enterprise, "Comstock to the backbone," did what it could to help things
It was a sort of free ring, with every one for himself. Goodman let the
boys write and print in accordance with their own ideas and upon any
subject. Often they wrote of each other--squibs and burlesques, which
gratified the Comstock far more than mere news.--[The indifference to
'news' was noble--none the less so because it was so blissfully
unconscious. Editors Mark or Dan would dismiss a murder with a couple of
inches and sit down and fill up a column with a fancy sketch: "Arthur
McEwen"]--It was the proper class-room for Mark Twain, an encouraging
audience and free utterance: fortune could have devised nothing better
for him than that.
He was peculiarly fitted for the position. Unspoiled humanity appealed
to him, and the Comstock presented human nature in its earliest landscape
forms. Furthermore, the Comstock was essentially optimistic--so was he;
any hole in the ground to him held a possible, even a probable, fortune.
His pilot memory became a valuable asset in news-gathering. Remembering
marks, banks, sounding, and other river detail belonged apparently in the
same category of attainments as remembering items and localities of news.
He could travel all day without a note-book and at night reproduce the
day's budget or at least the picturesqueness of it, without error. He
was presently accounted a good reporter, except where statistics--
measurements and figures--were concerned. These he gave "a lick and a
promise," according to De Quille, who wrote afterward of their
associations. De Quille says further:
Mark and I agreed well in our work, which we divided when there was
a rush of events; but we often cruised in company, he taking the
items of news he could handle best, and I such as I felt competent
to work up. However, we wrote at the same table and frequently
helped each other with such suggestions as occurred to us during the
brief consultations we held in regard to the handling of any matters
of importance. Never was there an angry word between us in all the
time we worked together.
De Quille tells how Clemens clipped items with a knife when there were no
scissors handy, and slashed through on the top of his desk, which in time
took on the semblance "of a huge polar star, spiritedly dashing forth a
The author of 'Roughing It' has given us a better picture of the Virginia
City of those days and his work there than any one else will ever write.
He has made us feel the general spirit of affluence that prevailed; how
the problem was not to get money, but to spend it; how "feet" in any one
of a hundred mines could be had for the asking; how such shares were
offered like apples or cigars or bonbons, as a natural matter of courtesy
when one happened to have his supply in view; how any one connected with
a newspaper would have stocks thrust upon him, and how in a brief time he
had acquired a trunk ful of such riches and usually had something to sell
when any of the claims made a stir on the market. He has told us of the
desperadoes and their trifling regard for human life, and preserved other
elemental characters of these prodigal days. The funeral of Buck Fanshaw
that amazing masterpiece--is a complete epitome of the social frontier.
It would not be the part of wisdom to attempt another inclusive
presentation of Comstock conditions. We may only hope to add a few
details of history, justified now by time and circumstances, to
supplement the picture with certain data of personality preserved from
the drift of years.
ONE OF THE "STAFF"
The new reporter found acquaintance easy. The office force was like one
family among which there was no line of caste. Proprietors, editors, and
printers were social equals; there was little ceremony among them--none
at all outside of the office.--["The paper went to press at two in the
morning, then all the staff and all the compositors gathered themselves
together in the composing-room and drank beer and sang the popular war-
songs of the day until dawn."--S. L. C., in 1908.]--Samuel Clemens
immediately became "Sam," or "Josh," to his associates, just as De Quille
was "Dan" and Goodman "Joe." He found that he disliked the name of Josh,
and, as he did not sign it again, it was presently dropped. The office,
and Virginia City generally, quickly grew fond of him, delighting in his
originality and measured speech. Enterprise readers began to identify
his work, then unsigned, and to enjoy its fresh phrasing, even when it
was only the usual local item or mining notice. True to its name and
reputation, the paper had added a new attraction.
It was only a brief time after his arrival in Virginia City that Clemens
began the series of hoaxes which would carry his reputation, not always
in an enviable fashion, across the Sierras and down the Pacific coast.
With one exception these are lost to-day, for so far as known there is
not a single file of the Enterprise in existence. Only a few stray
copies and clippings are preserved, but we know the story of some of
these literary pranks and of their results. They were usually intended
as a special punishment of some particular individual or paper or
locality; but victims were gathered by the wholesale in their seductive
web. Mark Twain himself, in his book of Sketches, has set down something
concerning the first of these, "The Petrified Man," and of another, "My
Bloody Massacre," but in neither case has he told it all. "The Petrified
Man" hoax was directed at an official named Sewall, a coroner and justice
of the peace at Humboldt, who had been pompously indifferent in the
matter of supplying news. The story, told with great circumstance and
apparent care as to detail, related the finding of a petrified
prehistoric man, partially imbedded in a rock, in a cave in the desert
more than one hundred miles from Humboldt, and how Sewall had made the
perilous five-day journey in the alkali waste to hold an inquest over a
man that had been dead three hundred years; also how, "with that delicacy
so characteristic of him," Sewall had forbidden the miners from blasting
him from his position. The account further stated that the hands of the
deceased were arranged in a peculiar fashion; and the description of the
arrangement was so skilfully woven in with other matters that at first,
or even second, reading one might not see that the position indicated was
the ancient one which begins with the thumb at the nose and in many ages
has been used impolitely to express ridicule and the word "sold." But
the description was a shade too ingenious. The author expected that the
exchanges would see the jolt and perhaps assist in the fun he would have
with Sewall. He did not contemplate a joke on the papers themselves. As
a matter of fact, no one saw the "sell" and most of the papers printed
his story of the petrified man as a genuine discovery. This was a
surprise, and a momentary disappointment; then he realized that he had
builded better than he knew. He gathered up a bundle of the exchanges
and sent them to Sewall; also he sent marked copies to scientific men in
various parts of the United States. The papers had taken it seriously;
perhaps the scientists would. Some of them did, and Sewall's days became
unhappy because of letters received asking further information. As
literature, the effort did not rank high, and as a trick on an obscure
official it was hardly worth while; but, as a joke on the Coast exchanges
and press generally, it was greatly regarded and its author, though as
yet unnamed, acquired prestige.
Inquiries began to be made as to who was the smart chap in Virginia that
did these things. The papers became wary and read Enterprise items twice
before clipping them. Clemens turned his attention to other matters to
lull suspicion. The great "Dutch Nick Massacre" did not follow until a
Reference has already been made to the Comstock's delight in humor of a
positive sort. The practical joke was legal tender in Virginia. One
might protest and swear, but he must take it. An example of Comstock
humor, regarded as the finest assay, is an incident still told of Leslie
Blackburn and Pat Holland, two gay men about town. They were coming down
C Street one morning when they saw some fine watermelons on a fruit-stand
at the International Hotel corner. Watermelons were rare and costly in
that day and locality, and these were worth three dollars apiece.
"Pat, let's get one of those watermelons. You engage that fellow in
conversation while I stand at the corner, where I can step around out of
sight easily. When you have got him interested, point to something on
the back shelf and pitch me a melon."
This appealed to Holland, and he carried out his part of the plan
perfectly; but when he pitched the watermelon Blackburn simply put his
hands in his pockets, and stepped around the comer, leaving the melon a
fearful disaster on the pavement. It was almost impossible for Pat to
explain to the fruit-man why he pitched away a three-dollar melon like
that even after paying for it, and it was still more trying, also more
expensive, to explain to the boys facing the various bars along C Street.
Sam Clemens, himself a practical joker in his youth, found a healthy
delight in this knock-down humor of the Comstock. It appealed to his
vigorous, elemental nature. He seldom indulged physically in such
things; but his printed squibs and hoaxes and his keen love of the
ridiculous placed him in the joker class, while his prompt temper, droll
manner, and rare gift of invective made him an enticing victim.
Among the Enterprise compositors was one by the name of Stephen E.
Gillis (Steve, of course--one of the "fighting Gillises"), a small,
fearless young fellow, handsome, quick of wit, with eyes like needle-
"Steve weighed only ninety-five pounds," Mark Twain once wrote of him,
"but it was well known throughout the Territory that with his fists he
could whip anybody that walked on two legs, let his weight and science be
what they might."
Clemens was fond of Steve Gillis from the first. The two became closely
associated in time, and were always bosom friends; but Steve was a
merciless joker, and never as long as they were together could he "resist
the temptation of making Sam swear," claiming that his profanity was
grander than any music.
A word hereabout Mark Twain's profanity. Born with a matchless gift of
phrase, the printing-office, the river, and the mines had developed it in
a rare perfection. To hear him denounce a thing was to give one the
fierce, searching delight of galvanic waves. Every characterization
seemed the most perfect fit possible until he applied the next. And
somehow his profanity was seldom an offense. It was not mere idle
swearing; it seemed always genuine and serious. His selection of epithet
was always dignified and stately, from whatever source--and it might be
from the Bible or the gutter. Some one has defined dirt as misplaced
matter. It is perhaps the greatest definition ever uttered. It is
absolutely universal in its application, and it recurs now, remembering
Mark Twain's profanity. For it was rarely misplaced; hence it did not
often offend. It seemed, in fact, the safety-valve of his high-pressure
intellectual engine. When he had blown off he was always calm, gentle;
forgiving, and even tender. Once following an outburst he said,
"In certain trying circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate
circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer."
It seems proper to add that it is not the purpose of this work to magnify
or modify or excuse that extreme example of humankind which forms its
chief subject; but to set him down as he was inadequately, of course, but
with good conscience and clear intent.
Led by Steve Gillis, the Enterprise force used to devise tricks to set
him going. One of these was to hide articles from his desk. He detested
the work necessary to the care of a lamp, and wrote by the light of a
candle. To hide "Sam's candle" was a sure way to get prompt and vigorous
return. He would look for it a little; then he would begin a slow,
circular walk--a habit acquired in the limitations of the pilot-house--
and his denunciation of the thieves was like a great orchestration of
wrong. By and by the office boy, supposedly innocent, would find another
for him, and all would be forgotten. He made a placard, labeled with
fearful threats and anathemas, warning any one against touching his
candle; but one night both the placard and the candle were gone.
Now, amoung his Virginia acquaintances was a young minister, a Mr.
Rising, "the fragile, gentle new fledgling" of the Buck Fanshaw episode.
Clemens greatly admired Mr. Rising's evident sincerity, and the young
minister had quickly recognized the new reporter's superiority of mind.
Now and then he came to the office to call on him. Unfortunately, he
happened to step in just at that moment when, infuriated by the latest
theft of his property, Samuel Clemens was engaged in his rotary
denunciation of the criminals, oblivious of every other circumstance.
Mr. Rising stood spellbound by this, to him, new phase of genius, and at
last his friend became dimly aware of him. He did not halt in his
scathing treadmill and continued in the slow monotone of speech:
"I know, Mr. Rising, I know it's wicked to talk like this; I know it is
wrong. I know I shall certainly go to hell for it. But if you had a
candle, Mr. Rising, and those thieves should carry it off every night, I
know that you would say, just as I say, Mr. Rising, G-d d--n their
impenitent souls, may they roast in hell for a million years."
The little clergyman caught his breath.
"Maybe I should, Mr. Clemens," he replied, "but I should try to say,
'Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.'"
"Oh, well! if you put it on the ground that they are just fools, that
alters the case, as I am one of that class myself. Come in and we'll try
to forgive them and forget about it."
Mark Twain had a good many experiences with young ministers. He was
always fond of them, and they often sought him out. Once, long
afterward, at a hotel, he wanted a boy to polish his shoes, and had rung
a number of times without getting any response. Presently, he thought he
heard somebody approaching in the hall outside. He flung open the door,
and a small, youngish-looking person, who seemed to have been hesitating
at the door, made a movement as though to depart hastily. Clemens
grabbed him by the collar.
"Look here," he said, "I've been waiting and ringing here for half an
hour. Now I want you to take those shoes, and polish them, quick. Do
The slim, youthful person trembled a good deal, and said: "I would, Mr.
Clemens, I would indeed, sir, if I could. But I'm a minister of the
Gospel, and I'm not prepared for such work."
PHILOSOPHY AND POETRY
There was a side to Samuel Clemens that in those days few of his
associates saw. This was the poetic, the philosophic, the contemplative
side. Joseph Goodman recognized this phase of his character, and, while
he perhaps did not regard it as a future literary asset, he delighted in
it, and in their hours of quiet association together encouraged its
exhibition. It is rather curious that with all his literary penetration
Goodman did not dream of a future celebrity for Clemens. He afterward
"If I had been asked to prophesy which of the two men, Dan de Quille or
Sam, would become distinguished, I should have said De Quille. Dan was
talented, industrious, and, for that time and place, brilliant. Of
course, I recognized the unusualness of Sam's gifts, but he was eccentric
and seemed to lack industry; it is not likely that I should have
prophesied fame for him then."
Goodman, like MacFarlane in Cincinnati, half a dozen years before, though
by a different method, discovered and developed the deeper vein. Often
the two, dining together in a French restaurant, discussed life, subtler
philosophies, recalled various phases of human history, remembered and
recited the poems that gave them especial enjoyment. "The Burial of
Moses," with its noble phrasing and majestic imagery, appealed strongly
to Clemens, and he recited it with great power. The first stanza in
particular always stirred him, and it stirred his hearer as well. With
eyes half closed and chin lifted, a lighted cigar between his fingers, he
would lose himself in the music of the stately lines.
By Nebo's lonely mountain,
On this side Jordan's wave,
In a vale in the land of Moab,
There lies a lonely grave.
And no man knows that sepulchre,
And no man saw it e'er,
For the angels of God, upturned the sod,
And laid the dead man there.
Another stanza that he cared for almost as much was the one beginning:
And had he not high honor--
The hill-side for a pall,
To lie in state while angels wait
With stars for tapers tall,
And the dark rock-pines, like tossing plumes,
Over his bier to wave,
And God's own hand in that lonely land,
To lay him in the grave?
Without doubt he was moved to emulate the simple grandeur of that poem,
for he often repeated it in those days, and somewhat later we find it
copied into his notebook in full. It would seem to have become to him a
sort of literary touchstone; and in some measure it may be regarded as
accountable for the fact that in the fullness of time "he made use of the
purest English of any modern writer." These are Goodman's words, though
William Dean Howells has said them, also, in substance, and Brander
Matthews, and many others who know about such things. Goodman adds, "The
simplicity and beauty of his style are almost without a parallel, except
in the common version of the Bible," which is also true. One is reminded
of what Macaulay said of Milton:
"There would seem at first sight to be no more in his words than in other
words. But they are words of enchantment. No sooner are they pronounced
than the past is present and the distance near. New forms of beauty
start at once into existence, and all the burial-places of the memory
give up their dead."
One drifts ahead, remembering these things. The triumph of words, the
mastery of phrases, lay all before him at the time of which we are
writing now. He was twenty-seven. At that age Rudyard Kipling had
reached his meridian. Samuel Clemens was still in the classroom.
Everything came as a lesson-phrase, form, aspect, and combination;
nothing escaped unvalued. The poetic phase of things particularly
impressed him. Once at a dinner with Goodman, when the lamp-light from
the chandelier struck down through the claret on the tablecloth in a
great red stain, he pointed to it dramatically "Look, Joe," he said, "the
angry tint of wine."
It was at one of these private sessions, late in '62, that Clemens
proposed to report the coming meeting of the Carson legislature. He knew
nothing of such work and had small knowledge of parliamentary
proceedings. Formerly it had been done by a man named Gillespie, but
Gillespie was now clerk of the house. Goodman hesitated; then,
remembering that whether Clemens got the reports right or not, he would
at least make them readable, agreed to let him undertake the work.
The early Nevada legislature was an interesting assembly. All State
legislatures are that, and this was a mining frontier. No attempt can be
made to describe it. It was chiefly distinguished for a large ignorance
of procedure, a wide latitude of speech, a noble appreciation of humor,
and plenty of brains. How fortunate Mask Twain was in his schooling, to
be kept away from institutional training, to be placed in one after
another of those universities of life where the sole curriculum is the
study of the native inclinations and activities of mankind! Sometimes,
in after-years, he used to regret the lack of systematic training. Well
for him--and for us--that he escaped that blight.
For the study of human nature the Nevada assembly was a veritable
lecture-room. In it his understanding, his wit, his phrasing, his self-
assuredness grew like Jack's bean-stalk, which in time was ready to break
through into a land above the sky. He made some curious blunders in his
reports, in the beginning; but he was so frank in his ignorance and in
his confession of it that the very unsophistication of his early letters
became their chief charm. Gillespie coached him on parliamentary
matters, and in time the reports became technically as well as
artistically good. Clemens in return christened Gillespie "Young,
Jefferson's Manual," a title which he bore, rather proudly indeed, for
Another "entitlement" growing out of those early reports, and possibly
less satisfactory to its owner, was the one accorded to Clement T. Rice,
of the Virginia City Union. Rice knew the legislative work perfectly and
concluded to poke fun at the Enterprise letters.
But this was a mistake. Clemens in his next letter declared that Rice's
reports might be parliamentary enough, but that they covered with
glittering technicalities the most festering mass of misstatement, and
even crime. He avowed that they were wholly untrustworthy; dubbed the
author of them "The Unreliable," and in future letters never referred to
him by any other term. Carson and the Comstock and the papers of the
Coast delighted in this burlesque journalistic warfare, and Rice was "The
Unreliable" for life.
Rice and Clemens, it should be said, though rivals, were the best of
friends, and there was never any real animosity between them.
Clemens quickly became a favorite with the members; his sharp letters,
with their amusing turn of phrase and their sincerity, won general
friendship. Jack Simmons, speaker of the house, and Billy Clagget, the
Humboldt delegation, were his special cronies and kept him on the inside
of the political machine. Clagget had remained in Unionville after the
mining venture, warned his Keokuk sweetheart, and settled down into
politics and law. In due time he would become a leading light and go to
Congress. He was already a notable figure of forceful eloquence and
tousled, unkempt hair. Simmons, Clagget, and Clemens were easily the
three conspicuous figures of the session.
It must have been gratifying to the former prospector and miner to come
back to Carson City a person of consequence, where less than a year
before he had been regarded as no more than an amusing indolent fellow, a
figure to smile at, but unimportant. There is a photograph extant of
Clemens and his friends Clagget and Simmons in a group, and we gather
from it that he now arrayed himself in a long broadcloth cloak, a
starched shirt, and polished boots. Once more he had become the glass of
fashion that he had been on the river. He made his residence with Orion,
whose wife and little daughter Jennie had by this time come out from the
States. "Sister Mollie," as wife of the acting governor, was presently
social leader of the little capital; her brilliant brother-in-law its
chief ornament. His merriment and songs and good nature made him a
favorite guest. His lines had fallen in pleasant places; he could afford
to smile at the hard Esmeralda days.
He was not altogether satisfied. His letters, copied and quoted all
along the Coast, were unsigned. They were easily identified with one
another, but not with a personality. He realized that to build a
reputation it was necessary to fasten it to an individuality, a name.
He gave the matter a good deal of thought. He did not consider the use
of his own name; the 'nom de plume' was the fashion of the time. He
wanted something brief, crisp, definite, unforgettable. He tried over a
good many combinations in his mind, but none seemed convincing. Just
then--this was early in 1863--news came to him that the old pilot he had
wounded by his satire, Isaiah Sellers, was dead. At once the pen-name of
Captain Sellers recurred to him. That was it; that was the sort of name
he wanted. It was not trivial; it had all the qualities--Sellers would
never need it again. Clemens decided he would give it a new meaning and
new association in this far-away land. He went up to Virginia City.
"Joe," he said, to Goodman, "I want to sign my articles. I want to be
identified to a wider audience."
"All right, Sam. What name do you want to use 'Josh'?"
"No, I want to sign them 'Mark Twain.' It is an old river term, a leads-
man's call, signifying two fathoms--twelve feet. It has a richness about
it; it was always a pleasant sound for a pilot to hear on a dark night;
it meant safe water."
He did not then mention that Captain Isaiah Sellers had used and dropped
the name. He was ashamed of his part in that episode, and the offense
was still too recent for confession. Goodman considered a moment:
"Very well, Sam," he said, "that sounds like a good name."
It was indeed a good name. In all the nomenclature of the world no more
forceful combination of words could have been selected to express the man
for whom they stood. The name Mark Twain is as infinite, as fundamental
as that of John Smith, without the latter's wasting distribution of
strength. If all the prestige in the name of John Smith were combined in
a single individual, its dynamic energy might give it the carrying power
of Mark Twain. Let this be as it may, it has proven the greatest 'nom de
plume' ever chosen--a name exactly in accord with the man, his work, and
It is not surprising that Goodman did not recognize this at the moment.
We should not guess the force that lies in a twelve-inch shell if we had
never seen one before or heard of its seismic destruction. We should
have to wait and see it fired, and take account of the result.
It was first signed to a Carson letter bearing date of February 2, 1863,
and from that time was attached to all Samuel Clemens's work. The work
was neither better nor worse than before, but it had suddenly acquired
identification and special interest. Members of the legislature and
friends in Virginia and Carson immediately began to address him as
"Mark." The papers of the Coast took it up, and within a period to be
measured by weeks he was no longer "Sam" or "Clemens" or "that bright
chap on the Enterprise," but "Mark"--"Mark Twain." No 'nom de plume' was
ever so quickly and generally accepted as that. De Quille, returning
from the East after an absence of several months, found his room and
deskmate with the distinction of a new name and fame.
It is curious that in the letters to the home folks preserved from that
period there is no mention of his new title and its success. In fact,
the writer rarely speaks of his work at all, and is more inclined to tell
of the mining shares he has accumulated, their present and prospective
values. However, many of the letters are undoubtedly missing. Such as
have been preserved are rather airy epistles full of his abounding joy of
life and good nature. Also they bear evidence of the renewal of his old
river habit of sending money home--twenty dollars in each letter, with
intervals of a week or so between.
THE CREAM OF COMSTOCK HUMOR
With the adjournment of the legislature, Samuel Clemens returned to
Virginia City distinctly a notability--Mark Twain. He was regarded as
leading man on the Enterprise--which in itself was high distinction on
the Comstock--while his improved dress and increased prosperity commanded
additional respect. When visitors of note came along--well-known actors,
lecturers, politicians--he was introduced as one of the Comstock features
which it was proper to see, along with the Ophir and Gould and Curry
mines, and the new hundred-stamp quartz-mill.
He was rather grieved and hurt, therefore, when, after several
collections had been taken up in the Enterprise office to present various
members of the staff with meerschaum pipes, none had come to him. He
mentioned this apparent slight to Steve Gillis:
"Nobody ever gives me a meerschaum pipe," he said, plaintively. "Don't I
deserve one yet?"
Unhappy day! To that remorseless creature, Steve Gillis, this was a
golden opportunity for deviltry of a kind that delighted his soul. This
is the story, precisely as Gillis himself told it to the writer of these
annals more than a generation later:
"There was a German kept a cigar store in Virginia City and always had a
fine assortment of meerschaum pipes. These pipes usually cost anywhere
from forty to seventy-five dollars.
"One day Denis McCarthy and I were walking by the old German's place, and
stopped to look in at the display in the window. Among other things
there was one large imitation meerschaum with a high bowl and a long
stem, marked a dollar and a half.
"I decided that that would be just the pipe for Sam. We went in and
bought it, also a very much longer stem. I think the stem alone cost
three dollars. Then we had a little German-silver plate engraved with
Mark's name on it and by whom presented, and made preparations for the
presentation. Charlie Pope--[afterward proprietor of Pope's Theater,
St. Louis]--was playing at the Opera House at the time, and we engaged
him to make the presentation speech.
"Then we let in Dan de Quille, Mark's closest friend, to act the part of
Judas--to tell Mark privately that he, was going to be presented with a
fine pipe, so that he could have a speech prepared in reply to Pope's.
It was awful low-down in Dan. We arranged to have the affair come off in
the saloon beneath the Opera House after the play was over.
"Everything went off handsomely; but it was a pretty remorseful occasion,
and some of us had a hang-dog look; for Sam took it in such sincerity,
and had prepared one of the most beautiful speeches I ever heard him
make. Pope's presentation, too, was beautifully done. He told Sam how
his friends all loved him, and that this pipe, purchased at so great an
expense, was but a small token of their affection. But Sam's reply,
which was supposed to be impromptu, actually brought the tears to the
eyes of some of us, and he was interrupted every other minute with
applause. I never felt so sorry for anybody.
"Still, we were bent on seeing the thing through. After Sam's speech was
finished, he ordered expensive wines--champagne and sparkling Moselle.
Then we went out to do the town, and kept things going until morning to
drown our sorrow.
"Well, next day, of course, he started in to color the pipe. It wouldn't
color any more than a piece of chalk, which was about all it was. Sam
would smoke and smoke, and complain that it didn't seem to taste right,
and that it wouldn't color. Finally Denis said to him one day:
"'Oh, Sam, don't you know that's just a damned old egg-shell, and that
the boys bought it for a dollar and a half and presented you with it for
"Then Sam was furious, and we laid the whole thing on Dan de Quille. He
had a thunder-cloud on his face when he started up for the Local Room,
where Dan was. He went in and closed the door behind him, and locked it,
and put the key in his pocket--an awful sign. Dan was there alone,
writing at his table.
"Sam said, 'Dan, did you know, when you invited me to make that speech,
that those fellows were going to give me a bogus pipe?'
"There was no way for Dan to escape, and he confessed. Sam walked up and
down the floor, as if trying to decide which way to slay Dan. Finally he
"'Oh, Dan, to think that you, my dearest friend, who knew how little
money I had, and how hard I would work to prepare a speech that would
show my gratitude to my friends, should be the traitor, the Judas, to
betray me with a kiss! Dan, I never want to look on your face again.
You knew I would spend every dollar I had on those pirates when I
couldn't afford to spend anything; and yet you let me do it; you aided
and abetted their diabolical plan, and you even got me to get up that
damned speech to make the thing still more ridiculous.'
"Of course Dan felt terribly, and tried to defend himself by saying that
they were really going to present him with a fine pipe--a genuine one,
this time. But Sam at first refused to be comforted; and when, a few
days later, I went in with the pipe and said, 'Sam, here's the pipe the
boys meant to give you all the time,' and tried to apologize, he looked
around a little coldly, and said:
"'Is that another of those bogus old pipes?'
"He accepted it, though, and general peace was restored. One day, soon
after, he said to me:
"'Steve, do you know that I think that that bogus pipe smokes about as
well as the good one?'"
Many years later (this was in his home at Hartford, and Joe Goodman was
present) Mark Twain one day came upon the old imitation pipe.
"Joe," he said, "that was a cruel, cruel trick the boys played on me;
but, for the feeling I had during the moment when they presented me with
that pipe and when Charlie Pope was making his speech and I was making my
reply to it--for the memory of that feeling, now, that pipe is more
precious to me than any pipe in the world!"
Eighteen hundred and sixty-three was flood-tide on the Comstock. Every
mine was working full blast. Every mill was roaring and crunching,
turning out streams of silver and gold. A little while ago an old
When I close my eyes I hear again the respirations of hoisting-
engines and the roar of stamps; I can see the "camels" after
midnight packing in salt; I can see again the jam of teams on C
Street and hear the anathemas of the drivers--all the mighty work
that went on in order to lure the treasures from the deep chambers
of the great lode and to bring enlightenment to the desert.
Those were lively times. In the midst of one of his letters home Mark
Twain interrupts himself to say: "I have just heard five pistol-shots
down the street--as such things are in my line, I will go and see about
it," and in a postscript added a few hours later:
5 A.M. The pistol-shot did its work well. One man, a Jackson
County Missourian, shot two of my friends (police officers) through
the heart--both died within three minutes. The murderer's name is
"Mark and I had our hands full," says De Quille, "and no grass grew under
our feet." In answer to some stray criticism of their policy, they
printed a sort of editorial manifesto:
Our duty is to keep the universe thoroughly posted concerning
murders and street fights, and balls, and theaters, and pack-trains,
and churches, and lectures, and school-houses, and city military
affairs, and highway robberies, and Bible societies, and hay-wagons,
and the thousand other things which it is in the province of local
reporters to keep track of and magnify into undue importance for the
instruction of the readers of a great daily newspaper.
It is easy to recognize Mark Twain's hand in that compendium of labor,
which, in spite of its amusing apposition, was literally true, and so
intended, probably with no special thought of humor in its construction.
It may be said, as well here as anywhere, that it was not Mark Twain's
habit to strive for humor. He saw facts at curious angles and phrased
them accordingly. In Virginia City he mingled with the turmoil of the
Comstock and set down what he saw and thought, in his native speech. The
Comstock, ready to laugh, found delight in his expression and discovered
a vast humor in his most earnest statements.
On the other hand, there were times when the humor was intended and
missed its purpose. We have already recalled the instance of the
"Petrified Man" hoax, which was taken seriously; but the "Empire City
Massacre" burlesque found an acceptance that even its author considered
serious for a time. It is remembered to-day in Virginia City as the
chief incident of Mark Twain's Comstock career.
This literary bomb really had two objects, one of which was to punish the
San Francisco Bulletin for its persistent attacks on Washoe interests;
the other, though this was merely incidental, to direct an unpleasant
attention to a certain Carson saloon, the Magnolia, which was supposed to
dispense whisky of the "forty rod" brand--that is, a liquor warranted to
kill at that range. It was the Bulletin that was to be made especially.
ridiculous. This paper had been particularly disagreeable concerning the
"dividend-cooking" system of certain of the Comstock mines, at the same
time calling invidious attention to safer investments in California
stocks. Samuel Clemens, with "half a trunkful" of Comstock shares, had
cultivated a distaste for California things in general: In a letter of
that time he says:
"How I hate everything that looks or tastes or smells like California!"
With his customary fickleness of soul, he was glorifying California less
than a year later, but for the moment he could see no good in that
Nazareth. To his great satisfaction, one of the leading California
corporations, the Spring Valley Water Company, "cooked" a dividend of its
own about this time, resulting in disaster to a number of guileless
investors who were on the wrong side of the subsequent crash. This
afforded an inviting opportunity for reprisal. With Goodman's consent he
planned for the California papers, and the Bulletin in particular, a
punishment which he determined to make sufficiently severe. He believed
the papers of that State had forgotten his earlier offenses, and the
result would show he was not mistaken.
There was a point on the Carson River, four miles from Carson City, known
as "Dutch Nick's," and also as Empire City, the two being identical.
There was no forest there of any sort nothing but sage-brush. In the one
cabin there lived a bachelor with no household. Everybody in Virginia
and Carson, of course, knew these things.
Mark Twain now prepared a most lurid and graphic account of how one
Phillip Hopkins, living "just at the edge of the great pine forest which
lies between Empire City and 'Dutch Nick's'," had suddenly gone insane and
murderously assaulted his entire family consisting of his wife and their
nine children, ranging in ages from one to nineteen years. The wife had
been slain outright, also seven of the children; the other two might
recover. The murder had been committed in the most brutal and ghastly
fashion, after which Hopkins had scalped his wife, leaped on a horse, cut
his own throat from ear to ear, and ridden four miles into Carson City,
dropping dead at last in front of the Magnolia saloon, the red-haired
scalp of his wife still clutched in his gory hand. The article further
stated that the cause of Mr. Hopkins's insanity was pecuniary loss, he
having withdrawn his savings from safe Comstock investments and, through
the advice of a relative, one of the editors of the San Francisco
Bulletin, invested them in the Spring Valley Water Company. This absurd
tale with startling head-lines appeared in the Enterprise, in its issue
of October 28, 1863.
It was not expected that any one in Virginia City or Carson City would
for a moment take any stock in the wild invention, yet so graphic was it
that nine out of ten on first reading never stopped to consider the
entire impossibility of the locality and circumstance. Even when these
things were pointed out many readers at first refused to confess
themselves sold. As for the Bulletin and other California papers, they
were taken-in completely, and were furious. Many of them wrote and
demanded the immediate discharge of its author, announcing that they
would never copy another line from the Enterprise, or exchange with it,
or have further relations with a paper that had Mark Twain on its staff.
Citizens were mad, too, and cut off their subscriptions. The joker was
"Oh, Joe," he said, "I have ruined your business, and the only reparation
I can make is to resign. You can never recover from this blow while I am
on the paper."
"Nonsense," replied Goodman. "We can furnish the people with news, but
we can't supply them with sense. Only time can do that. The flurry will
pass. You just go ahead. We'll win out in the long run."
But the offender was in torture; he could not sleep. "Dan, Dan," he
said, "I am being burned alive on both sides of the mountains."
"Mark," said Dan. "It will all blow over. This item of yours will be
remembered and talked about when the rest of your Enterprise work is
Both Goodman and De Quille were right. In a month papers and people had
forgotten their humiliation and laughed. "The Dutch Nick Massacre" gave
to its perpetrator and to the Enterprise an added vogue.
--[For full text of the "Dutch Nick" hoax see Appendix C, at the end of
last volume: also, for an anecdote concerning a reporting excursion made
by Alf. Doten and Mark Twain.]--
Reference has already been made to the fashion among Virginia City papers
of permitting reporters to use the editorial columns for ridicule of one
another. This custom was especially in vogue during the period when Dan
de Quille and Mark Twain and The Unreliable were the shining journalistic
lights of the Comstock. Scarcely a week went by that some apparently
venomous squib or fling or long burlesque assault did not appear either
in the Union or the Enterprise, with one of those jokers as its author
and another as its target. In one of his "home" letters of that year
Mark Twain says:
I have just finished writing up my report for the morning paper and
giving The Unreliable a column of advice about how to conduct
himself in church.
The advice was such as to call for a reprisal, but it apparently made no
difference in personal relations, for a few weeks later he is with The
Unreliable in San Francisco, seeing life in the metropolis, fairly
swimming in its delights, unable to resist reporting them to his mother.
We fag ourselves completely out every day and go to sleep without
rocking every night. When I go down Montgomery Street shaking hands
with Tom, Dick, and Harry, it is just like being on Main Street in
Hannibal and meeting the old familiar faces. I do hate to go back
to Washoe. We take trips across the bay to Oakland, and down to San
Leandro and Alameda, and we go out to the Willows and Hayes Park and
Fort Point, and up to Benicia; and yesterday we were invited out on
a yachting excursion, and had a sail in the fastest yacht on the
Pacific coast. Rice says: "Oh no--we are not having any fun, Mark--
oh no--I reckon it's somebody else--it's probably the gentleman in
the wagon" (popular slang phrase), and when I invite Rice to the
Lick House to dinner the proprietor sends us champagne and claret,
and then we do put on the most disgusting airs. The Unreliable says
our caliber is too light--we can't stand it to be noticed.
Three days later he adds that he is going sorrowfully "to the snows and
the deserts of Washoe," but that he has "lived like a lord to make up for
two years of privation."
Twenty dollars is inclosed in each of these letters, probably as a bribe
to Jane Clemens to be lenient with his prodigalities, which in his
youthful love of display he could not bring himself to conceal. But
apparently the salve was futile, for in another letter, a month later, he
complains that his mother is "slinging insinuations" at him again, such
as "where did you get that money" and "the company I kept in San
Francisco." He explains:
Why, I sold Wild Cat mining ground that was given me, and my credit
was always good at the bank for $2,000 or $3,000, and I never gamble
in any shape or manner, and never drink anything stronger than
claret and lager beer, which conduct is regarded as miraculously
temperate in this place. As for company, I went in the very best
company to be found in San Francisco. I always move in the best
society in Virginia and have a reputation to preserve.
He closes by assuring her that he will be more careful in future and that
she need never fear but that he will keep her expenses paid. Then he
cannot refrain from adding one more item of his lavish life:
"Put in my washing, and it costs me one hundred dollars a month to live."
De Quille had not missed the opportunity of his comrade's absence to
payoff some old scores. At the end of the editorial column of the
Enterprise on the day following his departure he denounced the absent one
and his "protege," The Unreliable, after the intemperate fashion of the
It is to be regretted that such scrubs are ever permitted to visit
the bay, as the inevitable effect will be to destroy that exalted
opinion of the manners and morality of our people which was inspired
by the conduct of our senior editor--[which is to say, Dan
The diatribe closed with a really graceful poem, and the whole was no
doubt highly regarded by the Enterprise readers.
What revenge Mark Twain took on his return has not been recorded, but it
was probably prompt and adequate; or he may have left it to The
Unreliable. It was clearly a mistake, however, to leave his own local
work in the hands of that properly named person a little later. Clemens
was laid up with a cold, and Rice assured him on his sacred honor that he
would attend faithfully to the Enterprise locals, along with his own
Union items. He did this, but he had been nursing old injuries too long.
What was Mark Twain's amazement on looking over the Enterprise next
morning to find under the heading "Apologetic" a statement over his own
nom de plume, purporting to be an apology for all the sins of ridicule to
the various injured ones.
To Mayor Arick, Hon. Wm. Stewart, Marshal Perry, Hon. J. B. Winters,
Mr. Olin, and Samuel Wetherill, besides a host of others whom we
have ridiculed from behind the shelter of our reportorial position,
we say to these gentlemen we acknowedge our faults, and, in all
weakness and humility upon our bended marrow bones, we ask their
forgiveness, promising that in future we will give them no cause for
anything but the best of feeling toward us. To "Young Wilson" and
The Unreliable (as we have wickedly termed them), we feel that no
apology we can make begins to atone for the many insults we have
given them. Toward these gentlemen we have been as mean as a man
could be--and we have always prided ourselves on this base quality.
We feel that we are the least of all humanity, as it were. We will
now go in sack-cloth and ashes for the next forty days.
This in his own paper over his own signature was a body blow; but it had
the effect of curing his cold. He was back in the office forthwith, and
in the next morning's issue denounced his betrayer.
We are to blame for giving The Unreliable an opportunity to
misrepresent us, and therefore refrain from repining to any great
extent at the result. We simply claim the right to deny the truth
of every statement made by him in yesterday's paper, to annul all
apologies he coined as coming from us, and to hold him up to public
commiseration as a reptile endowed with no more intellect, no more
cultivation, no more Christian principle than animates and adorns
the sportive jackass-rabbit of the Sierras. We have done.
These were the things that enlivened Comstock journalism. Once in a
boxing bout Mark Twain got a blow on the nose which caused it to swell to
an unusual size and shape. He went out of town for a few days, during
which De Quille published an extravagant account of his misfortune,
describing the nose and dwelling on the absurdity of Mark Twain's ever
supposing himself to be a boxer.
De Quille scored heavily with this item but his own doom was written.
Soon afterward he was out riding and was thrown from his horse and
This was Mark's opportunity. He gave an account of Dan's disaster; then,
commenting, he said:
The idea of a plebeian like Dan supposing he could ever ride a
horse! He! why, even the cats and the chickens laughed when they
saw him go by. Of course, he would be thrown off. Of course, any
well-bred horse wouldn't let a common, underbred person like Dan
stay on his back! When they gathered him up he was just a bag of
scraps, but they put him together, and you'll find him at his old
place in the Enterprise office next week, still laboring under the
delusion that he's a newspaper man.
The author of 'Roughing It' tells of a literary periodical called the
Occidental, started in Virginia City by a Mr. F. This was the silver-
tongued Tom Fitch, of the Union, an able speaker and writer, vastly
popular on the Coast. Fitch came to Clemens one day and said he was
thinking of starting such a periodical and asked him what he thought of
the venture. Clemens said:
"You would succeed if any one could, but start a flower-garden on the
desert of Sahara; set up hoisting-works on Mount Vesuvius for mining
sulphur; start a literary paper in Virginia City; h--l!"
Which was a correct estimate of the situation, and the paper perished
with the third issue. It was of no consequence except that it contained
what was probably the first attempt at that modern literary abortion, the
composite novel. Also, it died too soon to publish Mark Twain's first
verses of any pretension, though still of modest merit--"The Aged Pilot
Man"--which were thereby saved for 'Roughing It.'
Visiting Virginia now, it seems curious that any of these things could
have happened there. The Comstock has become little more than a memory;
Virginia and Gold Hill are so quiet, so voiceless, as to constitute
scarcely an echo of the past. The International Hotel, that once so
splendid edifice, through whose portals the tide of opulent life then
ebbed and flowed, is all but deserted now. One may wander at will
through its dingy corridors and among its faded fripperies, seeking in
vain for attendance or hospitality, the lavish welcome of a vanished day.
Those things were not lacking once, and the stream of wealth tossed up
and down the stair and billowed up C Street, an ebullient tide of metals
and men from which millionaires would be struck out, and individuals
known in national affairs. William M. Stewart who would one day become a
United States Senator, was there, an unnoticed unit; and John Mackay and
James G. Fair, one a senator by and by, and both millionaires, but poor
enough then--Fair with a pick on his shoulder and Mackay, too, at first,
though he presently became a mine superintendent. Once in those days
Mark Twain banteringly offered to trade businesses with Mackay.
"No," Mackay said, "I can't trade. My business is not worth as much as
yours. I have never swindled anybody, and I don't intend to begin now."
Neither of those men could dream that within ten years their names would
be international property; that in due course Nevada would propose
statues to their memory.
Such things came out of the Comstock; such things spring out of every
Madame Caprell's warning concerning Mark Twain's health at twenty-eight
would seem to have been justified. High-strung and neurotic, the strain
of newspaper work and the tumult of the Comstock had told on him. As in
later life, he was subject to bronchial colds, and more than once that
year he found it necessary to drop all work and rest for a time at
Steamboat Springs, a place near Virginia City, where there were boiling
springs and steaming fissures in the mountain-side, and a comfortable
hotel. He contributed from there sketches somewhat more literary in form
than any of his previous work. "Curing a Cold" is a more or less
exaggerated account of his ills.
[Included in Sketches New and Old. "Information for the Million,"
and "Advice to Good Little Girls," included in the "Jumping Frog"
Collection, 1867, but omitted from the Sketches, are also believed
to belong to this period.]
A portion of a playful letter to his mother, written from the springs,
You have given my vanity a deadly thrust. Behold, I am prone to
boast of having the widest reputation as a local editor of any man
on the Pacific coast, and you gravely come forward and tell me "if I
work hard and attend closely to my business, I may aspire to a place
on a big San Francisco daily some day." There's a comment on human
vanity for you! Why, blast it, I was under the impression that I
could get such a situation as that any time I asked for it. But I
don't want it. No paper in the United States can afford to pay me
what my place on the Enterprise is worth. If I were not naturally a
lazy, idle, good-for-nothing vagabond, I could make it pay me
$20,000 a year. But I don't suppose I shall ever be any account. I
lead an easy life, though, and I don't care a cent whether school
keeps or not. Everybody knows me, and I fare like a prince wherever
I go, be it on this side of the mountain or the other. And I am
proud to say I am the most conceited ass in the Territory.
You think that picture looks old? Well, I can't help it--in reality
I'm not as old as I was when I was eighteen.
Which was a true statement, so far as his general attitude was concerned.
At eighteen, in New York and Philadelphia, his letters had been grave,
reflective, advisory. Now they were mostly banter and froth, lightly
indifferent to the serious side of things, though perhaps only
pretendedly so, for the picture did look old. From the shock and
circumstance of his brother's death he--had never recovered. He was
barely twenty-eight. From the picture he might have been a man of forty.
It was that year that Artemus Ward (Charles F. Browne) came to Virginia
City. There was a fine opera-house in Virginia, and any attraction that
billed San Francisco did not fail to play to the Comstock. Ward intended
staying only a few days to deliver his lectures, but the whirl of the
Comstock caught him like a maelstrom, and he remained three weeks.
He made the Enterprise office his headquarters, and fairly reveled in the
company he found there. He and Mark Twain became boon companions. Each
recognized in the other a kindred spirit. With Goodman, De Quille, and
McCarthy, also E. E. Hingston--Ward's agent, a companionable fellow--they
usually dined at Chaumond's, Virginia's high-toned French restaurant.
Those were three memorable weeks in Mark Twain's life. Artemus Ward was
in the height of his fame, and he encouraged his new-found brother-
humorist and prophesied great things of him. Clemens, on his side,
measured himself by this man who had achieved fame, and perhaps with good
reason concluded that Ward's estimate was correct, that he too could win
fame and honor, once he got a start. If he had lacked ambition before
Ward's visit, the latter's unqualified approval inspired him with that
priceless article of equipment. He put his soul into entertaining the
visitor during those three weeks; and it was apparent to their associates
that he was at least Ward's equal in mental stature and originality.
Goodman and the others began to realize that for Mark Twain the rewards
of the future were to be measured only by his resolution and ability to
hold out. On Christmas eve Artemus lectured in Silver City and afterward
came to the Enterprise office to give the boys a farewell dinner. The
Enterprise always published a Christmas carol, and Goodman sat at his
desk writing it. He was just finishing as Ward came in:
"Slave, slave," said Artemus. "Come out and let me banish care from
They got the boys and all went over to Chaumond's, where Ward commanded
Goodman to order the dinner. When the cocktails came on, Artemus lifted
his glass and said:
"I give you Upper Canada."
The company rose, drank the toast in serious silence; then Goodman said:
"Of course, Artemus, it's all right, but why did you give us Upper
"Because I don't want it myself," said Ward, gravely.
Then began a rising tide of humor that could hardly be matched in the
world to-day. Mark Twain had awakened to a fuller power; Artemus Ward
was in his prime. They were giants of a race that became extinct when
Mark Twain died. The youth, the wine, the whirl of lights and life, the
tumult of the shouting street-it was as if an electric stream of
inspiration poured into those two human dynamos and sent them into a
dazzling, scintillating whirl. All gone--as evanescent, as forgotten, as
the lightnings of that vanished time; out of that vast feasting and
entertainment only a trifling morsel remains. Ward now and then asked
Goodman why he did not join in the banter. Goodman said:
"I'm preparing a joke, Artemus, but I'm keeping it for the present."
It was near daybreak when Ward at last called for the bill. It was two
hundred and thirty-seven dollars.
"What"' exclaimed Artemus.
"That's my joke." said Goodman.
"But I was only exclaiming because it was not twice as much," returned
He paid it amid laughter, and they went out into the early morning air.
It was fresh and fine outside, not yet light enough to see clearly.
Artemus threw his face up to the sky and said:
"I feel glorious. I feel like walking on the roofs."
Virginia was built on the steep hillside, and the eaves of some of the
houses almost touched the ground behind them.
"There is your chance, Artemus," Goodman said, pointing to a row of these
houses all about of a height.
Artemus grabbed Mark Twain, and they stepped out upon the long string of
roofs and walked their full length, arm in arm. Presently the others
noticed a lonely policeman cocking his revolver and getting ready to aim
in their direction. Goodman called to him:
"Wait a minute. What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to shoot those burglars," he said.
"Don't for your life. Those are not burglars. That's Mark Twain and
The roof-walkers returned, and the party went down the street to a corner
across from the International Hotel. A saloon was there with a barrel
lying in front, used, perhaps for a sort of sign. Artemus climbed
astride the barrel, and somebody brought a beer-glass and put it in his
hand. Virginia City looks out over the Eastward Desert. Morning was
just breaking upon the distant range-the scene as beautiful as when the
sunrise beams across the plain of Memnon. The city was not yet awake.
The only living creatures in sight were the group of belated diners, with
Artemus Ward, as King Gambrinus, pouring a libation to the sunrise.
That was the beginning of a week of glory. The farewell dinner became a
series. At the close of one convivial session Artemus went to a concert-
hall, the "Melodeon," blacked his face, and delivered a speech. He got
away from Virginia about the close of the year.
A day or two later he wrote from Austin, Nevada, to his new-found comrade
as "My dearest Love," recalling the happiness of his stay:
"I shall always remember Virginia as a bright spot in my existence, as
all others must or rather cannot be, as it were."
Then reflectively he adds:
"Some of the finest intellects in the world have been blunted by liquor."
Rare Artemus Ward and rare Mark Twain! If there lies somewhere a place
of meeting and remembrance, they have not failed to recall there those
closing days of '63.
GOVERNOR OF THE "THIRD HOUSE"
With Artemus Ward's encouragement, Clemens began to think of extending
his audience eastward. The New York Sunday Mercury published literary
matter. Ward had urged him to try this market, and promised to write a
special letter to the editors, introducing Mark Twain and his work.
Clemens prepared a sketch of the Comstock variety, scarcely refined in
character and full of personal allusion, a humor not suited to the
present-day reader. Its general subject was children; it contained some
absurd remedies, supposedly sent to his old pilot friend Zeb Leavenworth,
and was written as much for a joke on that good-natured soul as for
profit or reputation.
"I wrote it especially for Beck Jolly's use," the author declares, in a
letter to his mother, "so he could pester Zeb with it."
We cannot know to-day whether Zeb was pestered or not. A faded clipping
is all that remains of the incident. As literature the article, properly
enough, is lost to the world at large. It is only worth remembering as
his metropolitan beginning. Yet he must have thought rather highly of it
(his estimation of his own work was always unsafe), for in the letter
above quoted he adds:
I cannot write regularly for the Mercury, of course, I sha'n't have
time. But sometimes I throw off a pearl (there is no self-conceit
about that, I beg you to observe) which ought for the eternal
welfare of my race to have a more extensive circulation than is
afforded by a local daily paper.
And if Fitzhugh Ludlow (author of the 'Hasheesh Eater') comes your
way, treat him well. He published a high encomium upon Mark Twain
(the same being eminently just and truthful, I beseech you to
believe) in a San Francisco paper. Artemus Ward said that when my
gorgeous talents were publicly acknowledged by such high authority I
ought to appreciate them myself, leave sage-brush obscurity, and
journey to New York with him, as he wanted me to do. But I
preferred not to burst upon the New York public too suddenly and
brilliantly, so I concluded to remain here.
He was in Carson City when this was written, preparing for the opening of
the next legislature. He was beyond question now the most conspicuous
figure of the capital; also the most wholesomely respected, for his
influence had become very large. It was said that he could control more
votes than any legislative member, and with his friends, Simmons and
Clagget, could pass or defeat any bill offered. The Enterprise was a
powerful organ--to be courted and dreaded--and Mark Twain had become its
chief tribune. That he was fearless, merciless, and incorruptible,
without doubt had a salutary influence on that legislative session. He
reveled in his power; but it is not recorded that he ever abused it. He
got a bill passed, largely increasing Orion's official fees, but this was
a crying need and was so recognized. He made no secret promises, none at
all that he did not intend to fulfill. "Sam's word was as fixed as
fate," Orion records, and it may be added that he was morally as
The two Houses of the last territorial legislature of Nevada assembled
January 12, 1864.--[Nevada became a State October 31, 1864.]--
A few days later a "Third House" was organized--an institution quite in
keeping with the happy atmosphere of that day and locality, for it was a
burlesque organization, and Mark Twain was selected as its "Governor."
The new House prepared to make a public occasion of this first session,
and its Governor was required to furnish a message. Then it was decided
to make it a church benefit. The letters exchanged concerning this
proposition still exist; they explain themselves:
CARSON CITY, January 23, 1864.
GOV. MARK TWAIN, Understanding from certain members of the Third
House of the territorial Legislature that that body will have
effected a permanent organization within a day or two, and be ready
for the reception of your Third Annual Message,--[ There had been
no former message. This was regarded as a great joke.]--we desire
to ask your permission, and that of the Third House, to turn the
affair to the benefit of the Church by charging toll-roads,
franchises, and other persons a dollar apiece for the privilege of
listening to your communication.
G. A. SEARS,
CARSON CITY, January 23, 1864.
GENTLEMEN,--Certainly. If the public can find anything in a grave
state paper worth paying a dollar for, I am willing they should pay
that amount, or any other; and although I am not a very dusty
Christian myself, I take an absorbing interest in religious affairs,
and would willingly inflict my annual message upon the Church itself
if it might derive benefit thereby. You can charge what you please;
I promise the public no amusement, but I do promise a reasonable
amount of instruction. I am responsible to the Third House only,
and I hope to be permitted to make it exceedingly warm for that
body, without caring whether the sympathies of the public and the
Church be enlisted in their favor, and against myself, or not.
Mark Twain's reply is closely related to his later style in phrase and
thought. It might have been written by him at almost any subsequent
period. Perhaps his association with Artemus Ward had awakened a new
perception of the humorous idea--a humor of repression, of
understatement. He forgot this often enough, then and afterward, and
gave his riotous fancy free rein; but on the whole the simpler, less
florid form seemingly began to attract him more and more.
His address as Governor of the Third House has not been preserved, but
those who attended always afterward referred to it as the "greatest
effort of his life." Perhaps for that audience and that time this
verdict was justified.
It was his first great public opportunity. On the stage about him sat
the membership of the Third House; the building itself was packed, the
aisles full. He knew he could let himself go in burlesque and satire,
and he did. He was unsparing in his ridicule of the Governor, the
officials in general, the legislative members, and of individual
citizens. From the beginning to the end of his address the audience was
in a storm of laughter and applause. With the exception of the dinner
speech made to the printers in Keokuk, it was his first public utterance
--the beginning of a lifelong series of triumphs.
Only one thing marred his success. Little Carrie Pixley, daughter of one
of the "trustees," had promised to be present and sit in a box next the
stage. It was like him to be fond of the child, and he had promised to
send a carriage for her. Often during his address he glanced toward the
box; but it remained empty. When the affair was ended, he drove home
with her father to inquire the reason. They found the little girl, in
all her finery, weeping on the bed. Then he remembered he had forgotten
to send the carriage; and that was like him, too.
For his Third House address Judge A. W. (Sandy) Baldwin and Theodore
Winters presented him with a gold watch inscribed to "Governor Mark
Twain." He was more in demand now than ever; no social occasion was
regarded as complete without him. His doings were related daily and his
sayings repeated on the streets. Most of these things have passed away
now, but a few are still recalled with smiles. Once, when conundrums
were being asked at a party, he was urged to make one.
"Well," he sand, "why am I like the Pacific Ocean?"
Several guesses were made, but none satisfied him. Finally all gave it
"Tell us, Mark, why are you like the Pacific Ocean?"
"I don't know," he drawled. "I was just asking for information."
At another time, when a young man insisted on singing a song of eternal
length, the chorus of which was, "I'm going home, I'm going home, I'm
going home tomorrow," Mark Twain put his head in the window and said,
"For God's sake go to-night."
But he was also fond of quieter society. Sometimes, after the turmoil of
a legislative morning, he would drop in to Miss Keziah Clapp's school and
listen to the exercises, or would call on Colonel Curry--"old Curry, old
Abe Curry"--and if the colonel happened to be away, he would talk with
Mrs. Curry, a motherly soul (still alive at ninety-three, in 1910), and
tell her of his Hannibal boyhood or his river and his mining adventures,
and keep her laughing until the tears ran.
He was a great pedestrian in those days. Sometimes he walked from
Virginia to Carson, stopping at Colonel Curry's as he came in for rest
"Mrs. Curry," he said once, "I have seen tireder men than I am, and
lazier men, but they were dead men." He liked the home feeling there--
the peace and motherly interest. Deep down, he was lonely and homesick;
he was always so away from his own kindred.
Clemens returned now to Virginia City, and, like all other men who ever
met her, became briefly fascinated by the charms of Adah Isaacs Menken,
who was playing Mazeppa at the Virginia Opera House. All men--kings,
poets, priests, prize-fighters--fell under Menken's spell. Dan de Quille
and Mark Twain entered into a daily contest as to who could lavish the
most fervid praise on her in the Enterprise. The latter carried her his
literary work to criticize. He confesses this in one of his home
letters, perhaps with a sort of pride.
I took it over to show to Miss Menken the actress, Orpheus C. Ken's wife.
She is a literary cuss herself.
She has a beautiful white hand, but her handwriting is infamous; she
writes fast and her chirography is of the door-plate order--her letters
are immense. I gave her a conundrum, thus:
"My dear madam, why ought your hand to retain its present grace and
beauty always? Because you fool away devilish little of it on your
But Menken was gone presently, and when he saw her again, somewhat later,
in San Francisco, his "madness" would have seemed to have been allayed.
A COMSTOCK DUEL
The success--such as it was--of his occasional contributions to the New
York Sunday Mercury stirred Mark Twain's ambition for a wider field of
labor. Circumstance, always ready to meet his wishes, offered
assistance, though in an unexpected form.
Goodman, temporarily absent, had left Clemens in editorial charge. As in
that earlier day, when Orion had visited Tennessee and returned to find
his paper in a hot personal warfare with certain injured citizens, so the
Enterprise, under the same management, had stirred up trouble. It was
just at the time of the "Flour Sack Sanitary Fund," the story of which is
related at length in 'Roughing It'. In the general hilarity of this
occasion, certain Enterprise paragraphs of criticism or ridicule had
incurred the displeasure of various individuals whose cause naturally
enough had been espoused by a rival paper, the Chronicle. Very soon the
original grievance, whatever it was, was lost sight of in the fireworks
and vitriol-throwing of personal recrimination between Mark Twain and the
Chronicle editor, then a Mr. Laird.
A point had been reached at length when only a call for bloodshed--a
challenge--could satisfy either the staff or the readers of the two
papers. Men were killed every week for milder things than the editors
had spoken each of the other. Joe Goodman himself, not so long before,
had fought a duel with a Union editor--Tom Fitch--and shot him in the
leg, so making of him a friend, and a lame man, for life. In Joe's
absence the prestige of the paper must be maintained.
Mark Twain himself has told in burlesque the story of his duel, keeping
somewhat nearer to the fact than was his custom in such writing, as may
be seen by comparing it with the account of his abettor and second--of
course, Steve Gillis. The account is from Mr. Gillis's own hand:
When Joe went away, he left Sam in editorial charge of the paper.
That was a dangerous thing to do. Nobody could ever tell what Sam
was going to write. Something he said stirred up Mr. Laird, of the
Chronicle, who wrote a reply of a very severe kind. He said some
things that we told Mark could only be wiped out with blood. Those
were the days when almost every man in Virginia City had fought with
pistols either impromptu or premeditated duels. I had been in
several, but then mine didn't count. Most of them were of the