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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XXXVIII. One of the "Staff"
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|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."