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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XLI. The Cream of Comstock Humor
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|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.]--