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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 2: 1866 - 1875
LV. Highway Robbery
by Paine, Albert Bigelow


His Nevada lectures were bound to be immensely successful. The people regarded him as their property over there, and at Carson and Virginia the houses overflowed. At Virginia especially his friends urged and begged him to repeat the entertainment, but he resolutely declined.

"I have only one lecture yet," he said. "I cannot bring myself to give it twice in the same town."

But that irresponsible imp, Steve Gillis, who was again in Virginia, conceived a plan which would make it not only necessary for him to lecture again, but would supply him with a subject. Steve's plan was very simple: it was to relieve the lecturer of his funds by a friendly highway robbery, and let an account of the adventure furnish the new lecture.

In 'Roughing It' Mark Twain has given a version of this mock robbery which is correct enough as far as it goes; but important details are lacking. Only a few years ago (it was April, 1907), in his cabin on jackass Hill, with Joseph Goodman and the writer of this history present, Steve Gillis made his "death-bed" confession as is here set down:

"Mark's lecture was given in Piper's Opera House, October 30, 1866. The Virginia City people had heard many famous lectures before, but they were mere sideshows compared with Mark's. It could have been run to crowded houses for a week. We begged him to give the common people a chance; but he refused to repeat himself. He was going down to Carson, and was coming back to talk in Gold Hill about a week later, and his agent, Denis McCarthy, and I laid a plan to have him robbed on the Divide between Gold Hill and Virginia, after the Gold Hill lecture was over and he and Denis would be coming home with the money. The Divide was a good lonely place, and was famous for its hold-ups. We got City Marshal George Birdsall into it with us, and took in Leslie Blackburn, Pat Holland, Jimmy Eddington, and one or two more of Sam's old friends. We all loved him, and would have fought for him in a moment. That's the kind of friends Mark had in Nevada. If he had any enemies I never heard of them.

"We didn't take in Dan de Quille, or Joe here, because Sam was Joe's guest, and we were afraid he would tell him. We didn't take in Dan because we wanted him to write it up as a genuine robbery and make a big sensation. That would pack the opera-house at two dollars a seat to hear Mark tell the story.

"Well, everything went off pretty well. About the time Mark was finishing his lecture in Gold Hill the robbers all went up on the Divide to wait, but Mark's audience gave him a kind of reception after his lecture, and we nearly froze to death up there before he came along. By and by I went back to see what was the matter. Sam and Denis were coming, and carrying a carpet-sack about half full of silver between them. I shadowed them and blew a policeman's whistle as a signal to the boys when the lecturers were within about a hundred yards of the place. I heard Sam say to Denis:

"'I'm glad they've got a policeman on the Divide. They never had one in my day.'

"Just about that time the boys, all with black masks on and silver dollars at the sides of their tongues to disguise their voices, stepped out and stuck six-shooters at Sam and Denis and told them to put up their hands. The robbers called each other 'Beauregard' and 'Stonewall Jackson.' Of course Denis's hands went up, and Mark's, too, though Mark wasn't a bit scared or excited. He talked to the robbers in his regular fashion. He said:

"'Don't flourish those pistols so promiscuously. They might go off by accident.'

"They told him to hand over his watch and money; but when he started to take his hands down they made him put them up again. Then he asked how they expected him to give them his valuables with his hands up in the sky. He said his treasures didn't lie in heaven. He told them not to take his watch, which was the one Sandy Baldwin and Theodore Winters had given him as Governor of the Third House, but we took it all the same.

"Whenever he started to put his hands down we made him put them up again. Once he said:

"'Don't you fellows be so rough. I was tenderly reared.'

"Then we told him and Denis to keep their hands up for fifteen minutes after we were gone--this was to give us time to get back to Virginia and be settled when they came along. As we were going away Mark called:

"'Say, you forgot something.'

"'What is it?'

"Why, the carpet-bag.'

"He was cool all the time. Senator Bill Stewart, in his Autobiography, tells a great story of how scared Mark was, and how he ran; but Stewart was three thousand miles from Virginia by that time, and later got mad at Mark because he made a joke about him in 'Roughing It'.

"Denis wanted to take his hands down pretty soon after we were gone, but Mark said:

"'No, Denis, I'm used to obeying orders when they are given in that convincing way; we'll just keep our hands up another fifteen minutes or so for good measure.'

"We were waiting in a big saloon on C Street when Mark and Denis came along. We knew they would come in, and we expected Mark would be excited; but he was as unruffled as a mountain lake. He told us they had been robbed, and asked me if I had any money. I gave him a hundred dollars of his own money, and he ordered refreshments for everybody. Then we adjourned to the Enterprise office, where he offered a reward, and Dan de Quille wrote up the story and telegraphed it to the other newspapers. Then somebody suggested that Mark would have to give another lecture now, and that the robbery would make a great subject. He entered right into the thing, and next day we engaged Piper's Opera House, and people were offering five dollars apiece for front seats. It would have been the biggest thing that ever came to Virginia if it had come off. "But we made a mistake, then, by taking Sandy Baldwin into the joke. We took in Joe here, too, and gave him the watch and money to keep, which made it hard for Joe afterward. But it was Sandy Baldwin that ruined us. He had Mark out to dinner the night before the show was to come off, and after he got well warmed up with champagne he thought it would be a smart thing to let Mark into what was really going on.

"Mark didn't see it our way. He was mad clear through."

At this point Joseph Goodman took up the story. He said:

"Those devils put Sam's money, watch, keys, pencils, and all his things into my hands. I felt particularly mean at being made accessory to the crime, especially as Sam was my guest, and I had grave doubts as to how he would take it when he found out the robbery was not genuine.

"I felt terribly guilty when he said:

"'Joe, those d--n thieves took my keys, and I can't get into my trunk. Do you suppose you could get me a key that would fit my trunk?'

"I said I thought I could during the day, and after Sam had gone I took his own key, put it in the fire and burnt it to make it look black. Then I took a file and scratched it here and there, to make it look as if I had been fitting it to the lock, feeling guilty all the time, like a man who is trying to hide a murder. Sam did not ask for his key that day, and that evening he was invited to judge Baldwin's to dinner. I thought he looked pretty silent and solemn when he came home; but he only said:

"'Joe, let's play cards; I don't feel sleepy.'

"Steve here, and two or three of the other boys who had been active in the robbery, were present, and they did not like Sam's manner, so they excused themselves and left him alone with me. We played a good while; then he said:

"'Joe, these cards are greasy. I have got some new ones in my trunk. Did you get that key to-day?'

"I fished out that burnt, scratched-up key with fear and trembling. But he didn't seem to notice it at all, and presently returned with the cards. Then we played, and played, and played--till one o'clock--two o'clock--Sam hardly saying a word, and I wondering what was going to happen. By and by he laid down his cards and looked at me, and said:

"'Joe, Sandy Baldwin told me all about that robbery to-night. Now, Joe, I have found out that the law doesn't recognize a joke, and I am going to send every one of those fellows to the penitentiary.'

"He said it with such solemn gravity, and such vindictiveness, that I believed he was in dead earnest.

"I know that I put in two hours of the hardest work I ever did, trying to talk him out of that resolution. I used all the arguments about the boys being his oldest friends; how they all loved him, and how the joke had been entirely for his own good; I pleaded with him, begged him to reconsider; I went and got his money and his watch and laid them on the table; but for a time it seemed hopeless. And I could imagine those fellows going behind the bars, and the sensation it would make in California; and just as I was about to give it up he said:

"'Well, Joe, I'll let it pass--this time; I'll forgive them again; I've had to do it so many times; but if I should see Denis McCarthy and Steve Gillis mounting the scaffold to-morrow, and I could save them by turning over my hand, I wouldn't do it!'

"He canceled the lecture engagement, however, next morning, and the day after left on the Pioneer Stage, by the way of Donner Lake, for California. The boys came rather sheepishly to see him off; but he would make no show of relenting. When they introduced themselves as Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, etc., he merely said:

"'Yes, and you'll all be behind the bars some day. There's been a good deal of robbery around here lately, and it's pretty clear now who did it.' They handed him a package containing the masks which the robbers had worn. He received it in gloomy silence; but as the stage drove away he put his head out of the window, and after some pretty vigorous admonition resumed his old smile, and called out: 'Good-by, friends; good-by, thieves; I bear you no malice.' So the heaviest joke was on his tormentors after all."

This is the story of the famous Mark Twain robbery direct from headquarters. It has been garbled in so many ways that it seems worth setting down in full. Denis McCarthy, who joined him presently in San Francisco, received a little more punishment there.

"What kind of a trip did you boys have?" a friend asked of them.

Clemens, just recovering from a cold which the exposure on the Divide had given him, smiled grimly:

"Oh, pretty good, only Denis here mistook it for a spree."

He lectured again in San Francisco, this time telling the story of his Overland trip in 1861, and he did the daring thing of repeating three times the worn-out story of Horace Greeley's ride with Hank Monk, as given later in 'Roughing It'. People were deadly tired of that story out there, and when he told it the first time, with great seriousness, they thought he must be failing mentally. They did not laugh--they only felt sorry. He waited a little, as if expecting a laugh, and presently led around to it and told it again. The audience was astonished still more, and pitied him thoroughly. He seemed to be waiting pathetically in the dead silence for their applause, then went on with his lecture; but presently, with labored effort, struggled around to the old story again, and told it for the third time. The audience suddenly saw the joke then, and became vociferous and hysterical in their applause; but it was a narrow escape. He would have been hysterical himself if the relief had not came when it did.

--[A side-light on the Horace Greeley story and on Mr. Greeley's eccentricities is furnished by Mr. Goodman:

When I was going East in 1869 I happened to see Hank Monk just before I started. "Mr. Goodman," he said, "you tell Horace Greeley that I want to come East, and ask him to send me a pass." "All right, Hank," I said, "I will." It happened that when I got to New York City one of the first men I met was Greeley. "Mr. Greeley," said, "I have a message for you from Hank Monk." Greeley bristled and glared at me. "That--rascal?" he said, "He has done me more injury than any other man in America."]

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