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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
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
"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
"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
"'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."]