Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Appendix s

Original Preface for “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”

(See Chapter clxxii)

My object has been to group together some of the most odious laws which have had vogue in the Christian countries within the past eight or ten centuries, and illustrate them by the incidents of a story.

There was never a time when America applied the death-penalty to more than fourteen crimes. But England, within the memory of men still living, had in her list of crimes 223 which were punishable by death! And yet from the beginning of our existence down to a time within the memory of babes England has distressed herself piteously over the ungentleness of our Connecticut Blue Laws. Those Blue Laws should have been spared English criticism for two reasons:

1. They were so insipidly mild, by contrast with the bloody and atrocious laws of England of the same period, as to seem characterless and colorless when one brings them into that awful presence.

2. The Blue Laws never had any existence. They were the fancy-work of an English clergyman; they were never a part of any statute-book. And yet they could have been made to serve a useful and merciful purpose; if they had been injected into the English law the dilution would have given to the whole a less lurid aspect; or, to figure the effect in another way, they would have been coca mixed into vitriol.

I have drawn no laws and no illustrations from the twin civilizations of hell and Russia. To have entered into that atmosphere would have defeated my purpose, which was to show a great and genuine progress in Christendom in these few later generations toward mercifulness — a wide and general relaxing of the grip of the law. Russia had to be left out because exile to Siberia remains, and in that single punishment is gathered together and concentrated all the bitter inventions of all the black ages for the infliction of suffering upon human beings. Exile for life from one’s hearthstone and one’s idols — this is rack, thumb-screw, the water-drop, fagot and stake, tearing asunder by horses, flaying alive — all these in one; and not compact into hours, but drawn out into years, each year a century, and the whole a mortal immortality of torture and despair. While exile to Siberia remains one will be obliged to admit that there is one country in Christendom where the punishments of all the ages are still preserved and still inflicted, that there is one country in Christendom where no advance has been made toward modifying the medieval penalties for offenses against society and the State.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00