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. 30 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.
30 [“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.]
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 year later.
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. Blackburn said:
“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-points.
“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, placidly:
“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 you hear?”
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.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00