Sunday, November 28, 2021

How I Escaped Being Killed in a Duel

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890

Photograph of Samuel Clemens (center) with A. J. Simmons, Speaker of the Nevada Territory Legislature, and state legislator William H. Clagett, January 1864. Image from Turner Auctions, via BidSquare.
When Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, was twenty-eight years old, he endured a self-inflicted scandal that one historian has called “the single most damaging incident of his Nevada career.” Two weeks after he published a pair of articles in consecutive issues of the Virginia City Daily Territorial Enterprise, Clemens fled the Washoe region of Nevada, ostensibly to avoid arrest for challenging the editor of a rival newspaper to a duel.

The Enterprise’s publisher, Joseph Goodman, was away from town in May 1864 and left Clemens in charge of the newspaper. At the time, Reuel Gridley, a storekeeper in Austin, Nevada, and coincidentally one of Clemens’s friends from Hannibal, Missouri, was traveling from town to town, auctioning a sack of flour to raise funds for the Sanitary Commission of St. Louis, an organization that provided aid to disabled Union soldiers. The flour was never actually purchased; the winner donated it back to Gridley, who auctioned it off again and again and ultimately raised upwards of a quarter of a million dollars. Clemens met up with Gridley in Virginia City and helped him raise $22,000 in a series of auctions in the county. One reason for Gridley’s success was his ability to fuel competition between rival businesses and community leaders to outbid each other for the flour as a display of public-spiritedness.

Gridley wasn’t the only party in Nevada raising money for wounded soldiers. Fifteen miles to the northeast, a group of women in Carson City organized a charity ball. The titular head of the fundraising effort was Samuel’s older brother Orion Clemens, the Nevada Territorial Secretary (and acting governor when James W. Nye was away, which was often). Orion’s wife, Mollie, was one of the prominent women on the committee. The group debated whether to send the money to the Sanitary Commission in New York rather than the commission in St. Louis, because several women on the committee had objected that the St. Louis organization used some of its proceeds to fund the Freedmen's Aid Society, which provided education and housing for those who had been formerly enslaved.

As an occasional reporter for the Enterprise for nearly two years, Clemens had a reputation as a purveyor of hoaxes and satires, and some of his news items were written more for their comic potential than for the facts. He learned about the dispute among the women of the committee and wrote an unsigned item suggesting that the flour sack would not be auctioned in Carson City because “the money raised at the Sanitary Fancy Dress Ball, recently held in Carson for the St. Louis Fair, had been diverted from its legitimate course, and was to be sent to aid a Miscegenation Society* somewhere in the East,” adding ambiguously that this rumor “was a hoax, but not all a hoax, for an effort is being made to divert those funds from their proper course.” The following day, after the Enterprise had been outbid for the flour sack by its rival, the Virginia Daily Union, Clemens published another unsigned piece falsely accusing the Union of rescinding its bid.

Historians and biographers have spent a century and a half reconstructing what happened over the next two weeks, a task complicated by conflicting accounts, by later embellishments and fabrications, and by recollections softened in the years after Mark Twain became an international idol. Mollie Clemens was apparently ostracized by the other women of the committee, and Samuel sent her a half-apologetic, half-defensive letter admitting he had been drunk when he wrote the piece about the charity ball. After another editor convinced him not to print it, he had inadvertently left the manuscript in the pressroom where it ended up in the paper anyway. “Since it has made the ladies angry,” he wrote to his sister-in-law, “I am sorry the thing occurred, & that is all I can do, for you will see yourself that their communication [a letter responding to the “libel” and demanding publication of the author’s name] is altogether unanswerable. I cannot publish that, & explain it by saying the affair was a silly joke, & that I & all concerned were drunk. No—I’ll die first.”

As for the item claiming that the Union had reneged on their bid for the flour sack, the rival paper responded with an editorial denouncing Clemens and his “unmanly public journalism.” In the ensuing exchange of letters and articles Clemens was called “an unmitigated liar, a poltroon and a puppy,” while Union editor James Laird was condemned as (among other insults) a “cowardly sneak,” a “craven carcass,” and an “abject coward.” As the condemnations and accusations escalated, Clemens published the exchange of private letters between the two editors, and Laird published, on three consecutive days, the Carson City committee’s letter that Clemens had refused to print. At least three challenges to duels were issued: Clemens repeatedly tried to goad Laird into dueling him, Union printer J. W. Wilmington sent a challenge to Clemens, and William K. Cutler, the husband of one of the women on the committee, also demanded a faceoff with Clemens.

In the end, nothing happened. Laird steadfastly ignored Clemens’s blustering invitations to combat, Clemens refused to answer Wilmington, and Cutler abandoned his challenge. At the end of May, Clemens left town for San Francisco with Enterprise journalist Stephen Gillis, the man who would have been his second in a duel. Not a shot was fired—not even, apparently, in practice. The only thing harmed by the entire ordeal was the budding reputation of “Mark Twain,” the moniker Clemens had begun using the previous year. It’s not even clear that Clemens fled town to avoid arrest, because the law against dueling, passed in 1861, had been rarely (if ever) enforced—as Joseph Goodman, his own employer, could attest, having crippled a man in a duel months earlier. “We are not afraid of the grand jury,” he wrote to Orion, “but Washoe has long since grown irksome to us, & we want to leave it anyhow.”

Eight years later, Clemens sanitized and inflated the episode in “How I Escaped Being Killed in a Duel,” a farcical tale that erases his ignominious behavior and drunkenness, omits any reference to the squabble over the auction or the libel against the Carson City women (not to mention the inflammatory racism of his “joke”), and merely mocks himself for buffoonery and misplaced pride. He had told a similar story to audiences the previous year while on the Roughing It prepublication lecture tour, but aside from a passing reference to challenges to “six duels” he had received as editor, the incident didn’t make it into the book. He would tell the story again with a few more details in the autobiography he dictated during the years before his death. As Twain scholar Leland Krauth argues, “the differences between the duel and the later tales of it illuminate the processes whereby Mark Twain characteristically purged through his art that which was painful and humiliating in Sam Clemens’s past. For Clemens’s real fight was not with Laird but with recollections of his own conduct.”

* The term miscegenation was coined only a few months earlier, in December 1863, when the pamphlet Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of Races, Applied to the White Man and the Negro appeared. Allegedly the work of an abolitionist who supported Lincoln and the Republicans, it was revealed after the 1864 election as a hoax written by two New York Democrats. During the campaign the word spread rapidly across the country and became a bludgeon used by Democrats against supporters of both Lincoln and emancipation.

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