Monday, October 31, 2011

Twain's Bloody Massacre

Insensitive, moi?
Was a real life incident in July 1863 part inspiration for one of Mark Twain's most famous newspaper hoax articles?

[Warning: I am about to quote some fairly graphic descriptions of death by Bowie knife]

Before Mark Twain was a genial, white-haired, much-beloved raconteur, he was a hard-drinking, hot-tempered, pipe-puffing reporter with "mutton chop" sideburns and no mustache. (left) He lived in Virginia City (famous for being the setting of the TV series Bonanza) and he wrote for the Territorial Enterprise Newspaper. The Comstock, as that region was called, was wild and woolly, full of "thieves, murderers, desperadoes, ladies, children, lawyers, Christians, Indians, Spaniards, gamblers, sharpers, coyotes, poets, preachers, and jackass rabbits." Despite this rich vein of journalistic gold, Sam Clemens – who had not yet adopted the pseudonym Mark Twain – was not afraid of slandering local residents or even of making up hoax stories to fill blank pages of the paper.

His first hoax, early in October of 1862, was an article about a Petrified Man found in the Nevada desert east of Virgina City. Twain describes a prospector with a wooden leg who was found turned to stone at a place called Gravelly Ford. He describes the man's position, and if any of his readers had bothered to adopt the pose – or even mentally visualise it – they would have realised immediately that Twain was joshing them. (He even signed that article "Josh") One of his main aims in writing this hoax piece was to vex an enemy of his, a man named George Sewall with whom he was feuding. And he succeeded. People generally do not expect the printed word to be an outright lie.

A year later, Twain wrote another hoax, a truly grisly piece about a man living in Empire City who supposedly kills and mutilates his family, cuts his own throat from ear to ear, then rides three miles before dropping dead on the steps of a Carson City saloon. Once again, careful readers would have read the clues and figured out that this story wasn't true. After all, how can a man ride three miles with his throat cut from ear to ear? (see map above right)

But readers of the morning paper pushed away their breakfasts in horror upon reading Twain's grisly report of the unhinged father's murder and mutilation of his family.

Territorial Enterprise readers put off their breakfast by Twain's gory article

Territorial Enterprise, October 28, 1863

From Abram Curry, who arrived here yesterday afternoon from Carson, we have learned the following particulars concerning a bloody massacre which was committed in Ormsby county night before last. It seems that during the past six months a man named P. Hopkins, or Philip Hopkins, has been residing with his family in the old log house just at the edge of the great pine forest which lies between Empire City and Dutch Nick's... About ten o'clock on Monday evening Hopkins dashed into Carson on horseback, with his throat cut from ear to ear, and bearing in his hand a reeking scalp from which the warm, smoking blood was still dripping, and fell in a dying condition in front of the Magnolia saloon... [even more graphically bloody details follow, which you can read HERE.]

The Journals of Alfred Doten

I've been reading (and re-reading) the Journals of Alfred Doten as part of researching my Western Mysteries stories set in and around Virginia City in the early 1860s. Like Mark Twain, Alf Doten was a failed prospector turned journalist. Throughout his life he kept meticulous and detailed journals, recounting the weather, cost of things and concrete details of life in the California gold fields and later on the Comstock, in Nevada.

This morning over breakfast I pushed away my own yogurt and strawberries in dismay as I read Doten's sad and distressing entry for 16 July 1863.

July 16 - About 8 oclock this evening a man by the name of Patrick Comerford committed suicide at the Mineral Hill tunnel, some 2 miles below here [Como, Nevada]. He was living near the mouth of tunnel with some half dozen others - he went into the tunnel and with a bowie knife he cut his throat - first ripped it up from upper part of breast bone to his chin & then cut across nearly from ear to ear, severing the jugular, windpipe &c - did the job securely - his partners heard him groan and went in and found him - he died in a few minutes - one of them immediately came up to town &c told the story - several people went down there - Briar went - he acted as Coroner and the jury gave verdict in accordance with the facts - he was an Irishman and about 35 or 40 yrs old - no reason could be assigned for the rash act - he seemed to be all right enough but somewhat troubled in his mind, and at times somewhat abstracted 
Journal of Alfred Doten p 719

As a writer who constantly draws inspiration from things I read and hear about, I am pretty sure that poor Patrick Comerfield's bloody suicide in July 1863 was partly the inspiration for Twain's "Bloody Massacre" hoax, written three months later. The gruesome details of Comerford's suicide must have spread like wildfire even if not reported by local papers.

Thus it is not too surprising that many Comstockers believed Twain's similar but greatly embellished account of a bloody suicide by Bowie knife. In fact, the article caused such horror and outrage that, Twain had to print this retraction the very next day:

Territorial Enterprise, October 29, 1863
The story published in the Enterprise reciting the slaughter of a family near Empire was all a fiction. It was understood to be such by all acquainted with the locality in which the alleged affair occurred. In the first place, Empire City and Dutch Nick's are one, and in the next there is no "great pine forest" nearer than the Sierra Nevada mountains, etc. 

[For more retrospection about this hoax read Mark Twain's Sketches New and Old.]

You would think Twain might have learnt his lesson, but no. Six months later, in May of 1864, he wrote a different sort of hoax, this one about the Ladies of Carson City. As a result of this third hoax the hot-blooded young reporter was challenged to a duel by pistol and had to flee Nevada. But that's another story.

[The second book in my Western Mysteries series, out June 2012, was originally going to be called The Case of the Petrified Man, but had to be re-named The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse as the first title was not considered exciting enough for kids. Like many writers of the past, I am still getting inspiration from events of the bloody Comstock as recorded by Sam Clemens, Alf Doten and many others.]

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Etruscan Book of Thunder

Menrva (Etruscan Minerva) with thunder
Back in the 1970's, undergraduate Jean MacIntosh Turfa first discovered an unusual Etruscan Book of Omens when a fire alarm drove her out of her usual library at Bryn Mawr College. Or so she told us at the Eva Lorant Memorial lecture at the British Museum on Friday 14 October, 2011.

Exiled from her usual library, and not one to waste valuable research time, Turfa went to Bryn Mawr's Classics library instead. It was there that she found an article which led her to the Etruscan Brontoscopic Calendar, an almanac telling what the rumble of thunder signifies on any given day of the year.


Brontos means "thunder" in Ancient Greek. (Any 8-year-old boy will tell you brontosaurus means "thunder lizard")
Scopic means "seeing" and by association "prediction", so...
Brontoscopic means PREDICTION BY THUNDER.

Yes, thunder was considered a means of prophecy in ancient times.

Etruscan civilisation flourished c. 850 BC-AD 50
The Etruscans were the slightly mysterious people already living in Italy before Aeneas and his band settled on the banks of the Tiber. Their language was like no other language ever known anywhere. They had no alphabet until the Greeks came around 750 BC and then they borrowed that one. The territory of the Etruscans was Etruria, modern Tuscany, the region south of the Arno and north of the Tiber. (see map) Some of their famous towns are Tarquinia, Cerveteri and Veii (just 12 miles north of Rome). This region was rich in copper and tin and it made the Etruscans prosperous.

The Etruscans believed the gods spoke through natural phenomena, like lightning or deformed animals. Some of their wisest members learned how to interpret omens. (An omen is any event regarded as a portent for good or evil. The word omen is Latin for "sign".)

In ancient Rome, if you wanted to know what the future held in store for you, your first stop would probably be an Etruscan soothsayer. There were two types of soothsayers.

Etruscan model of a liver for divination
The Haruspex looked at entrails of a sacrificed animal, especially the liver. The Etruscans gave us that famous bronze model of a liver known as the "Piacenza Liver". (right)

The Augur looked abnormal phenomena in the celestial sphere. Not just the flights of birds, but also clouds, rainbows, eclipses... and thunder. Hence the Etruscan Brontoscopic Calendar. 


Yes, they had cosmic rays back then
The fifty years between 850 and 800 BC experienced an unusal bombardment of COSMIC RAYS. There is actually a name for this phenomenon: The Halstatt Minimum. Although it sounds like the title of an episode of The Big Bang Theory, it refers to lively solar flare activity which can skew results of carbon dating and also cause storms with thunder and lightning. This might have been when the Brontoscopic Calendar was first composed. The Etruscans had no written language as yet, but it could have been passed from one soothsayer to another verbally.


Etruscan adult and child (Louvre)
The original author might have been a mysterious godlike child. Tages, AKA the Puer Senex ("old man boy") was a strange grey-haired child of great wisdom and bad teeth who sprang up from a ploughed furrow. Cicero sarcastically called him the "Dug Up Boy". The actual bones of Tages might have been found in a special tomb in Tarquinia (Etruscan territory). If this is indeed the skeleton of the Puer Senex, they show he had a brain tumour that might have given him visions and hallucinations. Was he the author? As writing hadn't yet reached the Etruscans in 850 BC, perhaps he gave the oral version.

Then, after the Etruscans adopted the Greek alphabet a century later, it might have been written down on papyrus, cloth or metal. In the first century BC it was translated from Etruscan into Latin by a contemporary of Julius Caesar named Publius Nigidius Figulus. Six hundred years after that, Figulus's Latin version was translated into Byzantine Greek by a scholar named John the Lydian at the court of Justinian. And that is how it has come down to us.


The Etruscan Brontoscopic Calendar is a kind of almanac. It assumes that for every day of the year in Etruria, thunder has a different meaning. All the entries begin with the same phrase ει βροντηση - "If it thunders..." The formula goes: If it thunders, then such and such will happen. For example:

June 1 - If it thunders, then there will be a destruction of crops except barley...

In her lecture, Dr. Turfa said boring agricultural entries like the one above show that Etruscan Brontoscopic Calendar is almost certainly genuine. If it was a Roman or Byzantine forgery, then Figulus or John the Lydian would have spiced it up a bit. However, the almanac is mostly concerned with crops and animals, i.e. FOOD. (Those of us in the affluent 21st century forget just how hard it was to keep food on the table in ancient times.) There are also a lot of mentions of threatening wars and assassination of leaders.

The Thunder Omen
Here are some of my favourite predictions from the Etruscan Brontoscopic Calendar, ones which might appear in The Roman Mysteries Scrolls my series about a funny soothsayer named Floridius and his apprentice, an ex-beggar-boy Threptus.

June 15 - If it thunders, feathered creatures shall be injured during the summer and fishes shall perish. 
June 28 - If it thunders, there will be drought and a plague of poisonous reptiles. 
August 5 - If it thunders, it means women will be wiser than men. 
August 19 - If it thunders, women and slaves will dare to commit murder. 
October 7 - If it thunders, there will be fewer beans but more wine.
October 23 - If it thunders, the people will be of marvellously good cheer. 
December 15 - If it thunders, many will set out for war, but few will return. 
December 29 - If it thunders, there will be a healthy leanness of bodies. 
January 22 - If it thunders, there will be plenty but also an abundance of mice and deer.

Dr. Turfa's lecture touched on many other fascinating topics such as Caesar's revision of the calendar, an eruption of Vesuvius c. 1780 BC and the earliest chicken wing to be found in Europe (in a hut near Castelgandolfo). Many of her erudite nuggets will no doubt appear in her forthcoming book, Divining the Etruscan World: The Brontoscopic Calendar and Religious Practice. But you can see the thunder omens for each day in an appendix of The Religion of the Etruscans (right) and also HERE.

[The first of the Roman Mysteries Scrolls series for kids 7+ is The Sewer Demon. Other titles include The Poisoned Honey Cake and The Thunder Omen. The 17+ books in the existing Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. The Roman Mysteries are available on DVD and also Amazon Prime.]