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.]

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