Mark Twain’s Portfolio: Hell-Hound Rogers, Anaconda Copper, & The Spider Aristocracy of Finance

EDITOR’S NOTE: Each installment of “Mark Twain’s Portfolio” can be read as a stand-alone essay, though together they will produce a more comprehensive account of Twain’s financial life. If you enjoy what follows, check out the first installment, “Existential Hedging & The United Fruit Company.”

In November 1905, an innovative publicist placed an ad in a series of midwestern newspapers. Herbert Vanderhoof, then working out of Chicago, would go on to have so much success attracting settlers to British Columbia, the Canadian government would name a town after him. But in 1905, the 30-year-old publicist was shilling for the insurance industry. The conceit of his advertisement, dressed up to look like an editorial, was that insurance “will do for you what H. H. Rogers did for his friend Mark Twain…it will invest your dollars. It will guarantee you a definite and fixed profit.”

“Would not we ordinary fellows of common sense jump at the chance,” Vanderhoof mused, “if H. H. Rogers came along and said to us: ‘Just turn your savings over to me and I’ll see what I can do with them. You can’t lose, and you may win.’” There was but “one gracious act in the life of the master of Standard Oil,” Vanderhoof said, but the insurance companies stood ready everyday to put ”the power of their money-making machinery at your disposal.” 

The merging of retail investing and insurance under one corporate umbrella was such a foolproof plan it only crashed the U.S. economy twice. 

Vanderhoof’s argument, though deeply flawed, shows how well-publicized Mark Twain’s relationship with Henry Huttleston Rogers was, as well as how dubious were some of the sources that helped circulate and calcify the conventional wisdom about that relationship. 

The advertisement, purposefully designed to look as though it was regular copy, includes fake dialogue between Twain and Rogers. Vanderhoof imagines Twain saying things like “I’ve heard that one of your professions is that of receiver-general for suckers” and “Some say I’m a genius, which is as it may be. But one thing I’m not – I’m not a financier.” Befitting his trade, the publicist was both reiterating what he presumed to be the common beliefs of midwestern readers about the humorist and his patron-magnate, and reinforcing those beliefs with pure fabrication. It was a cynical ploy to raise his credibility in a way he could leverage on behalf of his clients.

But the question that motivates Vanderhoof – What do readers want to believe? – is an important one when considering the reputations of both Twain and Rogers. Vanderhoof can, in almost the same breath, present Twain as the rarest literary genius and a representative of “we ordinary fellows.” He presumes that Twain’s widely reported financial misadventures made him an empathetic figure. Twain came to recognize this himself. In his autobiographical writings, there are many confessions of short-sightedness, self-delusion, and speculative euphoria which resonate with anyone who has ever put money on a horse, imagined winning the lottery, owned a few bitcoin, failed to read the fine print, or had a car repossessed.

For those of us with relatively shabby fiscal records, supposing that “geniuses” also leads lives of perpetual financial bumbling is reassuring, as is the implication that the wealth of financiers is endogenous to their moral turpitude. But Twain was not a perpetual bumbler and Rogers was not a compassionless shark. 

The timing of Vanderhoof’s advertisement is significant. Twain had long been a national celebrity, but Rogers’s fame (or, perhaps, infamy) had risen in recent years. He was the primary spokesperson for Standard Oil as the company defended itself against antitrust lawsuits and progressive muckraking. In the same month Vanderhoof’s advertisement circulated, another professional publicist, Thomas Lawson, published the eighteenth and final installment of “Frenzied Finance,” a serial in Everybody’s Magazine which, among other things, gratuitously slandered Rogers. 

Lawson had helped Rogers and his primary business partner, William Rockefeller, promote a series of copper mining companies linked together like the subsidiaries of the Standard Oil Trust. Rogers and Rockefeller were transparently creating a Copper Trust on the model of their employer. Only after making $50 million in this gambit did Lawson have a very performative crisis of conscience, refashioning himself as a whistleblower. He began publishing “Frenzied Finance” in July 1904 to much fanfare. Lawson promised to unravel for his readers the sordid history of the Amalgamated Copper Company and, by so doing, reveal the secret system of American corporate finance “which, if allowed to continue, surely will in time, destroy the nation by precipitating fratricidal war.” 

Rogers, Lawson insisted, was the primary architect of this “tigerishly cruel system,” the one “pulling the wires and playing the buttons in the shadows just behind of the throne” of the more  recognizable Rockefellers. Rogers was “the big brain, the big body, the head of Standard Oil,” though he did not hold the title. It was he who ruled over the “spider aristocracy of finance,” though he did not work for a bank or a brokerage. And it was he who was the “Master of Hell” who tempted Lawson to sell his soul for $50 million. Lawson insisted Rogers, unlike himself, “knew no Sabbath, no Him” and was “immune to every feeling known to God or man.”

As these lines suggest, “Frenzied Finance” is a classic American conspiracy theory. It is just accurate enough to satisfy paranoid fanatics and fills the spaces between with the prejudices and grievances of its author. Like most conspiracy theorists, Lawson was bad at editing himself. After making an initial splash as the de facto sequel to Ida Tarbell’s wildly popular history of Standard Oil, “Frenzied Finance” wore out public and publisher alike. By the time it ended, Lawson had run so tediously and circuitously long that he had to pay to have his final installment published in the advertising section.

In August of 1905, Clemens wrote to Rogers, “I hope you are noticing it is Lawson’s turn now – a thing which was sure to happen. If he likes skinning, there’s good times ahead.” While I can’t be sure exactly what inspired his schadenfreude, Twain accurately describes the backlash that was unfolding in the press. In newspapers issued during the preceding week, there are dozens of derisive mentions of Lawson, ranging from sarcastic jokes to incendiary accusations. The Detroit Free Press, which had previously sung the whistleblower’s praises, now reported that Lawson had been shorting copper stocks in hopes of inciting a sell-off with “Frenzied Finance” and the associated lecture tour. 

The market did not collapse and Lawson got laryngitis early in the tour. Rogers deadpanned to Clemens, “He has lost his voice because he has nothing left to say.” 

The week after the first installment of “Frenzied Finance,” Amalgamated Copper was called “an impudent farce” by the Wall Street Journal and the trading price of its shares dipped below $50. By the time Lawson’s serial concluded, Amalgamated was trading at over $90 a share. If the Detroit Free Press report was correct, Lawson’s speculating scheme backfired spectacularly. As polemic, “Frenzied Finance” didn’t fare much better. The copper conglomerate survived the antitrust battles of the ensuing decade and emerged in 1915 as the biggest producer in the world. 

Mark Twain owned a large block of shares in Amalgamated Copper and, later, in its largest subsidiary, Anaconda Copper. Though he may have become cavalier about Lawson’s “skinning,” he was initially spooked. Within days of the first installment of “Frenzied Finance,” he was looking to unload his shares. Rogers cautioned him against selling into the run, “I have not overlooked the matter of the Amalgamated stock, but the market has not been favorable to selling, so I have deferred it. It will come out right in the end, I am sure.” As alluded to above, the price rose 80% by the end of the next year. 

This episode conforms to the conventional wisdom about their relationship: Clemens impulsively misreading the market and the far-sighted financier saving him from his bad instincts. Even the few contemporary scholars who do acknowledge that Clemens’s investing record was remarkably strong after his 1894 bankruptcy usually attribute that success entirely to the patronage of Rogers. Michael Sheldon, for instance, writes, “It was only because Rogers continued to keep a close eye on his finances that Twain didn’t return to his old ways and lose more money on one bad investment after another.” 

Rogers undeniably played the leading role in Clemens’s financial recovery and remained the author’s most valued advisor and, frequently, his broker. But the history of his copper investments, upon closer examination, shows that Clemens still took the lead in his investing decisions, for both good and ill.

Political Cartoon by T. E. Powers depicting Twain & Rogers

It was Clemens who floated the idea of investing in Amalgamated in the first place. “The Vienna papers,” he wrote, “have been excited over the great Copper combines; and sometimes they say you are the president of it, other times they call you vice-president, but all the time I seem to gather from them that you are the Company and the Board of Directors.” Recognizing that Rogers would “make a copper hen lay a golden egg,” Clemens suggested putting the $52,000 in his brokerage account into the new venture. Though they didn’t discuss the exact size or price of the block Rogers purchased on Clemens’s behalf, two years later Clemens marveled that the trading price was “nearly 70 points above what it cost me.” That day, Amalgamated shares were trading around $87, which means Clemens truly got a cut rate as an initial investor, and regardless of when he sold, he must have made an utter killing.  

Based on their conversations, it seems safe to presume that Clemens held onto his block of Amalgamated shares at least through 1905, but they were not part of the inventory of his estate in 1910. Perhaps Clemens sold during the 1907-1908 recession, when Amalgamated’s stock dipped below $50 per share. It does seem reasonable to speculate, though there is no record of this, that he may have sold the shares to finance the purchase and construction of his Stormfield property during this time. 

Or perhaps he sold just before the bubble burst, when Amalgamated was trading at over $110. Or maybe he held on until the final months of his life, when Amalgamated was trading around $75. In any case, if he really did buy in at $17 per share, he made somewhere between 350% and 650% return. And if he really did commit $52,000 to the initial investment, he turned it into the contemporary equivalent of $4.5-8.6 million. And that’s before we account for the dividends.

The dividend history of Amalgamated is very complicated, including both annual and quarterly statements, and shifting between defined and proportional payments. Within the Wall Street Journal archives I rely upon there are conflicting reports of what Amalgamated paid its shareholders during the period Clemens held the stock. A conservative estimate puts his earnings above $2 per share annually from 1899 to 1905, which would yield him about $6000 a year or, after adjusting for inflation, $150,000. It may have been significantly more than that. In 1907, Clemens would claim 1902, a strong year for Amalgamated, was the most profitable year of his life. 

Even though Twain commanded the highest rates in his industry, he could still only get $150-$200 for a lecture or magazine article, both of which required work he found demanding. It’s easy to see why he preferred “the financial platform” to the literary one, as he told Rogers in 1899, and recommitted himself to investing. 

Clemens was one of the “first in” on Amalgamated and made a mint. His experience with its subsidiary, Anaconda Copper, where Rogers was also a Vice President and trustee, was almost the inverse.

Rogers’s personal secretary, Katharine Harrison, purchased 400 shares of the Anaconda on behalf of Clemens. She acquired half the shares at $59 and the other half at $60. The latter price was the closing price listed in the Wall Street Journal on May 27, 1907, the same day Harrison wrote Clemens to let him know the shares had been acquired. Presumably these 400 shares were the same 400 shares listed in the inventory of Clemens’s estate three years later. They were appraised at the value of $45.25 per share, which meant Clemens had taken a 24% loss on their exchange value. He had also collected $3700 in dividends. 

Adjusting for inflation, these shares were good for the equivalent of $33,000 in annual income. They would continue to provide healthy income (assuming the Twain estate held onto them) for decades to come, though the trading price would not equal what Clemens had paid for more than twenty-two years.

These investments in the Copper Trust simultaneously confirm and contradict conventional wisdom surrounding Mark Twain’s investment record. It would seem that Clemens, to an almost comical degree, bought his Anaconda shares at the absolute peak of the market. Not only did the trading price on those shares dip severely during the coming decade, but Anaconda’s quarterly dividend dropped from $1.75 when Clemens bought in to $0.50 within the next year, and remained at that comparatively low rate until 1917. But Clemens bought in on Amalgamated during the initial allotment and whatever his estate lost on Anaconda (if anything), he more than made up for with Amalgamated. 

Both Anaconda and Amalgamated were good long-term investments at nearly any price. It is tempting to presume that Rogers’s office not only executed these trades for Clemens, but directed his investing decision. But in the case of Amalgamated, the evidence points to the opposite chain of command and, in the case of Anaconda, there is no evidence that Rogers was pulling the strings. If he was, why did he have Clemens buy into Anaconda so late, missing out on the boom years and paying an inflated price for shares? Why wasn’t he part of the initial group of investors, as he had been with Amalgamated? These transactions seem to suggest that Clemens was largely in control of his portfolio, even when it came to the investments about which Rogers was the epitome of an inside trader.  

Sam Clemens Peeks Out From Behind Henry Rogers, Bermuda 1908

I don’t mean to imply that Twain didn’t benefit from insider information due to his close friendship with Rogers. He most certainly did, as future installments will evidence. But, from at least 1897 forward, Clemens was not exclusively reliant on or even wholly deferential to Rogers. Nor was it a given that Rogers would include his friend in every promising operation he undertook. Twain heard about Amalgamated in the international press before he heard about it from his friend and broker, who was the President of the company! We cannot selectively ascribe the good investments to Rogers and the bad ones to Clemens, unless there is a clear and substantive archival rationale for doing so. 

Like United Fruit, which was the subject of my first chapter, Anaconda Copper would survive and prosper deep into the 20th century, profiting from destructive labor and environmental practices. Twain had a complicated, but generally favorable attitude toward labor unions, and likely would’ve been disgusted by many of the things narrated in books like Smoke Wars (2001) by Donald Macmillan, Anaconda (2001) by Laurie Mercier, and The Battle for Butte (1981) by Michael Malone. But, despite superficial resemblances between Anaconda Copper and United Fruit, I don’t think we can attribute his investments in copper to his philosophy of existential hedging. Whereas he was well-informed about the U.S. imperialism which underwrote commercial plundering abroad, he seems to have been surprisingly unaware (or uninterested) in the abuses of industrialization in the American West, even though he had spent much of his youth in places similar to the copper mining towns. Nor were the labor and environmental practices of the copper conglomerate a significant part of the ample and ambivalent public discourse surrounding it during Clemens’s lifetime.

The copper boom was driven largely by technological developments about which Twain was enthusiastic, which may have blinded him to the social costs. Both Twain and Rogers understood that the U.S. was on the precipice of a communication revolution which required copper filaments, wiring, conductors, etc. More on that in due time.

Mark Twain’s Portfolio, Part 1: Existential Hedging & The United Fruit Company

Among the most common and resilient myths in Mark Twain Studies is that Samuel Clemens was economically illiterate and financially incompetent. This myth was born during his lifetime, specifically during the widely publicized bankruptcy of his publishing house following the Panic of 1893. Clemens made little effort to defend his reputation as a businessman, even as he became, by his own accounting, wealthier in the final decade of his life than he had been at any time before. Though the exact size of Clemens’s estate was disputed following his death in 1910, all agreed that it was enviably large. Still, the first several generations of Twain scholars placed far more emphasis on the fortune Twain lost than upon the fact that he made that fortune in the first place, or that he remade it. A few scholars have attempted to complicate the standard account of Twain’s fiscal foolishness, but many more treat it as established fact.

In “Mark Twain’s Portfolio,” I am going to take a closer look at Clemens’s investments. While I am, as I expect readers to be, curious as to whether these investments were profitable, in most cases I will not be able to reduce their returns to a reliable dollar figure because the exact dates of purchase and sale by Clemens or his heirs are rarely part of the public record. But we do have a fairly comprehensive record of what Clemens’s portfolio looked like at the time of his death, as well as discussions of investing in public and private writings during his life. Beyond evaluating whether these specific investments were “good” or “bad,” I will be attentive to whether and how they reflected the worldview expressed in Twain’s published works and public discourse.

Clemens’s investing practices intersect with his politics in complicated and sometimes conflicting ways. This is probably nowhere more evident than in his ownership, at the time of his death, of at least 165 shares of United Fruit Company. This was, in purely pecuniary terms, a great investment. Two weeks before Clemens’s death, the Wall Street Journal reported that United Fruit was trading at $174 per share, making Clemens’s block worth, adjusted for inflation, more than $740,000. The share price was up over 40% in the preceding year and United Fruit was reliably paying a 2% quarterly dividend to shareholders. Clemens’s United Fruit stock was generating passive income as well as appreciating exchange value.

United Fruit stock had by no means peaked by the time of Clemens’s death. Indeed, the share price would rise 12% in the next four months alone and the company would pay an additional 10% dividend before the end of the calendar year. The Wall Street Journal reported that United Fruit’s capitalization had increased by more than 400% in less than a decade. A market reporter for the Boston Globe wrote in September that “holders of United Fruit will not sell the stock at any reasonable price.” By 1920, United Fruit would report $44.6 million in earnings ($569.9 million in 2019 dollars). Even after adjusting for inflation, that was at least ten times the profits the company made in the final year of Clemens’s life. Presuming the administrators of Twain’s estate held on to his shares, they would’ve contributed to rapid growth in the 1910s and 1920s, and United Fruit would remain a reliable asset through most of the 20th century.

Of course, behind every great fortune lies a great crime. United Fruit was and would remain one of the most notorious corporations of the 20th century. Their commercial and political machination in Guatemala, Honduras, and throughout Central America and the Caribbean are presumed to have inspired O. Henry to coin the term “banana republic” in 1904 and to be the basis for the rapacious corporate monster in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. United Fruit’s sordid history includes too many violent labor disputes, political scandals, and cruel exploitations for me to catalog here, but numerous books have been written on the subject, notably Bitter Fruit (1982) by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bananas (2008) by Peter Chapman, and Banana Cowboys (2018) by James W. Martin.

In his contribution to Banana Wars (2003), Philippe Bourgois describes United Fruit as “the quintessential model for the institutional form of the multinational corporation that changed the face of the world during the twentieth century.” It was a “government sponsored international trade monopoly” which “was buttressed by the political, military, and economic might of the U.S. government.” In other words, United Fruit’s spectacular performance as an investment was subsidized by U.S. taxpayers through the intermediary of the proudly imperialist Republican administrations of the early 20th century.

Mark Twain was an outspoken and aggressive critic of U.S. imperialist adventuring throughout the final decade of his life. In 1900 he famously stated “I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle puts its talons on any other land.” By his own account, he came to this position by observing U.S. actions in the Philippines, which he wrote about at length. He would also publicly critique imperialism in Cuba, China, and the Belgian Congo, explicitly attacking how the moral, religious, and democratic justifications for American and European interventions in sovereign states were always masks for programmatic economic exploitation. “There must be two Americas,” he wrote, “one that sets the captive free, and one that takes that once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” As these words were being written, United Fruit was in the early stages of becoming one of the largest landholders in the world, eventually amassing 3.5 million acres of real estate across a dozen countries. These annexations and appropriations frequently met with resistance and resulted in violence.

So far as I surmised, Twain never spoke publicly of the United Fruit Company and made only passing comments about U.S. involvement in the countries where United Fruit’s operations were already becoming notorious. However, Sam Clemens and his close friend, Henry H. Rogers, who also happened to be his primary financial advisor from 1893 forward, did visit and tour a United Fruit Company outpost in Portland, Jamaica in March of 1902. The visit does not seem to have been planned. Rather, as the log of Rogers’s yacht (quoted in this section of David Fears’s Mark Twain Day By Day) reports, the pleasure cruisers “took refuge” from a “wild and tumbly” sea in the harbor at Port Antonio, described as “a deep & smooth little blue-water bay whose hilly shores were densely clothed in cocoa-palms.” Clemens, Rogers, and their fellow yachters visited what they called the “company’s hotel,” which was located on Titchfield Hill, a cliff with ocean views on all sides. There they met “some Bostonians” and became “guests of the company,” enjoying a rail tour of the plantations, including a ruined sugar mill at Golden Grove. This rail system had only recently been installed and helped to make Port Antonio “one of the wealthiest communities on the island” according to the 1903 “Handbook of Jamaica” produced by the British consul.

While Sam makes no mention of the fruit company in his letters to Livy during the cruise, he does corroborate some of these events. From the yacht on March 29 he wrote:

“We got no further than this place (40 miles [from Kingston]) when the barometer presaged a storm and we came in and anchored. It is a deep and sheltered bay, and the water is delicate green in color and limpid and brilliant. The shores and hills and mountain sides are solid with coca-groves. We spent the whole afternoon until after dark in a drive behind fast mules, through the great hills, the most prodigal and marvelous exhibition of tropical vegetation imaginable. It realized the most frantic dreams of the travel-books. The mere multitudinous names of the rare plants and trees was enough to bewilder the mind…It was a grand day, and makes all the other days of the trip poor and commonplace by comparison.”

Letter to Olivia Clemens, 29 March 1902, part of the Mark Twain Papers at Bancroft Library, UC-Berkeley

Clearly, the excursion through United Fruit Company real estate in Portland, Jamaica left an impression upon Mr. Clemens, yet he does not allude to the company, its properties, or its influence over the region, even to his wife. If it was soon after this chance encounter with the operations of United Fruit that Clemens and Rogers chose to invest in the company, that investment surely paid off, but so far as I can tell, they never discussed it, as they did many of their other mutual ventures.

The ethics of the banana and sugar trades, and of the government intervention on behalf of U.S.-based corporations, were heartily debated in many of the publications Clemens regularly read, including the North American Review, where several of his anti-imperialist polemics were published. Given the consistency and vehemence of Twain’s anti-imperialism, I feel safe speculating that he knew United Fruit’s dividend payments were tainted and that he did not receive them with unalloyed delight, even though they may have reminded him of a happy day in the tropics.

“There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist or an old optimist.” – Mark Twain

Twain’s increasing cynicism about mankind generally, and 20th-century America in particular, is reflected in his portfolio. As I will discuss in future installments, there were investments which Twain was enthusiastic about because he believed the business would prove a boon to society. But he also practiced what we might call “existential hedging,” taking a personal stake in companies he likely believed were complicit in making the world a worse place, but which he nevertheless expected to flourish, expressly because they adopted a business model he found morally reprehensible. By owning a piece of publicly-traded corporations like United Fruit, he could, at least, reap monetary reward from the geopolitical agenda which enraged him.

One can see Twain’s investment in United Fruit as both an acknowledgment of his own futility – an admission that his anti-imperialist writings weren’t making a damn bit of difference – and a clever way of contriving to make his political enemies subsidize his dissent. Perhaps in part because he could count on the equivalent of $50,000-$60,000 a year from his United Fruit shares (among many other investments), Twain was finally free, in the final decade of his life, from having to publish and lecture in order to sustain himself and his household. This meant that he lectured and published less frequently. It also meant he was more overtly political and polemical. He could afford to be booed, as he was in 1901 after saying that U.S. soldiers defending economic exploitation abroad were dying under a “polluted flag.”

Closely examining Mark Twain’s portfolio forces one to consider more carefully what makes an investment “good.” If returns are the only metric, than shares in United Fruit were among the best assets an investor could hold in the early decades of the 20th century. From another perspective, Twain’s sizable stake in United Fruit reveals the utmost hypocrisy, as he privately profits from Roosevelt-ian imperialism even as he berates it in public. This contradiction is characteristically Twainian.

This piece of Twain’s portfolio also leaves open a third interpretation of good investing practice. “Activist investing” has become something of a misnomer, as contemporary “activist investors” frequently use their shareholding simply to lobby for better returns. But the original ideal of “activist investing,” as articulated in the The Ethical Investor (1972), was to use shareholding to pressure publicly-traded corporations to adopt more progressive policies, including improving labor conditions, increasing employee profit-sharing, and embracing consumer protections. Was Clemens’s block of United Fruit stock part of an attempt to circumvent the government entirely and exert direct influence on a company whose interests were increasingly intertwined with U.S. foreign policy? Perhaps Clemens simply saw every share he held as one which would not fall into the hands of the war hawks he hated.

In a dialogue he wrote in 1902, “The Dervish & The Offensive Stranger,” which touches on both the history of colonialism and the contemporaneous Boer Wars, Twain demonstrates the difficulty of judging goodness. The stranger says, “England has succeeded in her good purpose of lifting up the unwilling Boers and making them better and purer and happier than they could have become by their own devices…But there are only eleven Boers left, now.” He uses this to ironically support his thesis that, “Half of the results of good intention are evil; half the results of evil intention are good.” This is about as compelling a rationalization as I can come up with for owning United Fruit Company stock.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post did not include discussion of Clemens and Rogers visiting the United Fruit Company outpost in Jamaica. Barbara Schmidt of TwainQuotes.com drew my attention to the passage in Mark Twain Day By Day which referenced the trip.