The Apocryphal Twain: “It is easier to con a man than to convince him he has been conned.”

There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms was common enough in the 20th century. It has only increased with the popularization of social media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.

This apocryphal aphorism has gone viral is just the past 48 hours, in association with the beginning of the January 6 Committee hearings. Few people have reveled in satirizing Congressional hearings more than Mark Twain, but I can say with great…confidence…that Twain didn’t say this. In addition to being the world’s leading expert on shit Mark Twain didn’t say, I’ve spent a big part of my career researching the history of con-artists. Twain is an important part of this history. He was very aware of how the confidence-man archetype developed during his lifetime, alluding in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the “Original Confidence Man” who became a boogeyman in the New York Herald during the 1850s and inspired Herman Melville’s novel, The Confidence-Man (1857). But, as I put it upon making this discovery in 2014,

“To my knowledge, Twain never actually uses the term. Perhaps, like Melville, he believe the name contributed to an erosion of public confidence, helping to create a culture of pervasive paranoia which was politically and economically stultifying. Whatever his rationale, Twain’s avoidance of confidence man must have been intentional, because, as he reveals in the finale of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), he was cognizant of the term’s origins and its appropriateness to his characters. The King and the Duke have long been identified as prototypical conmen.”

Matt Seybold, “Tom Sawyer Impersonates ‘The Original Confidence Man'” Mark Twain Journal (Fall 2014)

Since 2014, I have found two instances of Twain using verb forms derived from the conman archetype, but both appear in private, still unpublished writings which are part of the Mark Twain Papers archive. These further reinforce my position: Twain was familiar with the conman archetypes and the lexicon of deception that had been based upon it during the transbellum period, but he carefully demurred from deploying this lexicon in his own public writing and speaking.

So, this specific attribution, which uses the words con and conned was instantly recognizable to me as apocryphal. However, the basic conceit is also familiar. Twain definitely did believe in the durability of myths, misinformation, false beliefs, and outright lies. As early as 1882, Twain wrote, “A truth is not hard to kill, but a well told lie is immortal.” The twin pillars of gullibility and self-assurance became central to Twain’s conception of human nature and thus common refrains in his autobiographical writings, many of which were not published until the 2010s.

In an entry from his autobiography dated December 2, 1906, Twain recollects participating in a mesmerism hoax when he was just a teenager. Many years later he confessed the method of the “fraud” and his own mother did not believe him. “How easy it is to make people believe a lie,” he wrote, “an how hard it is to undo the work again!” Twain marvels for awhile at the “grotesque and unthinkable situation: a confessed swindler convicted of honesty and condemned to acquittal by circumstantial evidence furnished by the swindled!” But in What Is Man?, his mock-Socratic dialogue published earlier the same year, the grotesque situation is a centerpiece of his philosophy. Twain’s “Old Man” insists that beliefs, once established, cannot be dislodged by evidence or expert testimony:

“There are none but temporary Truth-Seekers; a permanent one is a human impossibility; as soon as the Seeker finds what he is thoroughly convinced is the Truth, he seeks no further, but gives the rest of his days to hunting junk to patch it and caulk it and prop it with, and make it weather-proof and keep it from caving in on him.”

Mark Twain, What Is Man? (1906)

The contemporary, viral “easier to con” aphorism appears to be native to the Trump era. I have found no iterations of it prior to 2016 and the vast majority of the times it has been deployed exactly as @Snowayout does. In fact, @Snowayout & what appears to be an alt-account (below) have tweeted the quote with Twain’s attribution 15 times since 2018:

Prior to that, however, another variation of the aphorism was far more popular:

This also has been most often (and wrongly) attributed to Twain, and not just on Twitter. A GOP representative to the Montana state legislature, Krayton Kerns, used it in an editorial for the Laurel Outlook in October of 2013. In July of 2012, it appeared as an epigram to a column by Jack Dillard in the Shreveport Times. In 2012 it was also, unfortunately, part of an example essay in a study guide compiled by Andrea Hayes for Cambridge University Press.

But who actually deserves credit? As far as I can surmise, that honor goes to W. L. Baldridge, founding editor and publisher of the Dexter Dispatch, a newspaper that served the tiny town of Dexter, Kansas from 1905 to 1915. On 1913, Baldridge responded to a subscriber who was displeased that Baldridge had for several weeks been publicizing a planned Labor Day celebration organized by the Socialist Party in the county and featuring a speech by dystopian SciFi author, George Allan England, who had recently campaigned to be Governor of Maine under the Socialist banner.

During the tenure of this paper, which he sold to the Dexter Observer in 1915, Baldridge printed dozens of anecdotes about, sketches by, and homages to Mark Twain. Surveying these, we see want might have been his inspiration for the antagonistic tone he takes with subscribers.