It’s Halloween, the day when, according to legend, the veil between this world and the spirit realm is at its most delicate. A fitting time to remember Mark Twain’s love for a good ghost story.
He was particularly fond of “The Golden Arm”, a folktale that spooked him during childhood visits to his Uncle John Quarles’ farm in the 1840s. He noted decades later in a letter to Joel Chandler Harris that the story was told by “old Uncle Dan’l, a slave of my uncle’s, aged 60, [who] used to tell us children yarns every night by the kitchen fire (no other light).” The story, which Twain referred to as a “negro ghost story,” actually has folkloric roots extending back to Europe long before the Grimm brothers first published it. However, by the time Uncle Dan’l mesmerized Twain with it by the kitchen fire, the story had become part of the oral tradition of Southern black culture.
The creepy story (or “creepypasta” in the parlance of our times) concerns a dead woman’s restless spirit returning from the grave to reclaim her golden arm from her grave-robbing husband. The suspense gradually builds with the ghost’s recurring mournful wail, “W-h-o–g-o-t–m-y–g-o-l-d-e-n arm?”, and after a carefully timed pause, climaxes with the storyteller suddenly lunging forward to shout, “You’ve got it!”
Twain recalled to Harris how much he and the other children on the farm loved to listen to Uncle Dan’l retell the story to them every night when “there was but a ghastly blaze or two flickering about the back-log”:
We would huddle close about the old man, and begin to shudder with the first familiar words; and under the spell of his impressive delivery we always fell a prey to that climax at the end when the rigid black shape in the twilight sprang at us with a shout.
This folktale had a lifelong impact on Twain. Not only did memories of Uncle Dan’l inspire his creation of the superstitious-yet-wise Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain also relished telling “The Golden Arm” himself from the lecture platform. “Of course I tell it in the negro dialect,” he wrote to Harris. “That is necessary.” And his telling always included all the “weird wailing, the rising and falling cadences of the wind, so easily mimicked with one’s mouth; and the impressive pauses and eloquent silences, and subdued utterances, toward the end of the yarn.”
It was probably these mimetic aspects of the story, along with its shock ending, that so mortified Twain’s daughter Susy when her father regaled her refined classmates at Bryn Mawr with a performance of the ghoulishly garish tale (even after she begged him not to tell it).
Twain’s interest in “The Golden Arm” is well known today, thanks in large part to Hal Holbrooks’ rendition of it in Mark Twain Tonight! and its inclusion in the repertoire of professional storytellers. (For an interesting reflection on problematic aspects of the story by a contemporary storyteller, click here.)
However, there is another strange (but true) ghost story that isn’t as widely known involving Twain, ouija boards, and, of all things, copyright law.
The convoluted saga begins in 1915 when an author named Emily Grant Hutching claimed that Twain, now five years dead, dictated a book to her from beyond the grave via a ouija board. David Thomson has compiled a lot of great information on this incident.
For a simple summary of Twain’s alleged foray into posthumous publishing, I turn to Mary Collins Barile’s Haunted Columbia, Missouri:
Now calling herself a psychic, Hutchings finally revealed…that the book was transmitted to herself, psychic Lola Viola Roddenmayer Hays and psychic researcher James Hervey Hyslop by none other than Mark Twain…Jap Herron (A Novel Written from the Ouija Board) tells the story of a young Missouri man who takes on adversity and becomes a newspaper editor. The book was rejected by publishing houses before Mitchell Kennerley, a New York publisher with a flair for the odd, released it. The reviews were not kind, including this from the New York Times on September 9, 1917: “If this is the best that Mark Twain can do by reaching across the barrier (death), the admirers that his works have won for him will all hope that he will hereafter respect that boundary.”
Not only did Twain’s supposed publishing debut from the spectral realm receive pallid reviews, his daughter Clara and publisher Harper & Brothers sued Hutching and Kennerley for violating the copyright they held on the pen name “Mark Twain”. The suit, as a tongue-in-cheek New York Times article reported in 1918, apparently had far-reaching implications beyond mere copyright infringement:
On the face of it the suit of Harper & Brothers vs. Mitchell Kennerley, publisher, involves a bald question of property right; but by indirection it involves also the questions whether spirit communication with the living is demonstrable, and whether there is a life hereafter. The riddle of the universe is about to be debated, not by theologians, but by lawyers.
Ultimately, the questions related to this cosmic riddle included (again, from the article):
Has the shade of Samuel Clemens any right to the use of a pseudonym he adopted in the flesh and permitted his publishers to copyright? What claims have The Departed on the relics of their earthly pilgrimage? These are obvious issues in the suit. And if it is established to the satisfaction of the Court that the spirit of Mark Twain did indeed communicate the novel, while the attorneys for the plaintiff are upheld in their contention that said spirit had no right to market any literary commodities except through the house of Harpers, owing to a contract made prior to his passing, by what mode of procedure can the disembodied by brought to book for such unbusinesslike, not to say immoral, conduct?
Regrettably, the suit did not resolve any existential conundrums, and Twain’s spirit gave no ghostly testimony from the netherworld. Instead, the anti-climactic outcome resulted in Hutchings and Kennerley agreeing to withdraw the book from publication and to destroy most copies of it.Yet, Jap Herron lives on. Hard copies of it may be difficult to dig up today, but there are versions of it still haunting the internet. Brave souls willing to venture into Twain’s otherworldly opus, which includes Hutching’s lengthy account of her supposed ouija board collaboration with him, can visit (if they dare).
Happy Halloween from everyone at the Center for Mark Twain Studies!