“I Killed Thirty-Eight Persons”: Sam Clemens & The Sioux Wars, 1862-1876

EDITOR’S NOTE: Atsushi Sugimura’s provocative and nuanced reading of an under-appreciated tale was part of the Mark Twain & Native Americans Panel at The Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies in August of 2017.  

In this presentation, I’d like to examine the ways Sam Clemens makes reference, both directly and indirectly, to the marginalized tragedies of Native Americans in “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut.” One of Clemens’s earliest and most illuminating explorations of human conscience, the story was written in January 1876, immediately after he finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We can find in this story powerful images of slavery. Clemens even identifies, obliquely, the narrator’s “genteel tormentor” Aunt Mary with his wife Olivia by portraying Aunt Mary as an ardent but powerless abolitionist of what she calls “hateful slavery of tobacco” at the end of the narrative.

Interestingly, Clemens also expresses in this tale his suppressed guilt over the past sufferings of Native Americans. In a pivotal passage that reveals the identity of the dwarf, Clemens highlights the narrator’s guilt over what the dwarf calls a “peculiarly mean and pitiful act of yours toward a poor ignorant Indian in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains” that was perpetrated in some “winter of eighteen hundred and—.”

As is well known, Mark Twain was involved in the violently racist discourse targeted at Native Americans, the Plains Indians in particular, in his earlier writings, including the notorious “The Noble Red Man.” In this passage, the narrator prevents the dwarf’s whole disclosure of the actual date of the incident. What is Clemens hinting at here? I suspect that he could possibly be suggesting the Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864.

We can draw a parallel between Mark Twain’s violent commentary on Native Americans around 1870 and the rhetoric of extermination that was quite popular among Euro-American settlers in and nearby the wilds of the Rocky Mountains during the Civil War era. Such discourse, in fact, provided a significant excuse for Colonel John Chivington and his troops, who carried out the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado on the cold morning of November 29th, 1864—arguably one of the most “mean and pitiful” attacks perpetrated by the US Army against a Native American village. From this notorious massacre, Clemens would later gain inspiration, at least partly, for Hank Morgan’s catastrophic Battle of the Sand-Belt in Connecticut Yankee.

Clemens expresses, briefly but unmistakably, his suppressed guilt over the past sufferings of Native Americans in “Carnival of Crime.”

Around the time Clemens composed the story, in January 1876, Ulysses Grant was about to launch a new punitive campaign against the Plains Indians in pursuit of a gold mine found in Black Hills, Dakota. In December 1875, Grant issued an ultimatum to the Native Americans to surrender by January 31st, 1876. On January 24th, Clemens read “Carnival of Crime” at the meeting of the Monday Evening Club of Hartford. It was just a week before the deadline. Historian John S. Gray observes that the war was nothing else but the US government’s “violation of a solemn treaty designed to permit further violations of the same treaty.”

At the end of the story, the narrator kills the dwarf and turns himself into a “man without a conscience, ” who happily performs his “Carnival of Crime.” We can detect the faint shadows of a Twainian notion of Indianness in the passages underlined below. The narrator brags about his unlawful acquisition of a cow, which is suggested as “not thoroughbred”—in other words, mixed-blood. This is not the first time that Clemens’s narrator obtains other people’s livestock in a criminal way. In chapter 20 of The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain tells of his imagined past experiences with the Noble Red Man, in which he once “helped them steal cattle.” In addition, at the end of the story, the narrator announces a special sale of human bodies for medical experts. This would remind us of what Injun Joe, that “murderin’ half-breed,” was doing with Dr. Robinson in St. Petersburg’s graveyard.

I’d like to put special emphasis on the following fact: the narrator starts off his “Carnival of Crime” with a vengeful act of mass murder in Connecticut, the native land that was acquired by Yankees. He says, “I killed thirty-eight persons during the first two weeks—all of them on account of ancient grudges.” Clemens provides no narrative context for this mysterious number of victims, but I suspect that the number of victims, thirty-eight, echoes the tragic consequence of the US-Dakota War of 1862. In December 1862, in the wake of a mass uprising of starving Dakota Indians in Minnesota, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the execution of thirty-nine Dakota Sioux – one of whom was reprieved afterward. The hanging was carried out on December 26th in Mankato, Minnesota. It was six days before the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, and five weeks before Sam Clemens began to call himself Mark Twain. According to legal historian Carol Chomsky, the military commission “tried the Sioux for the wrong crimes” and thereby unwarrantedly victimized them in the largest mass execution in US history. On the night of the execution, the bodies of the thirty-eight Sioux Indians were dug out and taken away by a group of doctors, including Dr. William Mayo, the founder of the now world-renowned Mayo Clinic.

It is worth noting that in a letter written on February 17th, three weeks after his recitation of “Carnival of Crime,” Clemens requested Elisha Bliss send Fanny Kelly’s Narrative of My Captivity among the Sioux Indians to the National Soldiers’ Home. At the end of the first American edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer appears an advertisement for Kelly’s book, whose opening paragraph refers to “the horrible massacres in Minnesota in 1862” that resulted in the execution of the thirty-eight Sioux Indians.

In 1881, Twain, who called himself a “Connecticut Yankee by adoption,” appropriated in his speech the suffering image of vanished Indians for the indirect expression of his perceived sense of deracination from the South as well as alienation from the elite society of the East, ventilating at the same time his pent-up anger against the cruel deeds of what he calls the “Mayflower tribe.” And Clemens’s continued interest in the Sioux Indians and their “ancient grudges” manifests itself again in the manuscript of “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians.” Its narrative plot develops around the “private grudge” of a vengeful Native American, whose tribal identity is confirmed by the hero Brace Johnson as a Sioux.

In his last years, Clemens muses on these events in the manuscript of “Letters from the Earth.” Clemens’s Satan here expresses, to some degree, his sympathy with the long-tormented Sioux Indians, seeing that the Native people finally “duplicated” the atrocities of what he calls “conscienceless God” in 1862 in order to wreak vengeance upon their oppressor—the United States.

The details of “Carnival of Crime” interact with complex layers of national memories regarding justice and injustice. The marginalized history of American Indians are appropriated by Clemens, in a subtle but provocative way, for the sketch’s singular autobiographical construction—as a symbolic site of identification and displacement. Clemens’s reference to the US-Dakota War in “Letters from the Earth” would provide a relevant historical context to reconsider the bifocal way in which Clemens voiced—and muted—his suppressed anxiety and desire as a self-exiled white southerner in 1876.

This also allows us, I believe, to revisit the autobiographical implication of the baffled revenge plot and tragic death of Injun Joe—the ultimate source of Tom Sawyer’s “troubled conscience and his fears,” who sometimes was seen by critics as the “shadow self”—or the “devil double”—of Mark Twain’s celebrated alter ego.


Atsushi Sugimura is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Tokyo, a Visiting Scholar at University of California, Berkeley, and a recipient of the Ito Foundation USA FUTI Scholarship.