The Alternative Facts of 1863: Mark Twain’s “A Bloody Massacre Near Carson”

“Fake news” isn’t really anything new. Robert Darnton points out in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books that “the concoction of alternative facts is hardly rare, and the equivalent of today’s poisonous, bite-size texts and tweets can be found in most periods of history, going back to the ancients.”

As noted previously in this blog, in his early career as a journalist Mark Twain dabbled in this ignoble practice himself. He confessed in a speech he gave to the Monday Evening Club in 1873 that as a reporter he had published “vicious libels upon people” for which he “ought to have been hanged.”

Twain was well acquainted with the sensationalized “click bait” form of “fake news” as well, the kind that distorts real events or even fabricates them entirely. “I know from personal experience the proneness of journalists to lie,” he told the Monday Evening Club. “I once started a peculiar and picturesque fashion of lying myself on the Pacific coast, and it is not dead there to this day.”

Among the most notorious of Twain’s hoaxes was a distant cousin, perhaps, of Kellyanne Conway’s “Bowling Green Massacre.”  A Bloody Massacre Near Carson” appeared in Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise in October 1863. Although as an increasingly notorious frontier journalist, Twain had published other spurious stories (such as one about a petrified man found eternally thumbing his nose in the wilds of Nevada), it was the gruesome massacre hoax that would be the most troublesome for him.

The account involves an actual frontiersman named Philip Hopkins who (according to Twain’s article) goes insane and murders his wife and most of his nine children. In Twain’s increasingly graphic account,

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. Hopkins expired in the course of five minutes, without speaking. The long red hair of the scalp he bore marked it as that of Mrs. Hopkins.

Twain goes on to describe in disturbing detail the “ghastly scene” that the sheriff and citizens of Carson discover at the Hopkins’ household:

The scalpless corpse of Mrs. Hopkins lay across the threshold, with her head split open and her right hand almost severed from the wrist. Near her lay the ax with which the murderous deed had been committed. In one of the bedrooms six of the children were found, one in bed and the others scattered about the floor. They were all dead. Their brains had evidently been dashed out with a club, and every mark about them seemed to have been made with a blunt instrument.

Not surprisingly, the shocking story went viral. Other newspapers picked it up and reprinted the hoax massacre as fact. Lost amid all the blood-soaked prose, however, was the actual intention Twain had for fabricating the story, which he regrettably buried at the end of his article.

The details are a bit convoluted, but basically Twain meant for his gory story to be a satire of a real-life stock-cooking scheme happening at the time involving San Francisco newspapers and utilities companies. In Twain’s over-the-top spoof, peppered with intentionally glaring errors, the securities scheme was what triggered Hopkins (who was actually unmarried and still very much alive) to go on his murderous rampage. But the satirical attack on unethical stock manipulators was lost on most of Twain’s readers, who were fixated on the horrific details of the non-existent slaughter of Hopkins’ made-up family.

Twain wrote a retraction and offered his resignation to the Enterprise’s editor, who refused to accept it, but the massacre hoax seriously damaged his reputation as a reporter for a time. His writing career would rebound, of course, but the incident left its philosophical mark on him, and he would ruminate on it for years to come. In “My Famous ‘Bloody Massacre’”, published ten years after the original hoax, Twain concluded,

The idea that anybody could ever take my massacre for a genuine occurrence never once suggested itself to me, hedged about as it was by all those telltale absurdities and impossibilities…But I found out then, and never have forgotten since, that we never read the dull explanatory surroundings of marvelously exciting things when we have no occasion to suppose that some irresponsible scribbler is trying to defraud us; we skip all that, and hasten to revel in the blood-curdling particulars and be happy.

I believe this insight would go on to haunt Twain for the rest of his life. A recurring theme throughout his body of work involves the eager propensity we humans have for believing the “marvelously exciting” narratives imposters use to dupe us, despite the “telltale absurdities and impossibilities.” It’s a theme that remains critically relevant in today’s so-called “post-truth” world as our ability to navigate tumultuous times seems to be marred by increasingly blurred distinctions between what is false and what is true.

Twain knew about the dire toll such moral obscurity can take. As he has Hank Morgan realize near the end of Connecticut Yankee, when the narrator is succumbing to an ever darkening and incoherent world of his own making, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

Dwayne Eutsey is a freelance writer, editor, independent scholar, former Quarry Farm Fellow, and contributor to Mark Twain Journal

True Williams’s Illustration of Twain’s “My Bloody Massacre” from 1875 edition of Sketches Old & New

The Best Defense is a Good Offense: False Virtue, Fake News, & Mark Twain’s Birthday Roast of Ben Franklin

On this date in 1856, Samuel Clemens, at barely twenty years of age, gave what was likely the first of the improvised comedic toasts for which he would, as Mark Twain, become widely renowned. The occasion was an impromptu celebration of the sesquicentennial of Benjamin Franklin’s birth. As the Keokuck Daily Gate City reported it, a group of local printers, including Orion Clemens, who ran the Ben Franklin Book & Job Office, gathered at the Eagle Hotel and “toasted their patron saint.”

Nothing survives of Clemens’s speech, save testament that is was, indeed, funny. In the coming decades, informal gatherings like these would evolve into professional societies like the Typothetae of New York, founded in 1862, and the New England Franklin Club, established two years later. Both would invite Twain to speak on Franklin’s Birthday, which became the premiere event night for printers organizations nationwide.

Predictably, at such banquets Twain turned his toasts to Franklin into roasts of Franklin. At one such dinner, in 1887, Twain speculated that even if he didn’t wish Franklin to “be shoved into a barrel of Madeira,” he “would have wanted to get the barrel of Madeira into him.” One of the most canonized passages in Franklin’s Autobiography is his list of thirteen virtues. Atop this list sits Temperance, “which is so necessary where constant Vigilance is to be kept up…against the unremitting Attraction of ancient Habits, and the Force of perpetual Temptations.” Twain naturally appreciated the irony of raising a glass, the contents which corrupted not only temperance, but the other twelve virtues in turn, to Franklin.

The insinuation that the world would’ve been better off without Franklin’s famous virtues was a favorite conceit of Twain’s. In an 1870 homage “To Late Benjamin Franklin” he complained of the effect “Franklin’s pernicious biography” had on fathers, including his own, who mistook it for a manual on child-rearing. By trying to live up to Franklin’s celebrated maxims, Twain reported, he had been driven to his “present state of debility, indigence, and mental aberration.”

Twain’s characterization of Franklin’s Autobiography as the bane of children is only partially exaggerated. Over 150 editions were published in the century following the author’s death. Selections from it, as well as aphorisms from Poor Richard’s Almanac, were consistently included in textbooks, anthologies, and other popular reading materials for children in 19th-Century America. As Twain put it, Franklin’s “simplest acts were contrived with a view to their being held up for the emulation of boys forever – boys who might otherwise have been happy.”

Twain could trust that Franklin’s works would be familiar to almost any audience, a ubiquity truly unusual for the time. As Twain vied for an unprecedented cultural celebrity, Franklin’s posthumous popularity preceded him and, as common knowledge, became a valuable object for Twain’s satirical talents. While most of what Twain said publicly about Franklin was pejorative, it’s hard to take many of these statements at face value. In many cases he was lambasting Franklin at banquets in Franklin’s honor, which he habitually attended.

During his first trip to Philadelphia, at the age of 17, Sam Clemens sought out all the historical sites related to the idol of his father and older brother, writing approvingly of efforts by the Philadelphia Typographical Union to “erect a monument to Franklin.” Albert Bigelow Paine explicitly compares Clemens to “a young Ben Franklin” in the authorized biography he published shortly after his patron’s death. Paine argues that Clemens was far more virtuous and industrious than Twain let on and, of course, notes that Franklin and Twain rivaled only each other in terms of cultural celebrity during their nation’s first century and thus were crucial collaborators in the creation of what would come to be known as Americana.

But the crux of Paine’s argument is simply that the careers of both men were defined by the shared profession of their youth: printing. What both Franklin and Twain mean by printing is, in the parlance of our time, publishing. Colonial and antebellum printers produced books, pamphlets, posters, directories, contracts, currencies, and, most notably, newspapers. They owned and operated the presses which gave us what remains the most popular sobriquet for mainstream journalism.

In 1729, 23-year-old Ben Franklin purchased The Pennsylvania Gazette. In its pages, two years later, he published his “Apology for Printers.” This essay is worth revisiting amidst recent, intensely partisan, doubts about the accuracy and legitimacy of journalism. Franklin’s essay reminds us, among other things, that phrases like “just the facts,” “journalistic objectivity,” “fair and balanced,” “accurate and impartial,” though now conventionally associated with the industry, are not intrinsic to it. According to Franklin, these are not reasonable standards to hold publishers to. Ever fond of lists, Franklin asks his readers, “who are angry with me on Account of printing things they don’t like,” to calmly consider ten foundational principles of his trade.

From the outset, he dismisses the delusion of a press employed primarily in the promotion and distribution of objective, factual truths. “The Business of Printing has chiefly to do with Mens Opinions; most things that are printed tending to promote some, or oppose others.” Because the trade of the publisher depends upon opinions and, moreover, “the Opinions of Men are almost as various as their Faces,” Franklin laments that the printer is “scarce able to do any thing in their way of getting a Living, which shall not probably give Offence to some, and perhaps to many.” Franklin argues that, in light of this peculiarity of their profession, “Printers are educated in the Belief, that when men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.” Trusting, perhaps naively, that justice will be served in the court of public opinion, “Printers naturally acquire a vast Unconcernedness as to the right and wrong Opinions contain’d in what they print; regarding it only as a Matter of their daily labor.”

Franklin’s “Apology” thus emphasizes the agency and civic duty not of the press, but of its consumers, who must view the “great variety of things opposite and contradictory” which they read with a cautious, critical eye. No reader should “expect to be pleas’d with every thing that is printed” since “if all Printers were determin’d not to print any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little printed.” The cacophonous industry of American prose, still in its infancy in 1731, was something Franklin vigorously defended because any alternative would put an end “to Free Writing, and the World would afterwards have nothing to read but what happen’d to be the Opinions of Printers.”

Upon this document as much as any other, Franklin made his reputation as “patron saint” of printers, publishers, and journalists. But, as the industry he lionized evolved over the course of his exceptionally long life, and came to enjoy, partially on the basis of his “Apology,” unprecedented legal protections, Franklin did express some second thoughts. As he approached the end of his first (and only) term as Governor of Pennsylvania, the 83-year-old published (in a newspaper) a satire of the newspaper press, which he dubbed “The Supremest Court.”

Any Man who can procure Pen, Ink, and Paper, with a Press, and a huge pair of Blacking Balls, may commissionate himself; and his court is immediately established in the plenary Possession and exercise of its rights. For, if you make the least complaint of this judge’s conduct, he daubs his blacking balls in your face wherever he meets you; and, besides tearing your private character to flitters, marks you out for the odium of the public, as an enemy to the liberty of the press. 

If, by liberty of the press, “it means the Liberty of affronting, calumniating, and defaming one another,” Franklin muses, “I shall cheerfully consent to exchange my Liberty of Abusing others for the Privilege of not being abus’d myself.” If the legislature must “leave the liberty of the press untouched,” Franklin suggests they “permit liberty of the cudgel to go with it.” He writes, “Thus, my fellow-citizens, if an impudent writer attacks your reputation, dearer to you perhaps than your life, and puts his name to the charge, you may go to him openly and break his head.”

Franklin’s satire, though it gently advocated the extension of libel laws by states, primarily demonstrates the persistent wisdom of his then 70-year-old “Apology,” as equal access to printing assured Franklin and his legendary eloquence would by heard by the Supremest Court. Twain took up this theme in many of his commentaries on Franklin, publishing, and journalistic integrity. “A libel suit simply brings the plaintiff before a vast newspaper court to be tried before the law tries him, and reviled and ridiculed without mercy,” Twain observed. The best defense against the vitriol of others is, as Twain argued and exemplified, the liberal exercise of one’s own wit.

“That awful power, the public opinion of a nation, is created in America by a horde of ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditching and shoemaking and fetched up in journalism on their way to the poorhouse,” he told an assembly of journalists, publishers, and professional writers in 1873. One can imagine the pregnant pause left at the end of this sentence, as audience members register that the career path Twain is describing is his own. “I know from personal experience the proneness of journalists to lie,” he continues and, after only half-denying a series of humorous accusations made against him, reminds his audience and his accusers, “have published vicious libels upon people myself – and ought to have been hanged before my time for it, too – if I do say it myself.” But he wasn’t. And, as a word of warning, he admits, “to this day I am liable to lie if I don’t watch myself all the time.”