Gallows without Humor: How I Mined Mark Twain’s Western Violence

In 2008 I began my PhD program shortly after I had broken my second metatarsal on a run with former students. At the time, antebellum writers of the gothic and sensational occupied my imagination in the darkness of my newly sedentary life. I read the novels of George Lippard, George Thompson, and John Rollin Ridge and the journalism within The Hangman and the National Police Gazette. One day, as I searched for crime narratives set in the American West, I came across The Sagebrush Anthology, edited by Lawrence Berkove. This collection contained hoaxes written by Mark Twain, which had been published in Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise in the early 1860s. I had not read much early Twain, for I mostly spent time with Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer, Hank Morgan or Pudd’nhead Wilson. But, as I researched and read, I noticed that Twain’s periodical writing read more like antebellum sensational writers than like the Twain I had read in school, or his writing I usually taught.

Now I began to catch up, though I could not run, and I emailed Larry Berkove. To my surprise, he responded. We corresponded several times, and I read all that he recommended. Still, I could not shed those gothic writers from eastern cities. I discovered many relationships between eastern metropolitan writers and western writers in mining towns, so I focused on these similarities in my research: narratives or journalism that criticized society, assessed gender norms, reported on or created scenes of crime and punishment, and employed violent discourse. Twain’s journalism and letters had it all. Even humor. I decided, however, mostly to avoid his humor and instead welcome the bullets and ropes, blood and bruises. Besides, I found out, James Caron had written the best book about Twain’s humor and western journalism, Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter, that same year.

So I focused on the violence. My essential question has kept me interested all these years: What and how did Twain write about crime and punishment during his time in the West and just after he left it? Though I was well into my research by 2011, one answer came during the first Clemens Conference in Hannibal, Missouri, that summer. Robert Hirst gave the keynote address, and as he discussed various letters and notes penned by Twain, Bob showed an envelope that contained Twain’s handwritten, but not mailed, response to Henry Bovee, a senator who had campaigned against capital punishment. After his address, I chatted with Bob about the note and asked him if any other such letters or envelopes existed in the Mark Twain Papers. The next year I visited the Papers in Berkeley, and within a box of unpublished materials in Bob’s office sat another envelope, with another response that Twain did not send to Henry Bovee. Images of both envelopes appear in my book, thanks to Bob Hirst.

Sam Clemens pistol practicing at his home in Redding, CT. (1908)
Image found at

During that exploration in the Papers I read various newspaper articles, bits, pieces, and columns that offered Twain’s specific, complicated, sometimes fluid views on western violence, including legal and extralegal punishment. He also wrote much about guns, but not in ways that would please either of our current political parties. He wrote about gender in ways that would not necessarily satisfy today’s men or women, whether traditionally or fluidly gendered. And he wrote about violence in ways that might disgust and excite his readers, for violence disgusted and excited him. These contradictions interested me. And though I can now run again, I cannot escape these contradictions, and the darkness and danger lurking in cities or mining towns that Mark Twain’s writing illuminated.

Dr. Jarrod Roark is a teacher at St. Teresa’s Academy (Kansas City, MO) and is Executive Coordinator of the Mark Twain Circle. Dr. Roark presented the following paper at the Elmira 2017: The Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies:

His recent book, Mark Twain at the Gallows: Crime and Justice in His Western Writing, 1861-1873, is available from McFarland & Co.

MARK TWAIN FORUM BOOK REVIEWS: “Mark Twain at The Gallows: Crime and Justice in His Western Writing” by Jarrod D. Roark

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A large collection of Mark Twain Studies lectures are available in our Trouble Begins Archive. Jarrod D. Roark presented the following paper at the Elmira 2017: The Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies:

Mark Twain at the Gallows: Crime and Justice in His Western Writing, 1861-1873. By Jarrod D. Roark. McFarland & Co., 2019. Pp. 218. Softcover $45.00. ISBN 978-1-4766-7973-0 (softcover). ISBN 978-1-4766-3805-9 (ebook).

For everyone except for the criminal on the gallows being fitted for his or her noose, witnessing a hanging can be instructive, reformative, cathartic, or entertaining, if not disturbing. In fact, for the close observer it can be all of these things. It can even be some of these things for the hangee, although of much shorter duration. Why, even the more squeamish among us can derive these same benefits just by reading about a hanging. From a glance at the title of Jarrod Roark’s book, a potential reader might be roped into thinking that everything in it takes place at the gallows, but let’s cut the author some slack. The subtitle gives it all away: “Crime and Punishment in His Western Writing, 1861-1873”.

Rope is not a trope in Twain’s writings, but crime and punishment are a major recurring theme. It would be a challenge to name a book by Twain that does not somewhere feature a criminal, a crime, a victim, a detective, a trial, an injustice, or some wrong to be righted–or some combination of these elements. Twain’s later treatments of crime and its consequences have been repeatedly studied, but one question has gone largely unanswered: How, when, and where did Twain’s life-long interest in crime and punishment originate and how did it evolve into his better-known broader concern for social justice? Roark finds the origins in Twain’s western years, and documents how his writings evolved. The answer, or a clue to the answer, was hiding in plain sight–roughly half of Twain’s more than 100 stories and news items in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise between 1862 and 1864 were reports on crimes or violence, and that percentage held steady for the nearly 500 local items he wrote for the Call in San Francisco (14).

Then as now, crime sells, or, as is said in our own visual age, “if it bleeds, it leads.”  Twain learned this lesson soon after arriving in Nevada, but no book focusing on Twain’s earliest crime writings has appeared until now, although most who have written about his western years have touched upon the subject, and Roark cites them: Ivan Benson, Lawrence Berkove, Walter Blair, Edgar Branch, James Caron, Joseph Coulumbe. Those are just the Bs and the Cs; and Roark’s list goes on to include the work of Joe Fulton and Roy Morris. Not cited by Roark is the only extended study of Mark Twain’s writings on crime and punishment, Daniel M. McKeithan’s Court Trials in Mark Twain (1958), whose focus is on six of Twain’s later books. Also not cited by Roark is Earl F. Briden’s entry on “Law” in The Mark Twain Encyclopedia (1993), an excellent overview of Mark Twain’s conflicted attitudes toward the law that only briefly touches on Twain’s western experiences. However, these two omissions are collateral explorations of Twain’s writings on crime and punishment, neither of them centered on the origins of Twain’s interest.

Most of Twain’s earliest writings on crime and justice, as well as many of his later writings, also involve gender–women as both victims and victimizers–and Roark draws upon the familiar works on this topic by Susan K. Harris, Linda A. Morris, Ann M. Ryan, and Laura Skandera Trombley, among others. As Roark points out, his study is intended as “an additive, rather than a corrective, to scholarship about Twain’s gender anxieties and his writing from the West and about it” (183).

Roark wastes no time making clear his aim: to describe Twain’s response “to cultural anxieties about crime, punishment, and gender in the West between 1862 and 1873” (2). He does this through Twain’s newspaper writings, letters, journals, and fiction that deal with the “desperadoes, lynch mobs, failed and drunk husbands, prostitutes and johns, judges, and even the gallows” (1). Along the way, according to Roark, “we see a Trinitarian literary persona emerge: Twain as Murderer, Twain the Judge, and Twain the Hangman. The three work in concert to offer extra-legal, indeed, extra-literary responses to crime and punishment . . .” (3).

The west was a violent place, and when Sam Clemens stepped off the stagecoach in Carson City in August 1861, he found himself in the middle of it. In Roughing It he described a gunfight he claimed he witnessed the day of his arrival, and was soon losing friends and acquaintances to violence. He once interrupted a letter he was writing to his mother and sister to say he was going to investigate the source of five gunshots he’d just heard outside in the street, and discovered that two policemen that he knew had been murdered (39). Writing sensationally about this violence sold more papers than did humor, and Roark portrays a young Sam Clemens “whose inkwell brimmed with blood” (4), and places his blood-drenched approach in the context of popular writings of the day that sensationalized violence, including those of George Lippard and Ned Buntline, and others with whose writings Sam Clemens was familiar. Curiously, despite numerous references to Twain’s readings, Roark does not cite Alan Gribben’s extensive scholarship in this area, which would have led to other sources (like the
Causes Celebres volumes Twain owned and read) which would have further strengthened his strong arguments.

Roark begins by borrowing Joseph Coulumbe’s description of Clemens as an “outlaw with a pen” whose reports on crime reflected an outlaw ethic that advanced a moral stance…..

…finish reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at the Mark Twain Forum.

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