Fact-Checking Mark Twain

By Cara BaylesFebruary 20, 2016

Fact-Checking Mark Twain
ADMIRERS OF MARK TWAIN’S clever and lively prose will be pleased to learn that 97 years after newspaper archives were destroyed in a series of fires, scholars poring through scrapbooks and old newspapers have produced a definitive collection of the humorist’s California journalism. The result, entitled Mark Twain’s San Francisco correspondence for the Territorial Enterprise: 1865–1866, will be published by University of California Press in 2017. But while Twain fans will no doubt love these glimpses into his early writing, journalistic purists may balk at Twain’s laxity with fact. As both a fiction writer and a journalist, I was torn between the two reactions.

Consider the article, which ran in late October of 1865 about two wealthy investors inspecting a mine they might buy. The site, known as the Rawhide Mining Company was, according to Twain, run by five men and an “unimaginative old horse by the name of Cotton, so called because of a remarkable white spot which ornament[ed] his person near his tail.” Cotton, who subsists on “refuse rock and the pleasures of contemplation,” serves as the engine for the mine and the story. He is in charge of hoisting out ore and miners, using a rickety apparatus with running gear that “had been replaced from time to time with strips of rotten rawhide from the fence which enclosed the Rawhide Ranch, and which substance, as you will readily infer, gave the ranch and mine their names.” Two investors, “Johnny Skae and Gashwiler,” decide to check out the property, and after shoring up the hoisting gear, they go down into the mine in a bucket. During their descent, the rawhide snaps and bucket falls 70 feet to the bottom. The men escape death by clinging to the rope they’ve just purchased. Cotton stops “to meditate,” and the investors are left dangling. While Skae’s reaction is proper if not helpless (“I’m opposed to this,” and, “Holler at the horse, Gash”), Gashwiler swears he’ll reform his ways if he survives, all the while cussing out the mine workers (“Johnny, if we are saved I mean to be a good man and a Christian. Damn your thieving hides. I’ll cut the lungs out of some of you if I ever get out of this!”). Growing increasingly violent and desperate, he even says to Skae, “Oh Lord, Johnny! — we’ve got to die in this dark hole — kiss me, Johnny.” Eventually, Cotton “appear[s] to have come to a conclusion in the matter he was thinking about,” and lowers them to the bottom of the mine, while the workers above shore up the broken rawhide. The adventure makes “a sort of jack-legged Christian out of Gashwiler,” who buys the mine once he emerges from the hole.

It’s a quick and entertaining read, but its journalistic pleasures are not quite so apparent. Twain admits he has never been to Rawhide, and heard the story secondhand from “a man who always speaks the truth when he tells what is so, and which is not so frequent as to give his friends uneasiness,” and “one who is something of an artist in imbuing his statements with an attractive interest.” Yet he liberally quotes the men in the mine and claims to know what a horse is thinking. Most modern journalists would avoid all this, including Steve Rubenstein, who reported on the found clippings for the San Francisco Chronicle in May: “Twain was not himself in the mine shaft, but at his desk in San Francisco. His reporting at length of the exact words of two men who were in the shaft — or of the state of mind of a horse — might be more of a stretch than whatever caused the rope to break.”

Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar and faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says that responsible journalism is a discipline of verification, one that Twain isn’t practicing here. In a phone interview, he said:

A responsible journalist acting as a journalist, can’t use, “I heard some guy told me something happened in a mine.” You can tell that at a dinner party, but it’s not fit for publication or broadcast. Journalism is a discipline of finding things out and checking things out. It’s also a discipline of reporting things out, which means that the reader knows not only what you know, but how you know it. There’s an expectation that to some extent you make the sources of your knowledge transparent.

I didn’t doubt that parts of Twain’s Rawhide Ranch story were invented, but I wondered how much of it was. So I reported it out.

The Rawhide Ranch was real. This surprised me, since Twain said it was situated “in Tuolumne County, California, near Sonora; near Tuttletown; near Jimtown; near Jackass; near Chaparral Hill; near — well, near forty places, but in the immediate vicinity of none.” While these directions are hopeless, there was, indeed, a Rawhide Ranch with a gold-bearing quartz mine, according to the 1885 “Report of the State Geologist” of California.

The apparatus Twain describes, a horse whim, was a fairly common way to access underground hard-rock mines. Sadly, I cannot find evidence that Cotton, the unimaginative yet contemplative horse, existed, though that doesn’t mean he wasn’t real. However, Skae and Gashwiler, the two investors, left quite a paper trail proving their existence, and were already legendary by the time Twain dangled them inside a pit.

John W. Gashwiler, known colloquially as “Old Gash” and “the General,” had a reputation for being a “daring speculator,” who came to California from Randolph County, Missouri, when he was still a teenager. His rise is well-documented in 1879’s Annual Mining Review: after his first business partner in Tuolumne County was hung on a murder charge, Gashwiler tried importing a herd of hogs to San Francisco, but most of the pigs died on the sea passage. He went back to Tuolumne, and made his fortune quartz mining. In the early 1860s, along with Skae and a few other investors, he took control of the Water Works servicing Virginia City and Gold Hill, Nevada. Gashwiler would go on to lose his fortune; by 1881, he was insolvent.

Skae’s was also a rags-to-riches-back-to-rags story; his 1885 New York Times obituary states that he moved from Canada to California as a boy and used his inside knowledge as a telegraph operator to make millions on the stock market. By 1880, he would become known as “the father of the Sierra Nevada Bonanza,” though he would die quite poor. By the time of Twain’s article, he’d become a local celebrity. An 1879 profile in the Los Angeles Times commented on his “loud” dress, but praised him for being “sharp-witted” and “generous.” Poets wrote lyrics about his speculation successes. He threw lavish parties for which he stocked ponds on his property with live trout for his guests to fish. Skae was a good friend of Twain’s; he appeared multiple times in Twain’s sketches, and he makes an appearance in Twain’s 1872 travelogue Roughing It.

The investors’ public reputations do seem to fit the Twain’s characterization in the Rawhide story. Skae’s overly proper response to his near-death experience matches the Los Angeles Times’s characterization of him as “refined at heart, retiring in disposition,” while Gashwiler’s mercurial and swashbuckling reaction seems to fit his persona as a daring pioneer.

While I found no evidence that the men went into the Rawhide Ranch Mine, they certainly weren’t afraid of adventure. Skae was a known gambler, and in Famous American Fortunes and the Men Who Have Made Them, Laura Carter Holloway described him as the sort of man who was hardly risk adverse: “He did foolish and extravagant things, apparently with no other motive than to be talked about.” Gashwiler’s biography in the United States Annual Mining Review and Stock Ledger from 1879 suggests such excursions were standard for the investor:

There is one peculiarity about him — he always wants to see for himself. Every mining district on the Pacific Slope is familiar to him as household words; and being possessed of a wonderful memory, he can tell you all about the past history of any and every prominent mining camp. He knows all about the “mother lode of California;” he has tramped over it.

The deeper into the mine we fall, though, the more difficult it is to verify Twain’s story. I found nothing substantial enough to back up Gashwiler’s reported overtures to religion, violence, and Johnny Skae. It’s difficult to infer Gashwiler’s religiosity or lack thereof in historical documents. Just as Twain writes that Gashwiler oscillated between reform and threats in the mine, newspapers seemed to acknowledge that Gashwiler had two sides; his obituary in the San Francisco News Letter allows, “[w]e have known him to make mistakes, but these are swallowed up in the recollection of his wonderful achievements,” and his write-up in the Nevada State Journal said that “with all his faults,” Gashwiler was “one of the most generous men who ever lived.” For what it’s worth, the death notice also states that Gashwiler was the son of a Baptist preacher whose “influence for good will long be remembered” and his mother was “a good old Christian woman,” though this hardly proves or disproves his struggles with prayer in the mine.

Even less shores up Gashwiler’s “Kiss me, Johnny” line. According to the United States Annual Mining Review and Stock Ledger, the two men did make “a royal visit to the Eastern States by steamer via Panama” together. Nothing in the account suggests it was a business trip, and “a friend who saw them off” told the Review and Ledger that Skae and Gashwiler’s alcoholic provisions (“demijohns, champagne baskets, and small kegs”) took up two staterooms. However, this hardly proves they had an erotic or sexual relationship.

Mercifully, there is more than conjecture to suggest that the investors visited the mine in early October of 1865. Gashwiler would later sue Rawhide’s brokers, leaving a slew of legal documents that make Rawhide’s purchase easier to trace. They verify Twain’s reported history of the mine’s valuation, which says:

Last winter this mine could have been bought for twelve or fifteen thousand dollars. Afterwards somebody got the refusal of it for a certain length of time, at fifty thousand, for the purpose of attempting a sale of it in New York. But before this, as I forgot to mention, the property was placed in the hands of a broker here, and numerous efforts were made to dispose of it at twenty-five or thirty thousand dollars. Well, as soon as it became known that the above-mentioned refusal had been given, of course everybody wanted the mine.

This confusing description is probably meant to reflect and poke fun at the real and convoluted transaction. But the facts here are pretty much correct, as far as Twain and the investors knew at the time the article ran. According to the court documents, the mine’s stockholder told Gashwiler, Skae, and their associates that they could buy the Rawhide Ranch Mine. A prior trust deed had authorized Danford N. Barney with the sole power to sell the mine for $50,000 by October 1, 1865; after that, if it remained unsold, the stockholders were free to sell the mine on their own. October 1 passed and the stockholders hadn’t received money from Barney, and so they sold it to Gashwiler for $25,000. (This does disprove Twain’s claim, at the end of the article, that Gashwiler, Skae, and associates bought the mine for $75,000.)

It turns out Barney sold the mine for $50,000 on September 27. The brokers had told Gashwiler that the Barney payment had to reach them in Tuolumne by October 1 to be valid — in reality, only Barney had to have the cash on-hand by October 1. Thus, Gashwiler’s purchase was void. He sued the stockholders for damages.

Twain reports on this as well, but gets it wrong, possibly because the nature of the original contract was still unknown when the article ran on October 22:

The payment was made the moment the “refusal” contract run [sic] out; the money for the latter was deposited here at the same time, and a telegram to that effect was sent to Jimtown, but it was of no effect, because the terms of the contract were that the money was to be paid to the owners of the mine in Jimtown itself within the specified time.

Not only does the California Supreme Court decision in Gashwiler v. Willis provide details that allow us to fact-check Twain’s accounting, it also suggests that the investors really did visit the ranch and purchase new equipment for the mine. According to the complaint, the plaintiffs “bought the mine, and paid therefor the sum of twenty-five thousand dollars, took possession thereof, and expended money in erecting machinery on and improving it.”

Yet even as this affirms some general facts of Twain’s account, it also suggests the genius of his storytelling. Compare the above legalese to Twain’s far more vivid and humorous portrait:

They looked down the shaft and could see no bottom; and they looked at Cotton and liked his style, but they hesitated to put their trust in his harness; his “breeching” had a portentously unseaworthy aspect. So they rode over to Sonora and bought four dollars’ worth of reliable breeching and came back and repaired the hoisting gear.

The court’s account may be truer, but Twain’s version feels more real. The reader can envision the investors’ heads swiveling synchronously to look down in the mine, up at the horse, to the left at the equipment, then at one another before racing off to town.

The dialogue, too, which must be pure invention, has the ring of authenticity to it, mostly due to Twain’s uncanny ear for dialect and how it might reflect character. Richard Bucci, editor of the forthcoming collection of Twain’s newspaper stories, says that while he would characterize Rawhide Ranch as “a literary work, based on a factual situation, but not a news story, exactly,” Twain’s newspaper stories are effective because of their realism.

“He captures the vernacular characters of the mining region — their ways and their speech — very vividly and realistically,” he said in an email. “You can almost ‘hear’ the words as you read them.”

According to Robert Hirst, curator of the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley, Twain’s journalism is typical of the way nonfiction and fiction were interwoven for the author. He referenced a New York Times article that quotes Tom Kennett, who worked with Twain on the Buffalo Express, as saying, “Mark liked to get hold of true stories to tell them in his own fashion.”

“That was meant as a slur, but it quite accurately describes what he often did in work for the Enterprise and likewise for more or less pure fiction that he wrote for most of his professional life,” Hirst said in an email.

Embellishment is so prevalent throughout the history of journalism, Clark says, that there is slang for it: “piping stories” (the term’s origins are associated with crime reporters who culled and invented material from opium dens). Though Clark said the practice was condemned as dangerous in Twain’s era, it wasn’t as taboo as it is today.

“In the 20th century, journalism became much more professional than it was in the 19th century,” Clark said. “I think it’s fair to say that the incident in the mine is not journalism by any definition that I know. And I don’t think that Twain was suggesting that it was.”

I must admit, I agree. As I earnestly checked to see if Jackass was on the map (it was) and tried to determine the sexuality of two men who have been dead for more than a century, I could sense Twain’s ghost snickering over my shoulder. My attempt to verify his story was a fool’s errand; it’s impossible, and what is wonderful about these articles isn’t their journalistic integrity. But by looking into what might have been fact and what was invention, you can trace a creative brain coming to terms with itself.

Days before the Rawhide article was published, Twain wrote in a letter to his brother: “If I do not get out of debt in 3 months — pistols or poison for one — exit me.”

Hirst says that Twain’s suicidal despair had more to do with anxiety about finding a calling than financial concerns.

“He had not yet committed himself to a literary career, or to a career of any kind,” Hirst said in an email. “To be 30 and still without an occupation (‘identity,’ if you will) in 1865 was rather unusual — especially given the life expectancy at the time, which was around 50.”

In the letter to his brother, Twain struggles with “a ‘call’ to literature, of a low order — i.e. humorous. It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit.” Hirst says that humor writing was considered undignified work, and though Twain was pursuing it (he was working on two books and the “Jumping Frog” short story that launched his career), he did so with reservations.

Yet Twain’s penchant for fiction and humor crept into his journalism, just as he would use fact to guide his fiction. Hirst says that in working notes and early manuscripts of Twain’s later books, he would make a list of friends and acquaintances, often people from his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. His character names often resemble those of these people, for example, Colonel William Elgin, a contemporary of Twain’s, made an appearance as Colonel Elder in the short story “The Enemy Conquered; or, Love Triumphant,” and Captain Haskins, from the short story “Tom Sawyer’s Conspiracy,” was inspired by Hannibal City Marshal Benjamin Hawkins.

“The underlying theory is, of course, that if he began with someone real whom he knew and knew details about, then the character he elaborated from that person would be that much more plausible,” Hirst says.

The Rawhide Ranch story also hints at some of Twain’s thematic concerns; Hirst points out that Gashwiler’s “reform” bears resemblance to that of a group of travelers lost in a snowstorm in Roughing It. In that scene, the snow falls so heavily, the men can’t see where they’re going. They can’t light a fire and their horses have wandered off. As the end seems imminent, they weep, forget their grudges against one another, and swear off their vices, throwing a flask, playing cards, and a pipe into the snowdrift. They fall asleep, thinking they are giving in to death. The next morning, they find themselves still alive, and see that they spent the night lying in the snow next to an inn. Their horses sought shelter 15 feet away. The narrator gives up on his vows to virtue immediately, and secretly finds his pipe in the snow and smokes. He hopes to hide his weakness from the others, until he finds them drinking and playing solitaire. They all agree to give up the “absurdity” and to “say no more about ‘reform’ and ‘examples to the rising generation.’”

Hirst says the insincere reform is reminiscent of Gashwiler’s oath in the mine.

“Mark Twain clearly enjoyed exploiting the hypocrisy of sudden converts like Gashwiler, who of course can’t get a single prayer out before turning the atmosphere blue with profanity,” Hirst says.

In the middle of the anecdote from Roughing It, Twain writes, “I have scarcely exaggerated a detail of this curious and absurd adventure. It occurred almost exactly as I have stated it.” Those sentences would mean something entirely different had Twain written “not” instead of “scarcely” and cut the word “almost.” He goes on to affirm that the bones of the story are true, which suggests that perhaps all the details have been exaggerated: “We actually went into camp in a snow-drift in a desert, at midnight in a storm, forlorn and hopeless, within fifteen steps of a comfortable inn.”

Twain braided reality and invention so tightly, it is hard to unravel one from the other in both his fiction and his journalism. But it must have been a comfort to the writer to know that if one technique failed him, the other would come to his aid as he advanced deeper into his stories.


Cara Bayles is a novelist and journalist.

LARB Contributor

Cara Bayles’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, J Journal, Meridian (University of Virginia), Chautauqua Literary Journal, Ruminate, Trop, The Boston Globe, Slate, and the Houma Courier. Last year she was awarded a Steinbeck Fellowship at San Jose State University to work on her first novel. As an award-winning journalist, she spent six years covering the streets of Boston and the bayous of southern Louisiana.


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