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Matthew Seybold <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 8 Jan 2021 09:37:25 -0500
text/plain (82 lines)
That's a great question, Hal.

When I wrote my dissertation on the figure of the con-artist, I spent
a little time on conspiracy theories, which are often created and/or
amplified by con-artists. One of the most extraordinary conspiracy
theories of the 1830s circulated around "the Mystic Clan." This was,
supposedly, a secret society led by a notorious outlaw, John Murrell,
and thanks in large part to Virgil Stewart, who published a series of
books and pamphlets claiming to expose the Mystic Clan's plots, they
were planning to start slave insurrections as a distraction while they
raided banks in major Gulf Coast cities. The conspiracy theory
synthesizes anti-Black, anti-Semite, anti-Catholic, and several other
common antebellum prejudices.

Twain was definitely aware of Murrell, whose real (and fictional)
operations had been in the trade corridor where Twain was later a
pilot. He refers to "Murel" in LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI as a criminal
"genius" who made Jesse James look like a "retail rascal." In this
passage, Twain mentions several details from the Mystic Clan
conspiracy theory and seems to be treating it as accurate history,
although he also acknowledges in the same paragraph that "cheap
histories" of romantic outlaws were for sale at train stations and
steamboat landings. Melville alludes to the same market for specious
criminal biography in the opening chapter of THE CONFIDENCE-MAN,
specifically naming Murrell its most profitable topics. I haven't dug
into whether Twain refers to this conspiracy elsewhere later in his

Like you, I'd love to know what others C19 conspiracies people have
encountered in Twain's life and work. There are, of course, several
alluded to in Richard Hofstadter's THE PARANOID STYLE IN AMERICAN

Stay safe, everybody.

- MS

On Fri, Jan 8, 2021 at 8:42 AM Hal Bush <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> Dear friends: what a week. Can I tie these horrific events into C19 & MT?
> A friend has passed on his terrifying essay on a conspiracy theory way back in 1860, see below.  I think we need reminding that conspiracy theories have a very long history in our nation, and that they can be deadly and incendiary.
> Q; has anyone looked into MT's encounter with and understanding/ critique of conspiracy theory--pro and con?
> []<>
> How 300 children lost their fathers to lynching on a single day because of a conspiracy theory – Baptist News Global<>
> There is nothing new about conspiracy theories. Recently, while doing some research on the history of lynching, I learned that Anthony Bewley, a Methodist minister, was lynched in Fort Worth, Texas, back in 1860. Bewley was the victim of a bizarre conspiracy theory.
> _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
> Dr. Hal Bush
> Professor of English &
> Director of the Undergraduate Program
> Saint Louis University
> [log in to unmask]
> 314-977-3616
> author blog:<>

Matt Seybold
Assistant Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies
Elmira College