TWAIN-L Archives

Mark Twain Forum


Options: Use Forum View

Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 17 Feb 2020 06:51:29 -0600
text/plain (219 lines)

The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac


_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).

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
prices from the Twain Web Bookstore. Purchases from this site generate
commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit <>

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac Donnell.

Copyright (c) 2020 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

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. He could express disappointment that a big
fistfight in the middle of the street that didn't end in murder was hardly
worth reporting (16) and blend fact and fiction in bloody hoaxes like
"Horrible Affair" and "A Bloody Massacre Near Carson" that satirized
violence (8, 38-47), but when an innocent man was killed by a stray bullet
he wrote a report devoid of humor because he knew his readers would have
found no humor in it (25-27). Sam Clemens soon became Mark Twain, and Twain
often wrote more like a preacher, advising his readers how to avoid the
dangers of the very crimes he sensationalized. He drew in his readers
through the use of inclusive personal pronouns like "we" and "us" that
polished his persona into a "voice of the people"--an entertaining and
trusted _vox populi_ that simultaneously reinforced and reflected the
culture of that region (21). Ninety-five percent of that region was
populated by men in 1860, a figure that had decreased to 85% by 1862, and
the inequality of the sexes was a frequent theme in Twain's crime
narratives (5).

The crimes that especially concerned Clemens were those against women.
Women, especially unmarried women, were vulnerable both physically and
economically. Prostitutes were often the victim of crime, and any woman
traveling by stagecoach was at risk. Before the arrival of the railroad,
stagecoaches were the primary mode of transportation in Nevada in the 1860s
(54), stagecoach robberies were a "recognized industry" (68), and the
groping and rape of women in stagecoaches was frequent enough that both Sam
and his brother Orion advised their female family members against such
travel (55-59). Writing in Nevada, Twain saw California as an Eden compared
to Nevada's untamed countryside and its harsh climate and dangerous
landscape (61-62). But when he settled in California in 1864 he began to
see those open countrysides and crowded cityscapes differently. The cities
of California were beset by a political climate that reflected the Civil
War, infested with degraded men--beasts, Twain called them--who were often
secessionists (70-72), who accounted for much of the crime.

Twain began to regard his California Eden as a fallen Eden. It was bad
enough that secessionists were robbing stagecoaches in the California
countryside, but worse that women in the city were being molested by beasts
in hacks (taxis), just as women in Nevada had been attacked in
stagecoaches. Pornography, or what Twain called "the obscene picture
epidemic" blighted San Francisco, as well as physical assaults against
women in hacks, unwary women being forced into prostitution by pimps, and
other abuses. During a four month period he wrote a dozen articles on these
topics for the _Call_ (80-81). He called for harsh punishments and praised
one particular policeman and one particular judge for their efforts (107).

But crimes often went unpunished in the court system, or were ignored by
police, and this prompted Twain to turn his attention toward extra-legal
punishment for crimes. Twain romanticized some outlaws who he saw as
otherwise "useful citizens" or who practiced extra-legal justice themselves
on those they saw as transgressors of moral or ethical boundaries. Roark
explores Twain's complex and shifting views of three such men: the
intellectual Edward Rulloff, who was also a murderer and was ultimately
hanged legally; the mythic outlaw "Jack" Slade, who made himself "useful"
by practicing frontier justice and was ultimately himself hanged
extra-legally; and Captain Ned Blakely, who hanged a man for killing his
friend and faced no consequences (112-117, 116-130, 130-135).

Twain's already conflicted attitude toward legal and extra-legal capital
punishment is set against the background of the ongoing "anti-gallows"
debate then raging nationwide, and reflected in the speeches and writings
of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, whose views often parallel
Twain's (109, 141). Those parallel views are compared in connection with an
anonymous 1862 Nevada broadside that Sumner possessed which may have been
written by Twain. For those wishing to explore this intriguing possibility
further, Robert Armstrong's well-informed discussion in his _Nevada
Printing History_ (1981, pp. 52-54) may be consulted. Armstrong is not
cited by Roark, but his conclusions about the authorship do not conflict
significantly with Roark's. The "anti-gallows" debate centered around
arguments about reform (how can a hanged criminal reform?) versus
retribution (how does a hanging serve society?). Twain's writings on the
subject are described as "entertaining expressions of social reform" (135)
although Roark is careful to balance his argument with a reminder that
Twain was not a political activist, and sometimes celebrated an execution
and made contradictory statements.

Although not an activist, Twain did make clear distinctions between women
who were victims and subversive women. Most studies of Twain's attitudes
toward women focus on the period after he married in 1870, but Roark looks
at Twain's writing about three women in the 1860s who were either victims
or subversive--or both: the four-times-married actress Adah Menken who
created a sensation when she appeared on stage as a man, Lord Byron's "Ivan
Mazeppa," who was punished for adultery by being strapped nude to a horse
(Menken wore a flesh-colored body stocking); Julia Bulette, a well-known
Nevada prostitute who was brutally murdered; and Laura Fair, a California
prostitute who murdered her married lover and survived two trials. Fair is
well-known as the model for the character Laura Hawkins in _The Gilded
Age_, and Roark provides a full discussion of how Twain shaped his fiction
around the facts of that case, as well as other influences on his portrayal
of Laura Hawkins.

Twain's writings on crime and punishment during this period are full of
conflict, changing viewpoints, conflations of facts and fictions,
romanticizing, mythologizing, inconsistencies, and outright contradictions.
He was attracted to women who challenged social norms and gender roles,
especially sexual mores, yet treated them differently than men in his
newspaper reporting and in his later literary works. Some of his female
characters were empowered while others were victims, but things could get
complicated when they were both, as with Laura Hawkins. Twain opposed
lynching and legal capital punishment, but he sometimes endorsed
extra-legal justice as practiced by outlaws like Slade or Captain Blakely.
This is what Roark calls the "messiness" in the title of his final chapter,
where Twain merges into the contradictory roles of literary murderer,
judge, and hangman.

Roark concludes his study by tracing, sometimes briefly, Twain's
"messiness" in his later literary works--_Roughing It_, _The Gilded Age_,
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_, _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's
Court_, and _Pudd'nhead Wilson_. He does not avoid the obvious
contradictions in Twain's various accounts, contending that Twain depended
on the contradictions in his writings to "advance a pathos, so that readers
can consider the horror of the violence, understand its cause, and seek
justice, even if mobs and courts do not" (186). Anyone writing about Mark
Twain's attitudes and treatments of issues about women, gender roles,
sexuality, the Civil War, crime, the law and the courts, or social justice
will find this informative and insightful book an excellent starting point.