Enhanced sleuthing facilitated by electronic searching of digitized newspapers has recently revealed that "Poor Little Stephen Girard," a sketch long attributed to Mark Twain (1), was not his work, but an extract of a travel letter originally printed in the New York Sun over the pseudonym "John." Barbara Schmidt's article recounts the process of piecing together the identity and work of the man behind this most generic of pen names and provides a bibliography of his considerable output. The writer was John W. Beach, a traveling salesman from Brooklyn, who launched a side hustle providing the New York Sun with travel letters from the towns he visited on his extensive sales route. Beach originally set up a fictional pretext for his travels in a letter to the editor, printed on 6 March 1871, in which he told how he had lost his watch to a pickpocket on the Bleecker Street cars. In subsequent letters he reported his travels throughout the U.S., as far west as San Francisco, in pursuit of the thief, scattering cultural and historical information about each city he visited into a hodge-podge of awful puns and bad jokes. Nearly forty letters into this series he visited Philadelphia, the hometown of financier Stephen Girard. Beach's sketch of Girard's rise from poverty was extracted from the longer letter and widely reprinted over a Mark Twain byline, and eventually made its way into the Twain canon (2). A long-overlooked retraction printed in the New York Commercial Advertiser correctly attributing the sketch to "John" provided the key to the letter's real authorship. Since that discovery, searches in newspaper databases have confirmed that yet another of John's pieces, "John on the Rail," published a year and a half before "Poor Little Stephen Girard," and much more widely disseminated, was also routinely and frequently attributed to Mark Twain.
The letter, which first appeared in the New York Sun on 22 June 1871 as "John on the Rail," spawned an extract that circulated from 1871 through 1875 with another spate of reprintings in 1881-83 (3), most frequently under the title "Mark Twain's Last Adventure," a little less frequently under "Mark Twain on his Travels." Paul Fatout included a composite version of the sketch in his anthology Mark Twain Speaks for Himself, 65-67 (4). This was evidently John's fourth letter to the Sun (5). Here is a transcription of the original version online at the Chronicling America website:
on the Rail
I got into the cars and took a seat in juxtaposition to a female. That
female's face was a perfect insurance company for her--it insured her
against ever getting married to anything but a blind man. Her mouth
looked like a crack in a dried lemon, and there was no more expression
in her face than there is in the spinal column of a cup of cold custard.
She appeared as if she had been through one famine and had got about
two-thirds through another. She was old enough to be great-grandmother
to Mary that had the little lamb. She was chewing prize pop corn, and
carried in her hand a yellow rose, while a bandbox and a cotton umbrella
nestled sweetly by her side. I couldn't guess whether she was on a mission
of charity or going west to start a saw mill. I was full of curiosity
to hear her speak so I said:
exigencies of the times require great circumspection in a person who
I, "The orb of day shines resplendent in the blue vault above."
hitched around uneasy like; then she raised her umbrella and said, "I
don't want none of your sass--git out;" and I got out.
Then I took a seat alongside of a male fellow who looked like the ghost of Hamlet lengthened out. He was a stately cuss; and he was reading.
Said I, "Mister, did you ever see a camel leopard?" I said camel leopard because it is a pious animal, and it never eats any grass without getting down on its knees. He said he hadn't seen a camel leopard.
I said, "Do you chew?"
said, "No, sir."
I said, "How sweet is nature?"
took this for a conundrum, and said "he didn't know." Then
he said he was deeply interested in the history of a great man. "Alas!"
he exclaimed, "We have but few."
told him I knew one: "the man that made my cooking stove was a
he asked me, "would I read?"
I, "What you got?"
replied, "'Watt's Hymns', Reveries by Moonlight,' and 'How to Spend
said, "None of them for Hannah;" but if he had got an unabridged
Business Directory of New York City I would take a little read.
he said, "Young man, look at these gray hairs."
told him I saw them, and when a man got as old as he was he ought to
dye. Said I, "You needn't think those hairs are any sign of wisdom.
It's only a sign that your system lacks iron;" and I advised him
to go home and swallow a crowbar.
took this for irony, and what little entente cordiale there was between
us was spilled. It turned out that he was chaplain to a base ball club.
When we got to Rochester I called for a bowl of bean soup. It ought to be called lean soup. I send you the recipe for making it: "Take a lot of water, wash it well, and boil it until it is brown on both sides; then very carefully pour one bean into it and let it simmer. If it won't simmer, pour in water until it does simmer. When the bean begins to get restless, sweeten it with salt, then put it up in air-tight cans, hitch each can to a brick, and chuck them overboard, and the soup is done."
Genesee Falls are at Rochester. Sam Patch made his last jump there. His jump down was a success, but his jump up was a failure because he has never riz. I bet a fellow that I could tell to a quart how much water fell over the falls in a year. He bet, and I said two pints to the quart. I won the bet. They settle coffee with codfish skins, but they settled Rochester with men and women. The only original settler who is living died a few years ago. Rochester is celebrated for its fine turnouts. I saw a very fine turnout today; a wagon upset and spilled a lot of women. Next Sunday will be very generous generally observed here as the Sabbath. It is not kept wholly. Remember me to the piece makers. No cards.
The five main episodes in the original letter were--
The reprints attributed to Mark Twain generally omitted the first episode and printed the rest. Two even shorter extracts circulated: one consisting only of the conversation with the woman on the train, and the other a telegraphic paragraph on Mark Twain's "receipt for the celebrated Rochester bean soup."
This text makes a good case study for the viral nature of misattributions in the periodical press in the last half of the nineteenth century (6). Candidates for misattribution fall into two main categories: (a) anonymous or pseudonymous items that circulated intact, and (b) excerpts of items where the actual, original authorship was excised by an exchange editor's scissor work (literal or metaphorical). It's safe to assume that when an editor attributed an anonymous or pseudonymous sketch that came through the exchanges to Mark Twain or Artemus Ward, the motivation was self-interest (7). As early as July 1871 an editor in Darlington, Wisc., reprinted "John on the Rail" as "A Second Artemus Ward" (8) running it above the fold and centered on page one, no doubt expecting that the association of John with the much-celebrated humorist (otherwise silent since 1867) would sell papers. This association seems to have had nothing to do with their very disparate styles, but to have been based primarily on the fact that they wrote in the same genre-humorous travel letters. By the time the extract from "John on the Rail" was circulating without any indication of authorship, editors seem to have been eager to attribute it to Mark Twain, precisely because in 1871 he was far and away the most popular, and marketable, humorous travel writer since Artemus Ward.
Indications of authorship in the original "John on the Rail" occur in the title, in an editorial headnote rehearsing John's quest for his stolen watch, and in his byline. The gradual process of reattribution can be traced through the sketch's reprintings under a succession of titles (see the list below) that excise John and leave the author unidentified, but then gradually insert Mark Twain in his place. An early rebranding of the original letter replaces the obscure nom de plume "John" in the title with an epithet: "The Crazy Man of the 'Sun' on his Travels," Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 July 1871, 1. John's authority erodes completely in "A Comical Rambler," Virginia Free Press, 2 December 1871, 2, which goes one step further and does away with the editorial headnote. "On the Rails" (Schenectady Evening Star, November 7, 1871) removes any reference to an author. Less than a year later, one reprinting briefly mentions "the Sun's [nameless] funny man," which only vaguely points to its origin ("An Eastern Man on his Western Travels," Minneapolis Tribune, 30 June 1872, 5). The text thus quickly became orphaned by this gradual effacement of the cryptic "John."
The earliest discovered misattribution, or perhaps, better, appropriation of the sketch took the form of a letter signed "Dent," from a baseball player on tour in the east to his father in Rockford, Illinois ("Cheerfulness Under Discouraging Circumstances," Rockford Weekly Register-Gazette, 26 August 1871). This reprinting reproduces almost all of John's text, but a descriptive title and an editorial headnote place it in a new context: "The Active B.B.C. of Clinton, Iowa (the organization that captured the White Stockings a few weeks ago) (9) are at Ilion, N.Y., 'dead broke.' We are permitted to publish the following letter from one of the Actives to his father who resides in this city[.]" In his closing, "Dent" suggests how he came to transcribe a humorous item from a local paper: "You will please excuse this for want of news, as I am too hungry to look for any" (10). The correspondence is authentic--the writer was Denton F. Sawyer (1850-1935), the team's pitcher, who had recently moved to Clinton from a stint with the Forest City Club of Rockford. In early August 1871 the Actives set out on an extensive eastern tour ("Base Ball," Chicago Tribune, 28 July 1871, 4), with several stops in upstate New York, reaching Ilion by way of Buffalo, Rochester, and Utica, along which route "Dent" likely read the sketch in a local paper (11). No reprintings of Dent's transcription have come to light, but it appears to have had some (as yet untraceable) influence on the letter's further transmission as a Mark Twain sketch in which the scene is set not in Rochester, N. Y., but in Dubuque, Iowa.
Mark Twain's nom de plume first occurs in an October 1871 reprinting-- "Mark Twain on His Travels," (Dubuque Daily Times, 27 October 1871, 2)--the same title applied to a handful of travel letters he wrote in 1866 and 1868 (12). This reprint incorporates four of the five original episodes but transforms the recipe for Rochester bean soup to an Iowa recipe, and makes an Odd Fellows dinner the purpose of the trip: "The above receipt originated with a man in Iowa, who got up suppers on odd occasions for Odd Fellows. He has a receipt for oyster soup, leaving out the salt" (13). In the final paragraph of one-liners, Dubuque is substituted for Rochester, with other appropriate adjustments. This version circulated very widely under several different titles, most frequently: "Mark Twain on His Travels," "Mark Twain on the Wing," "Mark Twain's (Last) Adventure." and "Mark Twain in a Railroad Car." At length the Iowa references disappeared in a shortened extract consisting only of the conversation with the woman on the train, using humorous titles appropriate to the new focus: "Mark Twain's Encounter with a Lovely Feminine," Ellsworth American, 19 June 1873; "Too Much for Mark," Plain Dealer, 23 March 1881; "The Non-Communicative Female. [Mark Twain.]," Evansville Courier and Press, 27 April 1881; and "No Sass," Sunbury American, 11 February 1881.
The following list of over 120 reprintings, sorted by date, will give some idea of the variety of titles attached to the extract as well as a sampling of its geographic and chronological distribution. I've also included reprints of the original "John" letter, to demonstrate how the original and the extract circulated concurrently. John's authorship was restored as late as 1879 in "John on the Rail," Tri-Weekly Era, 24 February 1879 (Raleigh, North Carolina). It is notable that only two reprints in the sample were printed without a title.
"John on the Rail," Savannah Daily Advertiser, (Savannah,
No evidence has been found that Mark Twain was aware of this very widely disseminated misattribution. At no point did his lecture tour dates in 1871-72 intersect with towns where the sketch had recently been reprinted, nor is there evidence that he received a clipping of it from a correspondent. Likewise, we can't establish that Beach, for his part, came across any of the reprintings on his travels, nor even that he would have chosen to correct the error if he had. There is, however, a single instance that might offer a hint of a retraction--two reprintings five months apart in the same New Jersey paper. The first was a version with a Mark Twain byline ("In a Railroad Car. By Mark Twain," Camden Democrat, 16 August 1873). It was followed five months later by an entirely anonymous version ("In a Railroad Car," Camden Democrat, 31 January 1874). The New York Commercial Advertiser editor's retraction printed in early 1873 acknowledging having misattributed "Poor Little Stephen Girard" to Twain, offered this paradox: "Now that the erratum is noted, the conundrum remains--Who was complimented? Mark or John?" As distant as was John's humorous style from that of Artemus Ward, his technique was equally inferior to Mark Twain's. Had Twain read "Mark Twain on His Travels" I can't help thinking he would have characterized it along the lines of his withering verdict on the humorous attempts of Eli Perkins (16), a New York Commercial Advertiser "funny man" debuting late in 1871, whose dreadful puns and weak jokes may even betray John's influence.
(2) Dr. Robert Hirst, General Editor of the Mark Twain Papers points out that The Iowa-California collection of Social and Political writings edited by Louis J. Budd fully intended to include "Poor Little Stephen Girard."
(4) Fatout's text drew from two sources, "Mark Twain in a Railroad Car," Amador (Jackson, Calif.) Dispatch, 30 December 1871; and a version in Theriaki (January 1873): 164-65, a magazine intended for opium connoisseurs edited by Dr. S. B. Collins of Laporte, Indiana. This sketch was not widely reprinted in anthologies and has therefore not been noted in the standard Mark Twain bibliographies of Merle Johnson and Jacob Blanck.
(5) In a previous sketch, "John Doing Syracuse," New York Sun, 14 June 1871, 2, John introduced into his comic repertoire two ridiculous conversations on the train, one with a farmer who "pitied him" for his lack of agricultural knowledge, and a homespun woman whose child had mumps.
(6) See viraltexts.org for an interesting project examining the viral dissemination of reprints in antebellum newspapers. They offer a network graph illuminating networks from the latter half of the nineteenth century at http://networks.viraltexts.org/1836to1899/. This sort of representation shows clearly which newspapers served as reprinting hubs (the largest nodes).
(12) The writings database at MTP records the following: "Mark Twain" on His Travels," Californian 4 (28 April 1866): 1-2, reprinting parts of Mark Twain's correspondence from the Sacramento Daily Union, 19, 20, and 21 April 1866; "Mark Twain on His Travels." Californian 4 (26 May 1866): 9, reprinting the Sacramento Daily Union of 21 May 1866; "Mark Twain on His Travels," Californian 5 (1 September 1866): 4, reprinting the Sacramento Daily Union of 24 August 1866. "Mark Twain on His Travels," San Francisco Alta California, 3 March 1868, 1.
(14) This reprint presents a variation not found elsewhere to date: it retains a vague reference to John, and it consists of the first two episodes. No other extract includes the encounter with the lap-dog in Syracuse.
The animosity Clemens felt towards Melville De Lancy Landon, who wrote under
the nom de plume Eli Perkins, is made very plain in marginalia he inscribed
in his copy of Saratoga in 1901 (1872), where he labels Landon a "cur,"
"sham," "foetus," and "humbug." On the flyleaf
he amends the work's title to "Saratoga in 1891, or, The Droolings of
an Idiot." (Gribben, Mark Twain's Library, vol. I, 394-95). Clemens's
main indictment in these marginal notes referred to Landon's theft of material
from John Phoenix, Artemus Ward, and Josh Billings. Clemens, himself, had
a few run-ins with Landon, who reprinted his sketches without permission in
several compilations. At one point in their acquaintance (the letter is undated)
Landon challenged Clemens to a duel (UCLC 46635).