Mark Twain: Original Prankster

guest post by mikl-em

Mark Twain on Wikipedia

It’s important to remember the great culture-jammers of the past. And Mark Twain is definitely on the short list. With roots in San Francisco (well, transplanted roots, like most of us), a couple a.k.a.’s (Samuel Clemens plus at least two others), and significant time spent in Nevada, he qualifies as a proto of Co-Conspirators of Laughing Squid like the BLF, Negativland, Craig Baldwin, and Reverend Billy.

For a few years in the 1860’s, Mark Twain wrote for Virginia City, Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper. Twain’s pieces typically covered local matters and sometimes turned more from fact to fancy.

The most famous of his more mischievous efforts of this time is undoubtedly the below account of a mummified corpse, completely made up, who is captured for all eternity in mid nose-thumb. That last detail was so subtly conveyed in Twain’s article below that it failed as a punch line, and the item was subsequently picked up by papers across the country and reported as news.

Mark Twain’s Amazing Hoax that Deceived the World


A petrified man was found some time ago in the mountains south of Gravelly Ford. Every limb and feature of the stony mummy was perfect, not even excepting the left leg, which has evidently been a wooden one during the lifetime of the owner – which lifetime, by the way, came to a close about a century ago, in the opinion of a savan who has examined the defunct.

The body was in a sitting posture, and leaning against a huge mass of croppings; the attitude was pensive, the right thumb resting against the side of the nose; the left thumb partially supported the chin, the fore-finger pressing the inner corner of the left eye and drawing it partly open; the right eye was closed, and the fingers of the right hand spread apart.

This strange freak of nature created a profound sensation in the vicinity, and our informant states that by request, Justice Sewell or Sowell, of Humboldt City, at once proceeded to the spot and held an inquest on the body. The verdict of the jury was that “deceased came to his death from protracted exposure,” etc. The people of the neighborhood volunteered to bury the poor unfortunate, and were even anxious to do so; but it was discovered, when they attempted to remove him, that the water which had dripped upon him for ages from the crag above, had coursed down his back and deposited a limestone sediment under him which had glued him to the bed rock upon which he sat, as with a cement of adamant, and Judge S. refused to allow the charitable citizens to blast him from his position. The opinion expressed by his Honor that such a course would be little less than sacrilege, was eminently just and proper. Everybody goes to see the stone man, as many as three hundred having visited the hardened creature during the past five or six weeks.

[reprinted in The Works of Mark Twain; Early Tales & Sketches, Vol. 1 1851-1864, (Univ. of California Press, 1979), p. 159.]

It turns out the motivation for this piece was largely to mock the above-mentioned Judge Sewell–to whom Twain later dutifully sent every re-printing of it that he could find. Here is Twain’s full recounting of the story and its impact from 1882.

Another prank-in-print from Twain of the same era involved a man murdering his family and himself due to his failed investments. This item sparked quite a bit of outrage, especially from papers that had reprinted the story.

The Museum of Hoaxes has these items and other newspaper pranks of contemporary vintage.

And by the way, it seems that Twain is innocent of authoring that generally accurate SF cliche the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco–at least according to our local paper. Here’s Twain’s Obit from nearly 100 years ago from an older SF paper The Call.


Actor, nerd, poet, producer, writer mikl-em made his name short so you wouldn't have to. In addition to his blog you can find his writing in "Hi Fructose" magazine and witness him almost life-sized in various plays at The Dark Room Theater in SF's Mission district.

He tends to write about theater, humor, San Francisco culture and history, and stuff that's just plain weird. He thanks Scott for sharing the keys to the Laughing Squid virtual HQ and promises to uphold whatever it is that the mirthful cephalopod would prefer to be uplifted.