Mark Twain, A Biography

By Albert Bigelow Paine

Part I A Comstock Duel

Part I

A Comstock Duel



The success--such as it was--of his occasional contributions to the New York Sunday Mercury stirred Mark Twain`s ambition for a wider field of labor. Circumstance, always ready to meet his wishes, offered assistance, though in an unexpected form.

Goodman, temporarily absent, had left Clemens in editorial charge. As in that earlier day, when Orion had visited Tennessee and returned to find his paper in a hot personal warfare with certain injured citizens, so the Enterprise, under the same management, had stirred up trouble. It was just at the time of the "Flour Sack Sanitary Fund," the story of which is related at length in `Roughing It`. In the general hilarity of this occasion, certain Enterprise paragraphs of criticism or ridicule had incurred the displeasure of various individuals whose cause naturally enough had been espoused by a rival paper, the Chronicle. Very soon the original grievance, whatever it was, was lost sight of in the fireworks and vitriol-throwing of personal recrimination between Mark Twain and the Chronicle editor, then a Mr. Laird.

A point had been reached at length when only a call for bloodshed--a challenge--could satisfy either the staff or the readers of the two papers. Men were killed every week for milder things than the editors had spoken each of the other. Joe Goodman himself, not so long before, had fought a duel with a Union editor--Tom Fitch--and shot him in the leg, so making of him a friend, and a lame man, for life. In Joe`s absence the prestige of the paper must be maintained.

Mark Twain himself has told in burlesque the story of his duel, keeping somewhat nearer to the fact than was his custom in such writing, as may be seen by comparing it with the account of his abettor and second--of course, Steve Gillis. The account is from Mr. Gillis`s own hand:

When Joe went away, he left Sam in editorial charge of the paper.
That was a dangerous thing to do. Nobody could ever tell what Sam
was going to write. Something he said stirred up Mr. Laird, of the
Chronicle, who wrote a reply of a very severe kind. He said some
things that we told Mark could only be wiped out with blood. Those
were the days when almost every man in Virginia City had fought with
pistols either impromptu or premeditated duels. I had been in
several, but then mine didn`t count. Most of them were of the
impromptu kind. Mark hadn`t had any yet, and we thought it about
time that his baptism took place.

He was not eager for it; he was averse to violence, but we finally
prevailed upon him to send Laird a challenge, and when Laird did not
send a reply at once we insisted on Mark sending him another
challenge, by which time he had made himself believe that he really
wanted to fight, as much as we wanted him to do. Laird concluded to
fight, at last. I helped Mark get up some of the letters, and a man
who would not fight after such letters did not belong in Virginia
City--in those days.

Laird`s acceptance of Mark`s challenge came along about midnight, I
think, after the papers had gone to press. The meeting was to take
place next morning at sunrise.

Of course I was selected as Mark`s second, and at daybreak I had him
up and out for some lessons in pistol practice before meeting Laird.
I didn`t have to wake him. He had not been asleep. We had been
talking since midnight over the duel that was coming. I had been
telling him of the different duels in which I had taken part, either
as principal or second, and how many men I had helped to kill and
bury, and how it was a good plan to make a will, even if one had not
much to leave. It always looked well, I told him, and seemed to be
a proper thing to do before going into a duel. So Mark made a will
with a sort of gloomy satisfaction, and as soon as it was light
enough to see, we went out to a little ravine near the meeting-
place, and I set up a board for him to shoot at. He would step out,
raise that big pistol, and when I would count three he would shut
his eyes and pull the trigger. Of course he didn`t hit anything; he
did not come anywhere near hitting anything. Just then we heard
somebody shooting over in the next ravine. Sam said:

"What`s that, Steve?"

"Why," I said, "that`s Laud. His seconds are practising him over

It didn`t make my principal any more cheerful to hear that pistol go
off every few seconds over there. Just then I saw a little mud-hen
light on some sage-brush about thirty yards away.

"Mark," I said, "let me have that pistol. I`ll show you how to

He handed it to me, and I let go at the bird and shot its head off,
clean. About that time Laird and his second came over the ridge to
meet us. I saw them coming and handed Mark back the pistol. We
were looking at the bird when they came up.

"Who did that?" asked Laird`s second.

"Sam," I said.

"How far off was it?"

"Oh, about thirty yards."

"Can he do it again?"

"Of course," I said; "every time. He could do it twice that far."

Laud`s second turned to his principal.

"Laird," he said, "you don`t want to fight that man. It`s just like
suicide. You`d better settle this thing, now."

So there was a settlement. Laird took back all he had said; Mark
said he really had nothing against Laird--the discussion had been
purely journalistic and did not need to be settled in blood. He
said that both he and Laird were probably the victims of their
friends. I remember one of the things Laird said when his second
told him he had better not fight.

"Fight! H--l, no! I am not going to be murdered by that d--d

Sam had sent another challenge to a man named Cutler, who had been
somehow mixed up with the muss and had written Sam an insulting
letter; but Cutler was out of town at the time, and before he got
back we had received word from Jerry Driscoll, foreman of the Grand
jury, that the law just passed, making a duel a penitentiary offense
for both principal and second, was to be strictly enforced, and
unless we got out of town in a limited number of hours we would be
the first examples to test the new law.

We concluded to go, and when the stage left next morning for San Francisco we were on the outside seat. Joe Goodman had returned by this time and agreed to accompany us as far as Henness Pass. We were all in good spirits and glad we were alive, so Joe did not stop when he got to Henness Pass, but kept on. Now and then he would say, "Well, I had better be going back pretty soon," but he didn`t go, and in the end he did not go back at all, but went with us clear to San Francisco, and we had a royal good time all the way. I never knew any series of duels to close so happily.

So ended Mark Twain`s career on the Comstock. He had come to it a weary pilgrim, discouraged and unknown; he was leaving it with a new name and fame--elate, triumphant, even if a fugitive.






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