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History with Phil: From Clemens to Twain part II: The almost duel

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Postage stamp USA 1940 shows Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835-1910).

In May 1864, Clemens got into a bit of a dust-up with a rival newspaperman, James Laird, after Twain had published some rather disturbing accusations against Laird. Laird in turn called Clemens all kinds of names and publicly accused him of being a liar. Clemens decided he had to defend his honor by challenging Laird to a duel, which was against the law in Nevada. This was an ill-advised move on Clemens’s part owing to the fact he was a terrible shot with a pistol. But, he couldn’t back out now. So, he and his chosen second, Steve Gillis, headed to the agreed-to spot. After Clemens confided in Gillis his ability to shoot with any degree of accuracy was poor at best, Gillis took it upon himself how to properly fire the gun by firing it at a nearby bird. The bullet not only killed the bird, it decapitated it. When Laird arrived at the scene, he saw the bird and asked who had shot it. The quick-thinking Gillis exclaimed that Clemens had shot it and would the same to Laird. After thinking over the situation, Laird decided that instead of a duel, perhaps the two men could apologize to each other. Clemens quickly accepted the proposal, and the duel never happened.

While at a bar in the mining town of Jackass Hill, Twain heard a man tell a tale about a jumping frog contest. That little tale would later come in handy. After returning to San Francisco in February 1865, he received a letter from a writer friend in New York asking him to send him something for a book of stories he was editing. Twain decided that the story of the jumping frogs contest would do the trick. However, by the time Twain actually finished the story, his friend had already published the book.

In a bit of good fortune, the book’s publisher had sent Twain’s piece, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” to the Saturday Press, which ran it on November 18, 1865. The humorous story was a huge big hit with readers, eventually being reprinted all across the country with the new title “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Huck Finn made his literary debut in Twain’s 1876 novel “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” appearing as Sawyer’s sidekick. Eight years later, Twain penned “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. Set in the post-war South, it’s the story of a young misfit who floats down the Mississippi River on a raft with Jim, a runaway slave. Twain based his Finn character on a boyhood friend named Tom Blankenship whom he knew while living in Hannibal. The Blankenship family was poor and his father had a reputation as a town drunk. As Twain noted in his autobiography: “In Huckleberry Finn, I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had.” Twain later allowed how he had heard a rumor that later in life, Blankenship had become a justice of the peace in Montana. However, other reports suggested he was a thief and had died of cholera.

Just as Haley’s Comet had welcomed Samuel Clemens in 1835, so its return would it commemorate his departure just as Clemens himself had stated - "Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together". Clemens died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910.



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