Dept. of slight exaggerations

Mark Twain's recently rediscovered account of an 1868 hanging turns out to be not all that rediscovered.

Published October 4, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

Never one to exaggerate, Mark Twain, if he were alive (and he definitely is not, experts say), would have little tolerance for those who mistakenly claim to have rediscovered one of his lost manuscripts -- or in this case his ostensibly long-forgotten Chicago Republican newspaper report (in the form of a correspondent's letter) of a hanging that occurred more than a century ago. I take that back; Twain would of course love the tiny tempest that's ensued ever since the Associated Press last week announced that Nevada state archivist Guy Rocha had rediscovered Twain's account of an 1868 hanging, which, Rocha said, "had not been published in 131 years." Not surprisingly, the AP report has two other archivists, Barbara Schmidt and Jim Zwick, a bit miffed.

Here's the deal: Shortly after the report of Rocha's alleged rediscovery was released by AP, various news organizations published it, or stories based on it -- did so on Thursday and the New York Times ran a piece, "An Itinerant Humorist in the Hangman's Yard" by Tom Kuntz, in Sunday's paper. I, needless to say, was not taken in by the erroneous revelation -- - unless you consider repeating the claim as fact in last Thursday's Rogues' Gallery column as being taken in. But let's not dwell on that, shall we?

The reason Zwick and Schmidt were surprised, and a bit irked, by Rocha's "rediscovery" is, as they pointed out to me in e-mail messages bright and early Friday morning, Schmidt has had Twain's Chicago Republican letters online for several years. And Zwick's humongous Mark Twain site at "linked to them ... on August 6, 1998," he writes, "and announced their availability in the next issue of the site's newsletter." Furthermore, Schmidt writes, "The article was also reprinted by Cyril Clemens in 1941 [and] the [Chicago Republican] articles were documented by the Mark Twain Project in Twain's various editions of 'Letters'" published by the University of California Press.

Attempts to reach Rocha have been unsuccessful, but it seems to be an honest mistake -- he apparently wasn't aware that Twain's letter has indeed been published both in print and online in recent years. Rocha's article about Twain's report of the hanging appears in the current issue of Nevada magazine.

On Friday afternoon I spoke with Barbara Schmidt by phone at Tarleton University in Stephenville, Texas, where she's the media services coordinator. "Have you had this kind of thing happen before with Twain's writings?" I asked. There was a long pause, followed by a hearty Texas chortle. "Yes, yes, this is the second time."

"Tell me about the first time."

"I would rather not," Schmidt said. "He's a distinguished Twain scholar. The article was in the New York Times. It turned out to be a very embarrassing incident for him. I don't want to remind him."

And we left it there. Besides, I know how he feels. Frankly, the whole affair gives me second thoughts about publicizing my recent discovery of an original Gutenberg Bible in a dumpster behind the local 7-Eleven. Yeah, perhaps I'll just keep it to myself.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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