By Roy Morris, Jr.
When Samuel Clemens arrived for his first day of work as a cub reporter on the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise in the autumn of 1862, veteran reporter Dan De Quille gave him a valuable piece of advice. “Get the facts first,” said Dan, “then you can distort them as much as you like.”
The neophyte young reporter took the advice to heart. After all, Dan De Quille had recently written a story about an unfortunate inventor who froze to death in Death Valley after his self-designed suit of “solar armor”—a sort of primitive portable air conditioner—had malfunctioned, leaving him covered with frost, a foot-long icicle hanging from his nose.
A few months later, under his new pen name, Mark Twain published an even grislier story about a local resident who, wrote Twain, went crazy one night and massacred his entire family. “Hopkins dashed into Carson [City] on horseback, with his throat cut from ear to ear, and bearing in his hand a reeking scalp from which the warm, smoking blood was still dripping,” Twain reported. “The long red hair of the scalp…marked it as that of Mrs. Hopkins.” The bodies of their six children were discovered butchered in their beds.
It was a terrible story, although not particularly rare in the West, where men and women routinely went on abrupt killing sprees after cracking under unendurable frontier hardships. There was only one problem—it wasn’t true. When readers pointed out that the Hopkinses were still walking around, hale and hearty, Twain published a follow-up story the next day in the Enterprise. It read, in full: “I take it all back.”
Roy Morris, Jr., is the editor of Military Heritage magazine and the author of five well-received books on the Civil War and post-Civil War era, including biographies of Walt Whitman and Ambrose Bierce. His latest book is Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain. A former newspaper reporter himself, he resides in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
IMAGE:The Virginia City Territorial Enterprise (seen in later years) was the best newspaper between St. Louis and San Francisco. Its young, rollicking staff quickly welcomed the neophyte Sam Clemens into its ranks. Courtesy of the Library of Congress