Source: Mark Twain’s Letters
Source type: book
Document type: letter
Document title: “[To Rev. J. H. Twichell, in Hartford]”
Author(s): Twain, Mark
Editor(s): Paine, Albert Bigelow
Volume number: 2
Publisher: Harper and Brothers Publishers
Place of publication: New York, New York
Year of publication: 1917
|Twain, Mark. “[To Rev. J. H. Twichell, in Hartford].” Mark Twain’s Letters. Ed. Albert Bigelow Paine. Vol. 2. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1917: pp. 713-16.|
|full text of letter; excerpt of book|
|Mark Twain (correspondence); McKinley assassination (personal response); McKinley assassination (public response: criticism); society (criticism); Leon Czolgosz (mental health); society (mental health); lawlessness (mob rule); anarchism (compared with lynching).|
|Shelby M. Cullom; Humbert I; William McKinley; Mark Twain; Joseph H. Twichell.|
The following note by the editor accompanies the letter (p. 713): “The assassination of President McKinley occurred September 6, 1901. Such an event would naturally stir Mark Twain to comment on human nature in general. His letter to Twichell is as individual as it is sound in philosophy. At what period of his own life, or under what circumstances, he made the long journey with tragic intent there is no means of knowing now. There is no other mention of it elsewhere in the records that survive him.”
From title page: Arranged with Comment by Albert Bigelow Paine.
[To Rev. J. H. Twichell, in Hartford]
AMPERSAND, Tuesday, (Sept. 10, 1901)
is another off day, but tomorrow I shall resume work to a certainty,
and bid a long farewell to letter-scribbling.
The news of the President looks decidedly hopeful, and we are all glad, and the household faces are much improved, as to cheerfulness. Oh, the talk in the newspapers! Evidently the Human Race is the same old Human Race. And how unjust, and unreflectingly discriminating, the talkers are. Under the unsettling effects of powerful emotion the talkers are saying wild things, crazy things—they are out of themselves, and do not know it; they are temporarily insane, yet with one voice they declare the assassin sane—a man who has been entertaining fiery and reason-debauching maggots in his head for weeks and months. Why, no one is sane, straight along, year in and year out, and we all know it. Our insanities are of varying sorts, and express themselves in varying forms—fortunately harmless forms as a rule—but in whatever form they occur an immense upheaval of feeling can at any time topple us distinctly over the sanity-line for a little while; and then if our form happens to be of the murderous kind we must look out—and so must the spectator.
This ass with the unpronounceable name was probably more insane than usual this week or two back, and may get back upon his bearings by and by, but he was over the sanity-border when he shot the President. It is pos-  sible that it has taken him the whole interval since the murder of the King of Italy to get insane enough to attempt the President’s life. Without a doubt some thousands of men have been meditating the same act in the same interval, but new and strong interests have intervened and diverted their over-excited minds long enough to give them a chance to settle, and tranquilize, and get back upon a healthy level again. Every extraordinary occurrence unsettles the heads of hundreds of thousands of men for a few moments or hours or days. If there had been ten kings around when Humbert fell they would have been in great peril for a day or more—and from men in whose presence they would have been quite safe after the excess of their excitement had had an interval in which to cool down. I bought a revolver once and travelled twelve hundred miles to kill a man. He was away. He was gone a day. With nothing else to do, I had to stop and think—and did. Within an hour—within half of it—I was ashamed of myself—and felt unspeakably ridiculous. I do not know what to call it if I was not insane. During a whole week my head was in a turmoil night and day fierce enough and exhausting enough to upset a stronger reason than mine.
All over the world, every day, there are some millions of men in that condition temporarily. And in that time there is always a moment—perhaps only a single one—when they would do murder if their man was at hand. If the opportunity comes a shade too late, the chances are that it has come permanently too late. Opportunity seldom comes exactly at the supreme moment. This saves a million lives a day in the world—for sure.
No Ruler is ever slain but the tremendous details of it are ravenously devoured by a hundred thousand men whose minds dwell, unaware, near the temporary-insanity frontier—and over they go, now! There is a day—two days—three—during which no Ruler would be safe from perhaps the half of them; and there is a single moment wherein he would not be safe from any of them, no doubt. 
It may take this present shooting-case six months to breed another ruler-tragedy, but it will breed it. There is at least one mind somewhere which will brood, and wear, and decay itself to the killing-point and produce that tragedy.
Every negro burned at the stake unsettles the excitable brain of another one—I mean the inflaming details of his crime, and the lurid theatricality of his exit do it—and the duplicate crime follows; and that begets a repetition, and that one another one—and so on. Every lynching-account unsettles the brains of another set of excitable white men, and lights another pyre—115 lynchings last year, 102 inside of 8 months this year; in ten years this will be habit, on these terms.
Yes, the wild talk you see in the papers! And from men who are sane when not upset by overwhelming excitement. A U. S. Senator—Cullom—wants this Buffalo criminal lynched! It would breed other lynchings—of men who are not dreaming of committing murders, now, and will commit none if Cullom will keep quiet and not provide the exciting cause.
And a District Attorney wants a law which shall punish with death attempts upon a President’s life—this, mind you, as a deterrent. It would have no effect—or the opposite one. The lunatic’s mind-space is all occupied—as mine was—with the matter in hand; there is no room in it for reflections upon what may happen to him. That comes after the crime.
It is the noise the attempt would make in the world that would breed the subsequent attempts, by unsettling the rickety minds of men who envy the criminal his vast notoriety—his obscure name tongued by stupendous Kings and Emperors—his picture printed everywhere, the trivialest details of his movements, what he eats, what he drinks; how he sleeps, what he says, cabled abroad over the whole globe at cost of fifty thousand dollars a day—and he only a lowly shoemaker yesterday!—like the assassin of the President of France—in debt  three francs to his landlady, and insulted by her—and to-day she is proud to be able to say she knew him “as familiarly as you know your own brother,” and glad to stand till she drops and pour out columns and pages of her grandeur and her happiness upon the eager interviewer.
Nothing will check the lynchings and ruler-murder but absolute silence—the absence of pow-pow about them. How are you going to manage that? By gagging every witness and jamming him into a dungeon for life; by abolishing all newspapers; by exterminating all newspaper men; and by extinguishing God’s most elegant invention, the Human Race. It is quite simple, quite easy, and I hope you will take a day off and attend to it, Joe.
I blow a kiss to you, and am