A Scrap of Curious History
This Mark Twain essay, first published posthumously in Harpers Magazine in 1914, contains a fictional history of abolitionism in a Missouri town. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
This Mark Twain essay recollects the antebellum reputation of abolitionists in his native state of Missouri. Twain employs the memory of abolitionism to comment on events in late 19th-century Europe.
Twain was prompted to write “A Scrap of Curious History” by an incident that occurred when he was touring France in 1894. The Italian anarchist Santo Casario assassinated Marie François Sadi Carnot, president of France, in June 1894. Attempted mob violence against Italian waiters in an Auvergne village hotel where Twain was staying suggested to him a comparison with American violence against abolitionists.
The story’s pseudo-history recounts how abolitionism arrived in the Missouri village of Marion City in the form of a New England cooper named Robert Hardy who was considered at first to be insane. After aiding a fugitive slave and killing a local constable in the process, Hardy was hanged at a public festival. This only caused the rise of a local abolitionist movement that spoke of Hardy as a martyr. In what seems Twain’s re-imagination of local abolitionist societies as early versions of the Ku Klux Klan, the abolitionist society grows, invents secret ceremonies and initiations, and holds midnight processions in black robes and masks to the hanged man’s grave.
When a minister announces that he will challenge the abolitionists in a Sunday sermon, an explosion consumes his house, the minister, and a black servingwoman. Fear at an invisible enemy seizes the town until a young blacksmith, Will Joyce, claims credit because “he as not minded to be robbed of his glory.” (190) Despite the town’s fear, he too is tried and hanged. However, this event encourages rather than discourages the spread of abolitionism. The local abolitionist society attracts more members and throughout the country “Wild-brained martyrdom was succeeded by uprising and organization. Then, in natural order, followed riot, insurrection, and the wrack and restitutions of war.” (192) In Twain’s social fable, antislavery organizing caused the Civil War rather than slavery.
Twain employs abolitionism as an American analogy for European anarcho-syndicalism. As Louis J. Budd observes, the purpose of this essay lay in Twain “calling for cool action from European regimes harried by leftist factions.” (Budd, Mark Twain: Social Philosopher, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1962, 161). The analogy was poorly concieved. However, Twain’s characterization of abolitionism as a prefiguration of the Ku Klux Klan, as an invisible empire that spread fear and violence, even if historically unsustainable, speaks to late nineteenth-century social animosity towards the US antislavery movement. Despite his personal opposition to slavery and racism, this essay evidences Twain's participation in that animosity.
- Joe Lockard