Mark Twain and the Empire Street Massacre of 1863
The problem with being a satirist who is adept at his work is that it can backfire on you as Mark Twain found out with what he thought was a clever attempt to expose the evils of financial fraud. Investors put their faith in the business acumen and financial integrity of the stewards of the companies in which they invest. Sometimes this faith can be misplaced.
During 1863 the newspapers in San Francisco were beginning to unearth a major financial scandal in the mining sector. Unscrupulous directors of the Daney Silver mine had declared a false dividend by cooking the books, thereby increasing the value of their shares, which they sold at an inflated price, just before the inevitable collapse of the company. The remaining hapless investors lost their money. It was a scandal and one which merited all the attention that the might of the press could bring to bear on it.
However, the very same upholders of financial prudence, the San Francisco press, were running adverts and editorials encouraging investors to get rid of their shares in the Nevada silver mines and plough their money into reputedly safe and sound shares such as those of the Spring Valley Water Company. Unfortunately, it was discovered that the Water Company too had cooked their books, inflating their balance sheet strength. For Twain these sharp financial practices, compounded by the hypocrisy of the local press, had to be exposed.
The newspaper Twain was working on, the Territorial Enterprise, ran an astonishing and truly shocking story, brought to it by one Abram Curry from Carson, in their edition of October 28, 1863. It told of a bloody massacre that had been committed in Ormsby County by Philip Hopkins, an investor in a San Francisco utility company. On learning that his investment had gone sour and that he had lost his money, Hopkins went beserk. At around 10 o’clock in the evening he made a dramatic entrance into Carson 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, and fell in a dying condition in front of the Magnolia saloon”.
Five minutes later, the report continued, he had died without uttering a word. A posse led by Sheriff Gasherie, rode to Hopkins’ house, a dressed-stone mansion in the heart of a forest, where they encountered a scene of absolute carnage. As well as the scalpless body of Mrs Hopkins, they found six dead children, “their brains evidently dashed out with a club”. Two other children, Julia and Emma, fourteen and seventeen respectively, were found alive but badly injured.
Curry’s report tried to provide an explanation for this senseless slaughter. Hopkins, the paper reported, had invested in some of the best mines in Virginia and Gold Hill. When the San Francisco newspapers started to expose fears of companies cooking their books, he bailed out of these seemingly safe shares and, on the advice of an editor on the San Francisco Bulletin, invested in Spring Valley Water Company shares. But when the shares crashed, Hopkins lost his money, a disaster which drove him mad. Twain signed the article off with this bit of moralising; “The newspapers of San Francisco permitted this water company to go on borrowing money and cooking dividends, under cover of which the cunning financiers crept out of the tottering concern, leaving the crash to come upon poor and unsuspecting stockholders, without offering to expose the villainy at work. We hope the fearful massacre detailed above may prove the saddest result of their silence”.
The response to the story was astonishing. It was reproduced widely in the press and despite its grotesque nature, hardly anyone smelt a rat. Twain had carefully laid some obvious giveaways in Curry’s account- Hopkins was well known in the area to be a bachelor; he was supposed to live in a dressed-stone- mansion in the heart of a forest but, in truth, there was nary a tree in a fifteen mile radius of the spot and there was no dressed-stone mansion in the whole of Nevada; Hopkins’ injuries were such that they would have killed him outright rather than after a four mile ride into Carson City to make a dramatic entrance and a theatrical end. But no one seemed to notice these clues, sucked in by the adroitness of Twain’s storytelling.
When the truth emerged that it was all a hoax, Twain nearly lost his job on the paper. Writing in Sketches New and Old twelve years later in a piece entitled My Bloody Massacre, Twain reflected “it was a deep, deep satire, and most ingeniously contrived”. After metaphorically patting himself on the back, he reflected on the lesson learned; “I found out then, and never have forgotten since, that we never read the dull explanatory surroundings of marvellously exciting things when we have no occasion to suppose that some irresponsible scribbler is trying to defraud us; we skip all that, and hasten to revel in the blood-curdling particulars and be happy”.
An observation that is as true today as it was then.
If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone