A Cape Fear mystery that piqued Mark Twain’s interest

“In the summer of 1877, Mark Twain became fascinated by the case of a real life Flying Dutchman, a Bermuda-based schooner seen drifting helplessly, seaweed-encrusted and sails drooping, in the Gulf Stream waters off Cape Fear, North Carolina. The Jonas Smith had been sold piecemeal for scrap and then taken out to sea one last time by her owner. No one knew what had become of the captain or her 13-man crew, said to be bound for Savannah, Georgia.

“The ship’s star-crossed journey set Twain to thinking about his own life of travel. ‘I have heard of a good many dismal pleasure trips, but this case leads the list,’ he wrote to the editor of the hometown Hartford Courant. ‘And if ever the tired old tramp is found, I should like to be there to see him in his sorrowful  rags & his venerable beard of grass and seaweed, & hear those ancient mariners tell the story of their mysterious wanderings through he solemn solitudes of the ocean….’ ”

– From “American Vandal: Mark Twain Abroad” by Roy Morris (2015)


‘A practical difficulty arose. The jail was locked up….’

“The stores [in Burnsville] were closed and the two churches also, this not being the Sunday for the itinerant preacher. The jail also showed no sign of life, and when we asked about it, we learned that it was empty, and had been for some time. No liquor is sold in the place, nor within at least three miles of it. It is not much use to try to run a jail without liquor.

“In the course of the morning a couple of stout fellows arrived, leading between them a young man whom they had arrested,– it didn’t appear on any warrant, but they wanted to get him committed and locked up. The offense charged was carrying a pistol; the boy had not used it against anybody, but he had flourished it about and threatened, and the neighbors wouldn’t stand that; they were bound to enforce the law against carrying concealed weapons.

“The captors were perfectly good-natured and on friendly enough terms with the young man, who offered no resistance, and seemed not unwilling to go to jail. But a practical difficulty arose. The jail was locked up, the sheriff had gone away into the country with the key, and no one could get in…. The prisoner and his captors loafed about the square all day, sitting on the fence, rolling on the grass, all of them sustained by a simple trust that the jail would be open some time….”

— From “On Horseback: A Tour in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee”  by Charles Dudley Warner (1885)

By the time Charles Dudley Warner arrived, North Carolina had already been trenchantly described by visitors such as Fanny Kemble (1838), Frederick Law Olmsted (1856), William Howard Russell (1861) and Sidney Andrews (1865). But Warner took a different tack, viewing the natives with amusement, wit and generosity.

His knack for observation wasn’t limited to his travel writing. Although the quote is often credited to his friend and sometime coauthor Mark Twain, Warner apparently was first to comment that “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”


Clemens said he took name of N.C. native (he didn’t)

” ‘Mark Twain’ was the nom de plume of one Captain Isaiah Sellers, [an Iredell County native] who used to write river news over it for the New Orleans Picayune: he died in 1863 and as he could no longer need that signature, I laid violent hands upon it without asking permission of the proprietor’s remains. That is the history of the nom de plume I bear.”

— From a letter by Samuel L. Clemens to a California newspaper in 1877, supposedly revealing the origin of his pen name 

In reality, according to this article in the Los Angeles Review of Books (Sept. 26), the Sellers claim was just another of Clemens’  prankish deceptions: “No record of the name ‘Mark Twain’ exists in Times Picayune archives, nor those of any newspaper in the region. Isaiah Sellers always signed his river reports ‘I. Sellers.’ And the captain died one year after Clemens adopted that pen name, not before.”


A Great Pyramid scheme — but did it happen?

“CAIRO — What’s this? Egypt’s new Islamist leaders want to raze the Great Pyramids, scratch away the images on the death masks of the pharaohs, maybe even wipe the grin off what is left of the face of the Sphinx?
“Someone who reads a lot of right-wing blogs in the United States these days might be forgiven for thinking so, though there is no sign here that any such Islamist clamor to destroy the monuments of ancient Egypt has actually arisen.”

— From “Contrary to Gossip, Pyramids Have No Date With the Wrecking Ball” in the New York Times (July 23)

In 1982, the Times dispatch reminded me, I had a pyramid rumor of my own to chase: In “The Story of Durham” (1927) W.K. Boyd wrote, without details, that “The Bull was once to be seen on the pyramids of Egypt.”
Could that possibly have been true, I wondered, even given the omnipresence of Julian Shakespeare Carr’s unprecedented advertising campaign for Bull Durham? Did Jules Koerner (painting Bulls under the name of Reuben Rink) actually mount a scaffold and apply one to the Pyramid of Khufu?
A 1946 tribute to Carr cited Mark Twain as claiming “that the most conspicuous thing about the Egyptian Pyramids was the Durham Bull.” And in 1978 Thad Stem Jr., writing in the State magazine, mentioned the Bull’s having been painted on — and removed from! — a pyramid.
Alas, on further review — with Nannie May Tilley, author of “The Bright-Tobacco Industry, 1860-1929,” and with experts at Archives & History and the New York Public Library’s tobacco collection — I had to conclude the Bull never found its way to Giza…. But who knows what was on Carr’s to-do list in 1898 when he sold out to American Tobacco?

When Mark Twain met George Bernard Shaw….

Among the achievements of Salisbury native Archibald Henderson, the wide-ranging UNC mathematician (polymathematician?), were major biographies of George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain.

Henderson (1877-1963) once had the opportunity to introduce the two to each other. “There was the greatest world’s greatest wit and the world’s greatest humorist, meeting face to face,” he recalled, “and nobody said anything funny.”

Instead, Shaw and Twain “stood there and lied to each other. Each man told the other that they had read everything the other had written…. that they were greatly influenced by the other’s writings….

“It was the greatest disappointment in my life.”


Tonight’s forecast: 2 inches of link dump

— Sorry, Mr. Larsson, but Asheville readers prefer “Mayhem in Mayberry.”

— In Charlotte, Mark Twain flap has familiar ring.

— From a recently surfaced collection of Civil War pencil sketches (scroll down), 43 depicting North Carolina.

— “Firestarter” II?