Mark Twain: funny illustration of a libelous claim and how to deal with it

Mark Twain  in a letter to San Francisco Examiner, criticized the San Francisco Chief of Police Martin J. Burke and his officers of corruption. In the writer’s inimitable wit he cited “The air is full of lechery and rumors of lechery…”

Burke threatened libel, citing that Twain’s, with this “rumors of lechery” remark, had made an unfounded and false claim on Burke’s marital fidelity. This clever legal retort was undone by a cleverer one, delivered by Mr Twain in the form of an open apology published by the Mariposa Free Press few day’s later:

“Explanation of a Mysterious Sentence [sic: lechery]”,San Francisco Examiner, 7 February 1866, 3.

EDITOR EXAMINER:–You published the following paragraph the other day and stated that it was an ‘extract from a letter to the Virginia Enterprise, from the San Francisco correspondent of that paper.’ Please publish it again, and put it in the parentheses where I have marked them, so that people who read with wretched carelessness may know to a dead moral certainty when I am referring to Chief Burke, and also know to an equally dead moral certainty when I am referring to the dog:

‘I want to compliment Chief Burke — I do honestly. But I can’t find anything to compliment him about. He is always rushing furiously around, like a dog after his own tail — and with the same general result, it seems to me; if he (the dog, not the Chief,) catches it, it don’t amount to anything, after all the fuss; and if he (the dog, not the Chief,) don’t catch it it don’t make any difference, because he (the dog, not the Chief,) didn’t want it anyhow; he (the dog, not the Chief,) only wanted the exercise, and the happiness of “showing off” before his (the dog’s, not the Chief’s,) mistress and the other young ladies. But if the Chief (not the dog,) would only do something praiseworthy, I would be the first and the most earnest and cordial to give him (the Chief, not the dog,) the credit due. I would sling him (the Chief, not the dog,) a compliment that would knock him down. I mean that it would be such a first-class compliment that it might surprise him (the Chief, not the dog,) to that extent as coming from me.’


  • References: Mark Twain on Potholes and Politics: Letters to the Editor
    edited by Gary Scharnhorst, 2014
  • Acknowledgements:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s