San Francisco Letter

Mark Twain

Virginia City Territorial Enterprise/December 24, 1865


Editorial Poem

The following fine Christmas poem appears in the Alta of this morning, in the unostentatious garb of an editorial. This manner of “setting it” robs it of half its beauty. I will arrange it as blank verse, and then it will read much more charmingly:

“Christmas Comes But Once a Year”

“The Holidays are approaching. We hear
Of them and see their signs every day.
The children tell you every morn
How long it is until the glad New Year.
The pavements all are covered o’er
With boxes, which have arrived
Per steamer and are being unpacked
In anticipation sweet, of an unusual demand.
The windows of the shops
Montgomery street along,
Do brilliant shine
With articles of ornament and luxury;
The more substantial goods,
Which eleven months now gone
The place have occupied,
Having been put aside for a few revolving weeks,
Silks, satins, laces, articles of gold and silver,
Jewels, porcelains from Sevres,
And from Dresden;
Bohemian and Venetian glass,
Pictures, engravings,
Bronzes of the finest workmanship
And price extravagant, attract
The eye at every step
Along the promenades of fashion.
The hotels
With visitors are crowded, who have come
From the ultimate interior to enjoy
Amusements metropolitan, or to find
A more extensive market, and prices lower
For purchases, than country towns afford.
Abundant early rains a prosperous year
Have promised – and the dry
And sunny weather which prevailed hath
For two weeks past, doth offer
Facilities profound for coming to the city,
And for enjoyment after getting here.
The ocean beach throughout the day,
And theatres, in shades of evening, show
A throng of strangers glad residents as well.
All appearances do indicate
That this blithe time of holiday
In San Francisco will
Be one of liveliness unusual, and brilliancy withal!”

[Exit Chief Editor, bowing low – impressive music.]

I cannot admire the overstrong modesty which impels a man to compose a stately anthem like that and run it together in the solid unattractiveness of a leading editorial.


This morning’s Alta is brilliant. The fine poem I have quoted is coppered by a scintillation of Fitz Smythe’s in the same column. He calls the thieving scalliwags of the Fourteenth Infantry “niptomaniacs.” That is not bad considering that it much more intelligently describes their chief proclivity than “kleptomaniac” describes the weakness of another kind of thieves. The merit of this effort ranks so high that it is a mercy it is only a smart remark instead of a joke – otherwise Fitz Smythe must have perished, and instantly. For fear that this remark may be obscure to some persons I will explain by informing the public that the soothsayers were called in at the time of Fitz Smythe’s birth, and they read the stars and prophecied that he was destined to lead a long and eventful life, and to arrive to great distinction for his untiring industry in endeavoring, for the period of near half a century, to get off a joke. They said that many times during his life the grand end and aim of his existence would seem to be in his reach, and his mission on earth on the point of being fulfilled; but again and again bitter disappointment would overtake him; what promised so fairly to be a joke would come forth still-born; but he would rise superior to despair and make new and more frantic efforts. And these wise men said that in the evening of his life, when hope was well nigh dead with him, he would some day, all unexpectedly to himself, and likewise to the world, produce a genuine joke, and one of marvelous humor – and then his head would cave in, and his bowels be rent asunder, and his arms and his legs would drop off and he would fall down and die in dreadful agony. “Niptomaniac” is a felicitous expression, but God be thanked it is not a joke. If it had been, it would have killed him – the mission of Armand Leonidas Fitz Smythe would have been accomplished.

Mayo and Aldrich

The last news from Frank Mayo will be gratifying to his host of friends and admirers in California and Nevada. His rank is “Stock Star,” and he plays the leading characters in heavy pieces, and, the Boston papers say, plays them as well as is done by any great actor in America, and make no exceptions. He traveled through the chief cities with the Keans, starring by himself in afterpieces, and playing with the Keans when there was no afterpiece – taking such parts as “Henry VIII.” The Philadelphia papers said the Keans were very well, but Mr. Mayo was the best actor in the lot!

Louis Aldrich, in his new Boston engagement, will take high rank also, and play “first old man” and such characters. He will do well in the East. You never saw a man make such striding advances in professional excellence as Aldrich has done since he first played in Virginia. He “holds over” Mayo in one respect – he will study, and study hard, too – and Mayo won’t.


In an editorial setting forth the palpable fact that California and Nevada are cutting their own throats by their mistaken sagacity in hanging on to their double-eagle circulating medium, instead of smoothing the way for the adoption of greenbacks as our currency, the Flag touches upon several matters of immediate interest to Washoe, and I make an extract:

In the large city of Virginia, the San Francisco system of moneyed exclusiveness prevails completely. Two or three usurers have taken advantage of the necessities of the community and, upon loans at exorbitant interest, obtained some sort of possession of nearly all of the real estate and house property in the city. The Bank of California through its various connections, has worked itself into the proprietorship of the most valuable mines, and this has been accomplished by first depreciating the stock and then buying it under the stress of “a stock panic.” Men who cannot sustain the depreciation, maintain their credit and transact their business independent of a high value of their mining stock, must yield in order to ease their fall, and then, as they become ruined, they witness the outrage of their ruin, and retire in despair from enterprise and competition. The stock market has lately been unusually depressed. The California speculators and Specific Contract fellows of the two States have caused the depression, and now, having absorbed nearly all of the mining property, they are preparing to create a “revival” of stock speculation whereby they will again deceive the public, realize enormous sums and effect new ruin in every direction but their own.


I do not know why I should head these two items from the Call “personal,” but I do:

THE “TERRITORIAL ENTERPRISE.” – This admirably conducted paper has entered on its eighth year of existence.

CHANGED. – The Virginia Union has changed from a morning to an evening paper. It manifests a restlessness which may precede speedy dissolution.

Mock Duel – Almost

A French broker on Montgomery street quarreled with his rival in a tender affair, the other day, and a challenge passed, and was accepted. The seconds determined to merely load the pistols with blank cartridges, and have some fun out of the matter; but they got to drinking rather freely, ran all night, and when the party arrived on the dueling ground, at early dawn, the seconds were not sober enough to act their part with sufficient gravity to carry their plan through successfully. The principals discovered that they were being trifled with, and indignantly left the ground. I could get no names. All I could find out was that the seconds were two well-known “sports,” that the challenge was sent and accepted in good faith, and that one of the principals was a broker.

“More Wisdom”

The Alta is most unusually and astonishingly brilliant this morning. I cannot do better than give it space and let it illumine your columns. It lets off a level column of editorial to prove that bees eat clover; mice eat bees; cats eat mice; cats bask in the sun; the spots on the sun derange the electric currents; that derangement produces earthquakes; earthquakes make cold weather; and the bees, and the mice, and the cats, and the spots on the sun, and the electric currents, and the earthquakes, and the cold weather, mingling together in one grand fatal combination, produce cholera! Listen to the Alta:

We know that we have sometimes to go a long way around to trace an effect to its cause. Darwin, in “The Origin of Species,” states a fact which may be used with advantage in illustration, viz.: The presence of a large number of cats in a village is favorable to the spread of red clover. The reader will at once exclaim – what on earth can cats have to do with that species of the genus trifolium? The answer is – the humble-bee, by a peculiarity of its organization, can alone extract the nectar from the flower of the red clover. In passing from flower to flower it conveys the pollen necessary for the fertilization and consequent spread of the plant. The field mice prey upon the humble-bee, break up its nests, and eat its stores of honey, while the cats destroy the mice; hence it follows that in the natural propagation of the plant in question, the feline tribe perform an important part.

Bearing such curious revelations as these in mind, it is easy enough to present a theory to cover the case of mother earth at this time, namely: that the spots on the face of the sun derange the electric currents of the earth; that the derangement of the electric currents produces earthquakes; that earthquakes contribute to cold weather, by permitting the escape of some of the caloric of the interior of the globe, and that all these changes, in some way, are the cause of the rinder-pest and cholera.

Solomon’s wisdom was foolishness to this.


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