San Francisco Letter

Mark Twain

Virginia City Territorial Enterprise/December 19, 1865


One may easily find room to abuse as many as several members of Chief Burke’s civilian army for laziness and uselessness, but the detective department is supplied with men who are sharp, shrewd, always on the alert and always industrious. It is only natural that this should be so. An ordinary policeman is chosen with especial reference to large stature and powerful muscle, and he only gets $125 a month, but the detective is chosen with especial regard to brains, and the position pays better than a lucky faro-bank. A shoemaker can tell by a single glance at a boot whose shop it comes from, by some peculiarity of workmanship; but to a bar-keeper all boots are alike; a printer will take a number of newspaper scraps, that show no dissimilarity to each other, and name the papers they were cut from; to a man who is accustomed to being on the water, the river ‘s surface is a printed book which never fails to divulge the hiding place of the sunken rock, or betray the presence of the treacherous shoal. In ordinary men, this quality of detecting almost imperceptible differences and peculiarities is acquired by long practice, and goes not beyond the limits of their own occupation — but in the detective it is an instinct, and discovers to him the secret signs of all trades, and the faint shades of difference between things which look alike to the careless eye.

Detective Rose can pick up a chicken’s tail feather in Montgomery street and tell in a moment what roost it came from at the Mission; and if the theft is recent, he can go out there and take a smell of the premises and tell which block in Sacramento street the Chinaman lives in who committed it, by some exquisite difference in the stink left, and which he knows to be peculiar to one particular block of buildings.

Mr. McCormick, who should be on the detective force regularly, but as yet is there only by brevet, can tell an obscene photograph by the back, as a sport tells an ace from a jack.

Detective Blitz can hunt down a transgressing hack-driver by some peculiarity in the style of his blasphemy.

The forte of Lees and Ellis, is the unearthing of embezzlers and forgers. Each of these men are best in one particular line, but at the same time they are good in all. And now we have Piper, who takes a cake, dropped in the Lick House by a coat-thief, and sits down to read it as another man would a newspaper. It informs him who baked the cake; who bought it; where the purchaser lives; that he is a Mexican; that his name is Salcero; that he is a thief by profession — and then Piper marches away two miles, to the Presidio, and grabs this foreigner, and convicts him with the cake that cannot lie, and makes him shed his boots and finds $200 in greenbacks in them, and makes him shuck himself and finds upon him store of stolen gold. And so Salcero goes to the station-house. The detectives are smart, but I remarked to a friend that some of the other policemen were not. He said the remark was unjust — that those “other policemen were as smart as they could afford to be for $125 a month.” It was not a bad idea. Still, I contend that some of them could not afford to be Daniel Websters, maybe, for any amount of money.


Ah, but Fitz Smythe can be severe when it suits his humor. He knocks “Outcroppings” as cold as a wedge in his last “Amigo” letter to the Gold Hill News, in a single paragraph — yet it cost you a whole page of the Enterprise to express your disapprobation of that volume of poems. He says, “The contents are of course suited to the capacity of children only.” This will make those Eastern papers feel mighty bad, because several of them have spoken highly of the book and thought it was written for men and women to read.

But I attach no weight to Smythe’s criticisms, because he don’t know anything about polite literature; he has had no experience in it further than to write up runaway horse items for the Alta and act as Private Secretary to Emperor Norton. And even in the latter capacity he has never composed the Emperor’s proclamations; his duties extended no further than to copy them for the Gold Hill News, and anybody could do that. As for poetry, he never wrote but two poems in his life. One was entitled, “The Dream of Norton I, Emperor, ” which was tolerably good, but not as good as the “Chandos Picture,” and the other was one which he composed when the news came of the assassination of the President. This latter effort was bad, but I do not really think he knows it, else why should he feel so injured because it was not inserted in “Outcroppings”? But perhaps it is not fair in me thus to pass judgment upon that poem, when possibly I am no more competent to discern poetical merit or demerit than I conceive him to be himself. Therefore, rather than do Fitz Smythe an unintentional injustice, I will quote one verse from the poem which I have called “bad,” and leave the people to endorse my criticism or reject it, as shall seem unto them best:


Gone ! gone ! gone !
Forever and forever ! Gone ! gone ! gone !
The tidings ne’er shall sever ! Gone ! gone ! gone !
Wherever ! Oh, wherever ! Gone ! gone ! gone !
Gone to his endeavor !


Gone forever!
To wherever!
Ne ‘er shall sever !
His endeavor!
From our soul ‘s high recompense!

I consider that the chief fault in this poem is that it is ill-balanced — lop-sided, so to speak. There is too much “gone” in it, and not enough “forever.” I will do the author the credit to say, how ever, that there is in it a manifestation of genius of a high order. It is a dangerous kind of genius, however, as two poets here, gifted exactly similar, have lately demonstrated — they both transgressed laws whereof the penalty is capital punishment. I have to be a little severe, now, because I am a friend to “Outcroppings,” and I do not like to see you and Smythe trying to bring the book into disrepute.

Grand-Fete Day at the Cliff House

Performance to Commence Precisely at High Noon

The following celebrated artistes have been engaged at a ruinous expense, and will perform the following truly marvelous feats:

PETE HOPKINS, the renowned Spectre of the Mountains, will walk a tight rope – the artist himself being tighter than the rope at the time – from the Cliff House to Seal Rock, and will ride back on the Seal known as Ben Butler, or the Seal will ride back on him, as circumstances shall determine.

JIM EOFF will exhibit the horse Patchen, and explain why he did not win the last race.

HARRIS COVEY will exhibit Lodi and Jim Barton, and BILLY WILLIAMSON will favor the audience with their pedigree and sketches of their history. N.B. – This will be very entertaining.

JEROME LELAND will exhibit the famous cow, in a circus ring prepared for the occasion, and perform several feats of perilous cowmanship on her back.

COMMODORE PERRY CHILDS will take a drink – the weather permitting. This was to have been done by another acrobat, but he is out of practice, and Mr. Childs has kindly volunteered in his place.

MICHAEL REESE will dance the Stock Gallopade, in which fine exhibition he will be assisted by several prominent brokers.

After which JUDGE BRYAN will sing two verses of “Neapolitaine” – by request.

The whole to conclude with the grand tableau of the “Children in the Wood” – Children in the Wood: Emperor Norton and the Spectre of the Mountains.


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