Mark Twain in Washington

Mark Twain

Daily Alta California/January 15, 1868

Prospects of the Hawaiian Treaty — A Model Treaty — Putting Officials Out of the Way — Dark Hints and Surmises — Personal Items — New Postmaster for San Francisco — Office-Seekers

WASHINGTON, December 10, 1867.

The Hawaiian Treaty

I have talked frequently with General McCook, United States Minister to the Sandwich Islands, since I have been here. As you are aware, his business in Washington is to get the reciprocity treaty between Hawaii and this country through the Senate. It has been slow work, and very troublesome, but a fair degree of progress is being made. General McCook has been to Boston, and procured an endorsement of the proposed treaty by the Board of Trade of that city; a similar endorsement by the Chamber of Commerce of San Francisco was received by telegraph a few days ago. These things have aided matters considerably. The Senate Committee, which has the affair in charge, called for a concise statement of the advantages to be gained by the United States through this treaty, and the Minister has furnished, in reply, what seems to me to be an able and convincing paper. Yesterday they demanded minute statistics of the commerce between the two countries, and also a legal opinion as to constitutionally of the proposed treaty. Gen. McCook has the materials at hand for the commercial estimates, and will immediately prepare them. He asked Associate Justice Field to post him upon the constitutional points of the case, and received a cordial assent at once. Judge Field looked up all the authorities that bear upon it, and delivered the memorandum this morning. this leaves the framing of the legal opinion an easy task, as Gen. McCook was a lawyer before he was a soldier. I think the treaty is doing well, now, and is likely to be happily born before long. The Committee have got the general statistics and will shortly have the particular ones; they will soon have the legal opinion on the constitutional points; they can have Harris’ opinion any time, if they want it, because he is here from Honolulu; they have the endorsements of the Boston and San Francisco Chambers of Commerce; the treaty does not conflict with the Plymouth Collection of Hymns, nor the Sunday liquor law. What more these gentlemen can possibly want, is a matter that is beyond human foresight. I do not see why they don’t take to it instantly, and with enthusiasm. It has got more statistics and more constitutionality in it than any document in the world. That treaty has grown and grown upon my reverence until, in my eyes, it has become a perfect monument of mathematics and virtue. General McCook is getting a little tired of the delays and vexations of his position — tired of waltzing around the President, the Secretary of State and the Senate Committee with arguments and statistics, but he will see the end of it before he retreats. I have a sort of vague idea that he will begin to taste constitutionality in his food, and smell of statistics before long. In concluding these remarks I will observe that I have not said the treaty is sure to pass; I only say that nothing has been left undone that could conduce to that end, and that success looks very promising.

A Curious Idea

It seems a curious idea to me, but at the hotel table the other evening I overhead two high Government officials express the opinion — in fact, almost assert — that the Presidents of the United States who have died in office were “put out of the way.” They were put out of the way, not by their successors, but by parties seeking contracts or offices who were unpopular with the regular incumbent, but could realize their desires if the Vice-President were to rise to the throne. They did not even imagine for a moment that the Vice-Presidents who succeeded were privy to the taking off, or remotely suspected that it was going to transpire. They said that our form of government offered the same inducement to an ambitious or covetous man to put the President out of the way that is offered by the monarchical form. If he perfectly knew that his fortunes would be advanced by the Vice-President if he were in power, it was a strong temptation to a bad man to procure the taking of the President’s life. This conversation was as interesting to me as it was startling. I had never dreamt of such a thing before as a President’s sacred life being danger from the knives and poisons of assassins in times of profound peace. These gentlemen mentioned several curious circumstances that bore upon the subject. They said that for several days before President Taylor was taken sick, a restless, uneasy stranger hung about the White House grounds so much, and acted so singularly as to excite remark. The day the President fell ill, this person was found in his bed room. No one could tell how he got there. His own story was full of contradictions. It was supposed he came there to steal; he was searched, and a curious powder found on his person, which, when removed, proved to be dirt. So there is every reason to believe President Taylor was poisoned.

And then, there was the man — dark, and hairy, and malignant of expression — who was found at midnight under President Harrison’s bed. He had a keg of powder with him, and a fuse. Nothing saved the President but this man’s stupidity — the providential stupidity of a remark he made, and which betrayed him. He said: “Could your Excellency lend me a match? I can’t make these d—d things go.” That fortunate piece of carelessness on the stranger’s part unquestionably saved the President’s life. He confessed afterwards that he was not there for any good purpose; considerations which he would not name, he said, had prompted him to wish that the President were out of the chair. Through anonymous letters he had tried to frighten him out; by the same means he had tried to coax him out; when these had failed, he saw with pain that it was necessary to blast him out. He had come for that purpose; he was sorry it had not succeeded. This man was quietly pardoned and set a liberty, and advised to leave the country. He did not do it, however, and significant circumstances afterward aroused a strong suspicion that he had procured the President’s death by poison, through one of the White House servants.

The subject is interesting, notwithstanding the incidents above related have something of an improbable cast about them. That a President’s life is always in very great danger, however, is a truth that cannot be doubted. That any President ever died in office by a natural death is a matter that is disbelieved by very man wise men in Washington.


I have met the California Senators, Messrs. Conness and Cole, and also Hon. Mr. Axtell, of the Lower House. I believe I have nothing special to report concerning them.

I have seen Jump, also. He has just returned from Paris, and is here making caricatures for Frank Leslie’s publications.

Mr. Haggin and C. F. Wood are here, and Mr. Chamberlain (late partner of Mr. Hayward, in his mine) was until yesterday. He has gone away on an extensive Southern tour.

General Ance McCook, brother to the Hawaiian Minister resident, is stopping here for a few days. He was formerly an honest miner, and lived at Nevada City. He is very young, but like the other members of the McCook family, made a handsome record during the war.

I came across one of the lions of the country today at the Senate — General Sherman. The conversation I had with this gentleman has considerable political significance, and therefore ought to be reported, I suppose. I said the weather was very fine, and he said he had seen finer. Not liking to commit myself further, in the present unsettled condition of politics, I said good morning. Understanding my little game, he said good morning, also. This was all that passed, but it was very significant. It reveals clearly what he things of impeachment. I regard this manner of getting at a great man’s opinions as a little underhanded, but then everybody does it. People do it every day, as you can see by the papers, and find out as much as I did, and then rush off and publish it.

The Postmaster for San Francisco has been appointed by the President, but I am not at liberty to mention his name. His name will come before the Senate for confirmation shortly. There were twenty-seven applicants for the position.


Speaking of applicants reminds me that the population of Washington, even now, seems to be made up of people who want offices. What must it be when a new President comes in! These office-seekers are wonderfully seedy, wonderfully hungry-eyed, wonderfully importunate, and supernaturally gifted with “cheek.” They fasten themselves to influential friends like barnacles to whales, and never let go until they are carried into the pleasant waters of office or scraped off against a protruding hotel bill. Their desires are seldom as modest as their qualifications. There was a fellow here the other day who had been Consul to some starvation unexplored region of South America (we notoriously use only indifferent talent in the stocking of Consulships,) and having graduated in that little business, had come to Washington to beg for the post of Minister to Mexico! Another, who has been Postmaster of some village in Arkansas where they have a mail every four weeks, and it miscarries, then, oftener than it is safely delivered, is here — drawn hither by a report that the Postmaster General intended to resign. He wants the berth! I have only heard of one modest office seeker yet. He came here to apply for the post of Secretary of War, but General Grant was ahead of him there. So he wants to be Governor of Alaska, now. That is a retrograde movement that speaks well for him. It shows a disposition that is competent to adapt itself to circumstances. If any man can enjoy icebergs, this is he; if any man can maintain his serenity in the company of polar bears, this is the person; if any man can sustain the dignity of the Gubernatorial office in spite of such company and such surroundings, this is certainly that man. He ought to be appointed.

A.J. Moulder,

formerly of the San Francisco Herald, was married the other day in Philadelphia, and will shortly arrive here to be chief of the Associated Press for Washington.



Home Again

Mark Twain

Daily Alta California/January 8, 1868

The steamer Quaker City arrived yesterday morning and turned her menagerie of pilgrims loose on America– but, thank Heaven, they came ashore in Christian costume. There was some reason to fear that they would astound the public with Moorish haiks, Turkish fezzes, sashes from Persia, and such other outlandish diablerie as their distempered fancies were apt to suggest to them to resurrect from their curious foreign trunks. They have struggled through the Custom House and escaped to their homes. Their Pilgrim’s Progress is ended, and they know more now than it is lawful for the Gods themselves to know. They can talk it from now till January– most of them are too old to last longer. They can tell how they criticised the masterpieces of Reubens, Titian and Murillo, in Paris, Italy and Spain– but they, nor any other man, can tell precisely how competent they were to do it. They can give their opinion of the Emperor of France, the Sultan of Turkey, the Czar of Russia, the Pope of Rome, the King of Italy, and Garibaldi, from personal observation– but, alas! they cannot furnish those gentlemen’s opinion of them. They can tell how they ascended Mont Blanc– how they tried to snuffle over the tomb of Romeo and Juliet– how they gathered weeds in the Coliseum, and cabbaged mosaics from the Baths of Caracalla– how they explored the venerable Alhambra, and were entranced with the exquisite beauty of the Alcazar– how they infested the bazaars of Smyrna, Constantinople, and Cairo– how they “went through” the holy places of Palestine, and left their private mark on every one of them, from Dan unto the Sea of Galilee, and from Nazareth even unto Jerusalem and the Dead Sea– how they climbed the Pyramids of Egypt and swore that Vesuvius was finer than they; that the Sphynx was foolishness to the Parthenon, and the dreamy panorama of the Nile nonsense to the glories of the Bay of Naples. They can tell all about that, and they will– they can boast about all that, but will they tell the secret history of the trip? Catch them at it! They will blow their horns about the thousand places they have visited and get the lockjaw three times a day trying to pronounce the names of them (they never did get any of those names right)– but never, never in the world, will they open the sealed book of the secret history of their memorable pilgrimage. And I won’t– for the present, at any rate. Good-bye to the well-meaning old gentlemen and ladies. I bear them no malice, albeit they never took kindly the little irreverent remarks I had occasion to make about them occasionally. We didn’t amalgamate– that was all. Nothing more than that. I was exceedingly friendly with a good many of them– eight out of the sixty-five– but I didn’t dote on the others, and they didn’t dote on me. We were always glad to meet, but then we were just as glad to part again. There was a little difference of opinion between us– nothing more. They thought they could have saved Sodom and Gomorrah, and I thought it would have been unwise to risk money on it. I never failed to make friends on shipboard before– but maybe I was meaner than usual, this trip. Still, I was more placable than they. Every night, in calm or storm, I always turned up in their synagogue, in the after cabin, at seven bells, but they never came near my stateroom. They called it a den of iniquity. But I cared not; there were others who knew it as the home of modest merit. I bear the pilgrims no malice, now, none at all. I did give them a little parting blast in the Herald, this morning, but I only did that just to see the galled jade wince.

A Model Excursion

People always jump to the conclusion that passengers of diverse natures, occupations and modes of life, thrown together in great numbers on board a ship, must infallibly create trouble and unending dissatisfaction for each other. This idea is wrong. Diverse natures (when they are good, whole-hearted human natures,) blend and dove-tail together on shipboard as neatly as the varicolored fragments of stone in an exquisite mosaic– it is your gang of all-perfection, all-piety, all economy, all-uncharitableness– like ancient mosaic pavements in the ruins of Rome, the stones all one color, and the cracks between them unpleasantly conspicuous– it is a gang like this that makes a particularly and peculiarly infernal trip. I am tired hearing about the “mixed” character of our party on the Quaker CityIt was not mixed enough — there were not blackguards enough on board in proportion to the saints– there was not genuine piety enough to offset the hypocrisy. Genuine piety! Do you know what constitutes a legal quorum for prayer? It is in the Bible: “When two or three are gathered together,” etc. You observe the number. It means two (or more) honest, sincere Christians, of course. Well, we held one hundred and sixty-five prayer meetings in the Quaker Cityand one hundred and eighteen of them were scandalous and illegal, because four out of the five real Christians on board were too sea sick to be present at them, and so there wasn’t a quorum. I know. I kept a record– prompted partly by the old reportorial instinct, and partly because I knew that their proceedings were null and void, and ought not to be allowed to pass without a protest. I had seen enough of Legislatures to know right from wrong, and I was sorry enough to see things going as they were. They never could have stood a call of the house, and they resented every attempt of mine to get one.

But I am wandering from my subject somewhat. I was only going to say that people of diverse natures make the pleasantest companion ship in long sea voyages, and people all of one nature and that not a happy one, make the worst. If I were going to start on a pleasure excursion around the world and to the Holy Land, and had the privilege of making out her passenger list, I think I could do it right and yet not go out of California. This thought was suggested by a dream I had a month ago, while this pilgrimage was still far at sea. I dreamed that I saw the following placard posted upon the bulletin boards of San Francisco:

Passenger List

of the Steamer ‘Constitution,’

Capt. Ned Wakeman

Which leaves this day on a pleasure excursion around the world, permitting her passengers to stop forty days in London, forty in Vienna, forty in Rome, ten in Geneva, ten in Naples, ten in its surroundings, twenty in Venice, thirty in Florence, fifty in the cities of Spain, two days in Constantinople, half a day in Smyrna, thirty days in St. Petersburg, five months in the Sandwich Islands, six in Egypt, forever in France, and two hours and a half in the Holy Land:

Rev. Dr. Wadsworth,
James Anthony,
Archbishop Alemany,
Paul Morrill,
Rev. Horatio Stebbins,
John William Skae,
Bishop Kip,
T. J. Lamb,
Gen. W. H. French,
Asa Nudd,
Emperor Norton,
Lewis Leland,
Old Ridgeway,
John McComb,
George Parker,
Frank Pixley,
Barry & Patten,
Admiral Jim Smith, late of Hawaiian Navy,
Captain Pease,
Louis Cohn,
Aleck Badlam,
Charles Low,
Colonel Fry,
Jo. Jones,
Pete Hopkins,
General Drum (absent),
Colonel Catherwood,
Squarza, Stiggers’ Citizen Sam Platt,
Jim Coffroth,
Frank Soule,
R. B. Swain,
One dozen Doctors, chosen at large,
Five delegates from San Quentin,
And Frank Bret Harte,
George Barnes,
Mark Twain and 300 other newspaper men, in the steerage.

It was a dream, but still it was a dream with wisdom in it. That tribe could travel forever without a row, and preserve each other’s respect and esteem. Keep the steerage passengers out of sight, and nothing could be said against the character of the party, either. The list I dreamt of, as above set down, could travel pleasantly. They would certainly make a sensation wherever they went, but they would as certainly leave a good impression behind. And yet this list is made up of all sorts of people, and people of all ages. Against the impressive solemnity of Jim Coffroth, we have the levity of Dr. Wadsworth; against the boisterousness of R. B. Swain, we have the graveyard silence and decorum of Alex. Badlam; against General Drum’s fondness for showing military dress, we have the Emperor Norton’s antipathy to epaulettes and soldier-buttons; against the reckless gayety of Bishop Kip, we would bring the unsmiling, puritanical straightlacedness of Anthony & Morrill; against the questionable purity of the five delegates from San Quentin, we would array the bright virtue of the 300 steerage passengers. Such was the pleasure party I saw in my dream. There was a crowd for you that could swing round the circle for six months, and never get home-sick– never fall out– never mope and gossip– never wear out a Napoleon carrying it in their pockets– never show disrespect to honest religion– never bring their nationality into disrepute– never fail to make Europe say, “Lo! these Americans be bricks!”

To Washington

I am going to Washington to-morrow, to stay a month or two– possibly longer. I have a lot of Holy Land letters on the way to you that will arrive some time or other.


Female Suffrage

Mark Twain

New York Sunday Mercury/April 7, 1867

Ed. T. T.: — The women of Missouri are bringing a tremendous pressure to bear in an endeavor to secure to themselves the right to vote and hold office. Their petitions to the legislature are scattered abroad, and are filled with signers. Thirty-nine members of the Missouri Legislature have declared in favor of the movement. This thing looks ominous. Through an able spiritual medium I have been permitted to see a Missouri Legislature of five years hence in session. Here is a report of the proceedings:

The P. R. R. Appropriation Bill being the special order for the day, and the hour for its discussion having arrived:

Miss Belcher, of St. Louis, said — Madam Speaker, I call for the special order for to-day.

Madam Speaker. — The clerk will read –

Clerk. — An act supplementary to an Act entitled An Act amendatory of an Act entitled An Act to Appropriate Five millions of dollars in aid of the Pacific Railroad, etc., etc.

Miss Belcher. — Madam Speaker, it is with the keenest pain that I observe the diminishing esteem in which gored dresses are held. It is with pain which these lips are indeed powerless to express. The gored-dress of two years ago, Madam, with its long, graceful sweep –

Mr. Jones, of St. Joseph. — Madam Speaker, I rise to a point of order. The lady is not confining herself to the question before the house. What in the nation has these cussed gored dresses and stuff got to do with the great Pacif –

Madam Speaker (amid piping female voices all over the house, shrieking angrily). — Sit down, Sir! Take your seat, Sir, and don’t you presume to interrupt again! Go on, Miss Belcher.

Miss Belcher. — I was remarking, Madam, when the unprincipled bald-headed outlaw from St. Joseph interrupted me, that it pained me to see the charming and attractive gored dresses we all were once so fond of, going out of fashion, And what, I ask, are we to have in place of it? What is offered to recompense us for its loss? Why, nothing, Madam, but the wretched, slimpsey, new-fangled street-dress, hoopless, shapeless, cut bias, hem-stitched, with the selvedge edge turned down; and all so lank, so short, so cadaverous, and so disgraceful! Excuse these tears. Who can look without emotion upon such a garment? Who can look unmoved upon a dress which exposes feet at every step which may be of dimensions which shrink from inspection? Who can consent to countenance a dress which —

Mr. Slawson, of St. Genevieve. — Madam Speaker, This is absurd. What will such proceedings as these read like in the newspapers? We take up the discussion of a measure of vast consequence — a measure of tremendous financial importance — and a member of the body, totally ignoring the question before the House, launches out into a tirade about womanly apparel! — a matter trivial enough at any time, God knows, but utterly insignificant in presence of so grave a matter as the behests of the Great Pacific Rail –

Madam Speaker. — Consider yourself under arrest, Sir! Sit down, and dare to speak again at your peril! The honorable lady from St. Louis will proceed.

Miss Belcher. — Madam Speaker, I will dismiss the particular section of my subject upon which I was speaking when interrupted by the degraded ruffian from St. Genevieve, and pass to the gist of the matter. I propose, Madame, to prohibit, under heavy penalties, the wearing of the new street-dress, and to restore the discarded gored dress by legislative enactment, and I beg leave to introduce a bill to that end, and without previous notice, if the courtesy of this honorable body will permit it.

Mr. Walker, of Marion. — Madam Speaker, this is an outrage! it is damnable! The Pacific Railroad –

Madam Speaker. — Silence! Plant yourself, Sir! Leave is granted to introduce the Bill. If no objection is made, it will be referred to the Standing Committee on Public Improvements. Reports of Committees are now in order.

Mrs. Baker, of Ralls. — Madam Speaker, the Select Committee of Five, to whom was referred An Act Amendatory of an act Establishing the Metes and Bounds of School Lands, and to which was added a clause Establishing the Metes and Bounds of Water Privileges, have been unable to agree. The younger members of the committee contend that the added clause is of sufficient latitude to permit of legislation concerning ladies’ waterfalls, and they have reported upon that clause alone to the exclusion of all other matters contemplated in the bill. There is no majority report, Madam, and no minority report.

Mr. Bridgewater, of Benton. — There are five women on the committee, ain’t there?

Mrs. Baker. — Yes.

Mr. Bilgewater. — Each of ’em made a report by herself, hasn’t she?

Mrs. Baker. — Yes, Sir.

Mr. Bilgewater. — Why, certainly. Five women’s bound to have five opinions. It’s like ’em.

[With the last word the gentleman from Benton darted out at the window, and eleven inkstands followed him.]

The several reports were received and tabled, after considerable discussion. Third reading and final passage of bills being next in order, an Act for Amending the Common School System was taken up, but it was found to be so interlarded with surreptitious clauses for remodeling and establishing fashions for ladies’ bonnets, that neither head nor tail could be made of it, and it had to be referred back to the Committee of the Whole again. An Act to Provide Arms for the State Militia was discovered to be so hampered with clauses for the protection of Sewing Societies and Tea Drinkings, that it had to go back to the file also. Every bill on the third reading list was found to be similarly mutilated, until they got down to an Act to Compel Married Gentlemen to be at Home by Nine of the Clock, every evening; an Act to Abolish the Use of Tobacco in any form; and an Act to Abolish the Use of Intoxicating Liquors. These had not been meddled with, and were at once put to vote, and passed over the heads of the male members, who made a gallant fight, but were overcome by heartless and tyrannical numbers.

Mr. Green, of Cape Girardeau, then rose in his place and said. — “I now shake the dust of this House from my feat, and take my eternal leave of it. I never will enter its doors again, to be snubbed and harried by a pack of padded, scraggy, dried-up, snuff-dipping, toothless, old-maids, who — “

He never got any further. A howl went up that shook the tiding to its foundation, and in the midst of struggling forms, fiery eyes, distorted countenances, and dismembered waterfalls, I saw the daring legislator yield and fall; and when at last he reappeared, and fled toward the door, his shirt-front was in ribbons, his cravat knot under his ear, his face scratched red and white like the national flag, and hardly hair enough left on his head to make a toothbrush.

I shudder now. Is it possible that this revelation of the spirits is a prophecy.



Queer Shavers

Mark Twain

New York Sunday Mercury/March 24, 1867

Shaving a beard or shaving a note is equally disagreeable to most shavees, though the grumpy broker who curtails your profits is, perhaps, not as personally disagreeable as he who abbreviates your beard, tweaks your nose, pulls your hair, stops your mouth, breathes garlic or bad rum in your face, and then asks to be rewarded because he has not cut your throat. Hair-brushing by machinery has been advertised in the English newspapers, and soon we may have shaving by steam, which will be a vast benefit to those who submit to saponaceous barberities from stern necessity. But why don’t the Women’s Rights folks take the matter up, and insist on the right of the fair sex to shave men as well as softsoap them. Men would willingly submit to the manipulations of pretty girls whose eyes would outshine their razors, and whose hands would glide through hair like pomatumed electricity, and whose respirations would exhale from their swelling bosoms as fragrant as “the cow’s ambrosial breath”. Our red-whiskered or sandcolored moustached youth would rush to the fair barbers’ chairs, and before these beautiful Annie Lauries lay them down to dye. If Miss Dickinson, Mrs. Stanton, and the other phalanx of aspirants for female editorial honors who intend starting a newspaper to be conducted, from the editress-in-chief to the she-devil, by females alone, would only start a barber-shop on the same principles, they would not only have a first-rate chance to talk politics whilst their shavees mouths are being stopped by the soapbrush, but also to make a fortune, which they will not realize in the newspaper-business. Now for our humorous contributor’s exposure of the


ED. T. T. — If I do not get a chance to disgorge my opinions about barbers, I shall burst with malignant animosity.

Barbers are an unholy invention of Satan, and all their instincts are cruel and revolting.

They generally have an unwholesome breath; but do they care? No, far from it. They are proud of it. They get a man down in the barber-chair, where he cannot help himself, and then they hover over him, and give him blast after blast, and try to suffocate him. And when they see him suffering, they gloat over it in their secret hearts.

They know that the first two inches along the jawbone abaft a man’s chin is tender, and for this reason they keep on shaving and scraping there till they trim off some of the skin, and the blood begins to come through and speck the pores. They know that that place will smart half a day, and annoy him to that degree that even the grave would be a happy refuge, and it does their profligate souls good to think of it.

They love to brush lather into a man’s mouth; even if it is a man who never did them harm. It is nothing to them. They would brush that lather into that man’s mouth though he were an angel. Nothing gratifies their degraded nature so much. They know he will taste it for an hour, and feel disagreeable, and they think it is smart. But I look upon it as an unspeakable outrage.

They think they are witty. They all think that. And so they leave a man, all soaped up and smarting, while they whet their razor on their hand, and bandy wretched, sickening jokes with their fellows. They are always trying to say clever things that will make stranger laugh — especially those cheerful young German barbers; and so they keep on chirping, and chirping, and chirping, but they never succeed. Suppose a barber were to be suddenly cut off in the prime of his life, at such a time as this, without a moment’s warning, in the midst of his awful career — who can tell what that barber’s feelings might be, or where that barber might go to?

And they lather a man, and then rub and scrub and chafe his face till they get it tender, so they can make him squirm when they shave him. Do they shudder? No. They view his sufferings with a holy calm. (And yet such men are allowed to vote. Such is republican government.) They are the most conceited race of creatures God has made. They rub and gouge and claw at a man’s head, pretending to be oiling his hair and plowing up the dandruff, but all the while they are paying not even the most distant attention to what they are doing. On the contrary, they are admiring themselves in the glass, and smirking and smiling at themselves, and enjoying the way they have got their hair done up. Suppose they chance to run one of their greasy talons into a man’s eye? — they don’t know it, and they don’t care a cent any way, as long as they think they look charming. And as soon as ever they are done outraging a customer, they get up and spread before a glass and go to combing themselves afresh. Such things may be becoming in an ass, because it is only a dumb brute and not responsible, but they are loathsome in a man.

Barbers cannot carry around more than one idea at a time; it would break them down. They shave every man against the grain, and they part every man’s hair behind. If he has got much hair on top of his head, they part it and stack it upon each side of the line as if they were digging a grave. And if he is as bald as a dome, what is it to them? Nothing whatsoever. They wool him, and plow him, and claw him all the same; and they grease him to that extent, that, if he takes his hat off in the sunshine he dazzles people’s eyes, just the same as if he had a tin roof on. They haven’t got any more discrimination than a clam.

Such is my opinion of barbers as a class; and I will state openly and aboveboard, that if I were king barbers would be worth fifteen hundred thousand dollars a piece the next day, because they would be so scare.



Report of the Vice Commission (Third Section)

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/January 1, 1916


The most interesting and valuable part of the vice report, and by long odds, is to be found in Sections 13-20 of the long chapter headed “The Prostitute,” in the first of the five volumes. Here are the fruits, carefully and for the most part soberly displayed, of the first scientific investigation of the physical state of the prostitute ever made in the United States, and the first of its completeness ever made in the world. Here Dr. Walker the Methodist moralist is almost completely submerged in Dr. Walker the conscientious pathologist. Here there is no easy gabble about what might be or ought to be; the whole attention is focused on what actually is. The result is a mass of material that must enter into the permanent stock of the science pornographic, and take on a classical dignity as accretions gather about it. For the meticulous and insatiable industry which went into the accumulation of these materials Dr. Walker’s present reward is public abuse, but in the long run his work will bring him honor in those quarters wherein alone honor has any value, and reflect credit upon the medical school to which he is attached, and whose staff gave him patient assistance.


A summary of the facts unearthed by the clinical and laboratory examination of 300 prostitutes has been printed in the newspapers, and even in the half-world itself these facts have caused a shudder. In brief, it was found that of 289 women examined for syphilis by the Wasserman reaction, 177, or 63.27 per cent., showed the presence of the disease, and that of the 266 examined for gonorrhea, either clinically or microscopically, 92.40 per cent. showed its presence. Moreover, 143 of the whole group of 300, or 47.66 per cent., showed signs of both diseases, despite the fact that 34 of the 300 were examined for but one alone. Still more, 257 of the 266 examined for both, or 96.64 per cent., showed either the one or the other. In brief, only 3.39 per cent. of the women examined by Dr. Walker and his assistants were found to be free from communicable disease.

The term communicable, of course, by no means indicates certainly infectious. In the case of syphilis the period of active infectiousness is relatively short and almost self-limiting, and its clinical signs during this period are often of such a character that it would be difficult for a prostitute exhibiting them to escape suspicion. But for the most part, the women examined by Dr. Walker were quite unaware that they were diseased, and some of them were probably unaware that they had ever been diseased in the past. Even in the case of gonorrhea, though the presence of the organism (it was found in 80.97 per cent. of the women examined) is a very strong presumptive sign of infectiousness, it is yet a matter of common knowledge that the proportion of infections to exposures, even without the slightest prophylaxis, is vastly less than as four is to five. Just what it may be there is no way of telling, but a rough guess would put it well below as one is to ten. That is to say, it is unlikely that the average man among a group of 50 or 100 men, deliberately exposed to this infection under the conditions normally prevailing, would become infected before the tenth exposure.


Moreover, there are two concealed factors which indicate that the average segregated prostitute’s menace as a propagator of disease is considerably less than a superficial consideration of Dr. Walker’s undoubtedly accurate figures would indicate, and even a good deal less than he himself seems to think after studying them. One is the fact that no bordello could exist six months if its inmates communicated disease to its patrons at anything even remotely approaching the rate that a first glance at these figures suggests. The business of prostitution, like any other business, depends upon what may be called its good repute. A house with a record of infections would soon get a black name, and even strangers would be warned away from it by the bartenders of the vicinage and the very policemen on the beat. This would quickly force the keepers of it to take measures against the epidemic. In actual practice, in the old days of segregation, such measures were usually promptly initiated. It was to the obvious interest of the madame to get rid of diseased women, and she almost always made some effort to detect them quickly (e. g., by regular medical examinations) and to remove them forthwith.

True enough, she was often deceived. As Dr. Walker shows, the medical examinations that she paid for were seldom effective and often downright dishonest. But in the long run she undoubtedly succeeded in combating both diseases in their infectious stages to some purpose, as their relatively slight general prevalence shows. One often hears, from professional Sunday-school shockers, that one man in every three or one in every seven (these two proportions seem to be favorites) is luetic, but Dr. Walker’s investigation shows that, even among unselected patients in the free dispensaries—that is, persons of the lowest classes and admittedly ill—scarcely more than 10 per cent. show positive Wassermanns. Among the general population the proportion is probably well under 5 per cent.


The second thing to be remembered in considering Dr. Walker’s figures is that the women he examined by no means represented a fair average of the old-time bordellos, but merely what might be called the refuse or sediment thereof. Before the present vice crusade began there were 350 recognized houses of prostitution in Baltimore and about 1,400 regular inmates, but when Dr. Walker made his visitation the crusade had been in progress for some time and the number of women, with “a few exceptions” counted out, had been reduced to 300. These survivors, in the main, were the older and least attractive women, who had found it difficult, in the face of the bordello’s decay, to adapt themselves to forms of prostitution requiring, or, at all events, making valuable, a greater intelligence and charm. Of the 278 cross-examined, nearly half had been living in such houses for six years or more. Fifty-six, or more than 20 per cent., were veterans of more than 10 years’ service. Six had actually served more than 20 years. One was an ancient who could look back proudly upon 26 years with the colors!

In brief, Dr. Walker examined not the first line of the bordello, not the Grande Armée of the palmy days, but the landwehr, the landsturm, nay the wounded and abandoned. This decay, by the way, was due to causes unconnected with crusading, as Dr. Walker shows on page 437 of Vol. I of his report, and as Havelock Ellis showed 10 years ago.) For a year or more the red-light district had been in a ferment, with alarm following alarm, and portents thronging the heavens. The customs and conditions of a more prosperous era were falling into chaos; the madams were hanging on to whatever girls (or even old women) they could keep. Among the 278 inmates of houses Dr. Walker found only 10 who had been there less than two years. No wonder the disease rate among these veterans was found to be startlingly high! No wonder the figures caused even the women themselves to gasp!


But even allowing for all this, it remains plain that the investigation disclosed a sufficiently disquieting condition of affairs, and revealed the pressing need of a further and more elaborate study of the complex and inordinately elusive facts. What is the disease rate among the thousands of women who shade up, by infinitesimal gradations, from the prostitute, open or clandestine, to the girl whose virtue is almost intact? The general opinion among physicians, stated by Dr. Walker himself and refuted somewhat heavily, is that the girl who is not admittedly immoral is a greater menace than the girl who offers herself to all comers. To what extent is this opinion supported by the facts? Are the facts actually ascertainable? What is the lues rate among Baltimoreans in general, male and female? What is the rate among special classes—for example, students, barbers, literati, Democrats, clergymen? What is the precise infectiousness of women in the condition of those examined by Dr. Walker? How many are really harmless, or nearly so? How many are shockingly dangerous?


Moreover, what is to be done about it? Dr. Walker presents his facts admirably, but his conclusions and recommendations have an extremely hollow sound. His advocacy of the peruna of suppression (romantically so called) is absurd and disheartening; one expected, at the least, something better and less “moral” from a man of his education. How will it better the venereal diseases situation to turn syphilitics into the street, and then drive them into hiding, and so make even the enumeration of them impossible? What would be said of a physician who proposed to deal with any other disease by such a method?

But is medical inspection much better? It must be admitted by every candid man, whatever his belief in the open recognition and segregation of vice, that medical inspection, in actual practice, has proved but a weak staff. Even in Germany, where it has been practiced with a thoroughness not only impossible but quite inconceivable in America, it has failed to accomplish much. It detects the grosser lesions, true enough, and so probably works a small but none the less appreciable diminution in the general infectiousness of women, but beyond that it cannot go. On the one hand, a more careful examination is prohibitively expensive, and on the other hand, no examination and registration, however diligently planned, can bring in more than a very small percentage of the total number of immoral women. If it were possible to round up all of them, there might be a different tale to tell. But it is not possible to round up all of them, for if the successive vice reports have made anything plain at all, it is the fact that there are scores of intermediate grades between the prostitute and the virtuous woman, and that it is often, and perhaps usually, quite out of the question to determine accurately to what grade a given suspect belongs. No law, however stringent, will ever reach the woman who is merely immoral. Yet if ever professional prostitute were boiled in formaldehyde for 20 minutes each morning, the woman who is merely immoral would still suffice to keep up the current rates of social disease.


What, then, is to be done? The thing to be done is to forget the moral and theological implications of the venereal diseases peril and consider it wholly as a medical—i. e., as a jealously unmoral—problem. As such it may be solved, at all events in part, and without much difficulty. In the United States Army such diseases have been reduced, if I remember rightly, fully 75 per cent. In the navy they were being reduced even faster when the Hon. Josephus Daniels, that grand fount of honor, protested in God’s name. They might be reduced here in Baltimore, quickly, simply, cheaply. Dr Walker knows how it might be done. Commissioner Finney knows how it might be done. Dr. Howard A. Kelly and all the other medical moralists know how it might be done. Are these gentlemen prepared, either singly or collectively, to impart their knowledge to the public? Are they prepared to deal with this supremely important medical problem as medical men purely, forgetting their prejudices as sectarians and moralists? Have they in mind the clear words of Chapter II, Sections 1 and 2, of the principles of Medical Ethics of the American Medical Association:

Physicians, as good citizens and because their professional training specially qualifies them to render this service, should give advice concerning the public health of the community. . . . They should be ready to counsel the public on subjects relating to sanitary police, public hygiene and legal medicine. . . . Physicians . . . should enlighten the public . . . concerning measures for the prevention of epidemic and contagious diseases.

All venereal diseases can be cured; all of them can be certainly prevented. Their menace lies, in the main, in the prevailing ignorance about them, in the disgrace fastened to them by the association of theological ideas, in the almost universal tendency to consider them morally and hence unintelligently and uselessly. It is a pity that the Vice Commission did not strike a blow at that old conspiracy of silence and obscurantism.


An Antidote to the Drama League

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 29, 1915


I use the Drama League, of course, symbolically as well as literally; itself chiefly made up of unsuccessful dramatists and lady uplifters, it is the visible (and horrible) manifestation of a pervasive point of view, a whole weltanschauung—in brief, of the grisly solemnity with which the English-speaking races view all the major art forms, and particularly the drama. To be joyful in that department is a red, red sin. Go to a musical comedy to look at the girls or to a problem play to indulge the universal human appetite for scandal—do this and admit it, and at once one is denounced as a stonehead, a voluptuary, a schaffskopf, a tired businessman. The duty of a patriot, it would appear, is to take the stage seriously, to blanch and slobber over the imaginary sufferings of fat leading women, to hear with flooding eyes the sophomoric platitudes of Mr. Ibsen, to take to drink because the great masterpieces of Percy Mackaye, Eugene Brieux and Maurice Maeterlinck are neglected. And to the inculcation of this duty our Drama Leagues, our college professors and our dramatic critics devote themselves with funereal ardor. Life, to these, is real and earnest, and the drama is ten times more so. They see in it the unescapable importance of marriage, the granite finality of laparotomy. And so seeing, they write of it with all the lofty, moral flapdoodlery of Dr. Howard A. Kelly on the wicked working girl, and all the child-like ingenuousness of a Sunpaper editorial writer on the ethics, politics, history and literature of the Germans. . . .


The truth is, of course, that the drama, as we know it, even the so-called classical drama, is almost entirely destitute of intellectual content, and hence of serious appeal to the mind. It may, and often does, appeal powerfully to sentimentality and the senses—e. g., by exhibiting patriotism, love or courage, by caressing the eye or ear, or by arousing the sex instinct—but such an appeal has nothing whatever to do with the intelligence. In some of the most discussed and praised of dramas, indeed, there are almost no ideas at all. For example, Ibsen’s “Gengangere.” The alleged idea is this: that a woman who deliberately has a child by a wicked and diseased man may expect the child to be diseased too. One stands aghast at the feebleness of the platitude. It would scarcely cause a ripple, one fancies, at a mass meeting of Menace readers, or even at a session of the City Club. But nevertheless, this started up a critical debate in England and America that lasted for nearly 20 years, and in the former country, to this very day, the censor forbids the public performance of so lewd and revolutionary a play! . . . No wonder the Drama Leaguers read it surreptitiously on Sunday afternoons, as naughty Sunday-school boys read the Pentateuch.


The drama, as I say, is actually worth no such pother. Its importance has been vastly overestimated by addlepates athirst for intellectual distinction. Inasmuch as, in its acted form at least, it is necessarily democratic, it obviously follows that it is also necessarily devoid of serious artistic or intellectual value. The artistic sense, like the instinct for the truth, is infinitely undemocratic. What everyone likes is bound to be ugly, just as what everyone believes is bound to be untrue. Do tens of thousands of the vulgar go to the theatre nightly? Then the theatre, it goes without saying, is an artistic shambles. And the conclusion thus forced upon us by logic is quickly reinforced by experience. Every sane man knows that he seldom finds ideas there. What he does find is simply nonsense done into cajolery, piffle a la Melba, platitudes made voluptuous. The purpose of the dramatist is like that of every other democratic “artist”—e. g., the sign-painter, the ragtime writer, the stump speaker, the evangelist—to wit, to arouse the feelings and passions of the stupid without awakening their critical sense.


But good plays exist! They are to be bought and read! They have ideas in them! True enough. But they are not to be seen in the theatre, save momentarily and by accident. The drama is a facile and easy art form (despite all the gabble about “technique” that one hears from jitney dramatists who couldn’t write a decent triolet to salve their hides), and so it is natural that it should occasionally appeal to great artists, particularly in their moments of fatigue and indolence. The result, now and again, is a play with a genuine idea in it, and of an æsthetic organization that delights the mind. For example, John Galsworthy’s “The Mob,” Gerhart Hauptmann’s “Der Biberpelz” and Lord Dunsany’s “The Green Gods From the Mountains.” But one does not look for such pieces in the actual theatre. They are chiefly known and enjoyed, indeed, by persons who never go to the theatre at all; the habitual theatregoer has seldom heard of them, nor would he like them if he were introduced to them. Their relation to the acted drama (at least in England and America; on the Continent there is a different story) is not unlike that of the Taj Mahal to the tombstones in Loudon Park, or of Dvorak’s E minor symphony to “My Gal Is a High Bo’n Lady” and “Are You Ready For the Judgment Day?” . . .


But I started out, not to expound a theory of the theatre, but to give a free reading notice, in terms at once earnest and enthusiastic, to a book lately composed by George Jean Nathan and published by B. W. Huebsch, to wit, “Another Book On the Theatre.” Nathan and Huebsch, it so happens, are both very good friends of mine, and Nathan, in addition, is my most intimate associate in literary and church work, but that is no reason, I opine, why I should blush to say that I have read this tome with unlimited gusto, and that I have found in it a lot of sound instruction. On the contrary, I should rejoice at the chance to combine honest criticism and personal interest in so rare a manner, and so I urge all members of this club to buy the book forthwith, adding an offer to buy it back for cash from any honorable woman or virtuous man who, after reading it diligently, will arise in meeting and say that it is not worth all the drama books of the college professors and Drama League pundits taken together, with the Collected Works of William Winter added for lagniappe. . . .


And what is its particular merit, its chief point of superiority? Simply the fact that it does not take the drama seriously. In this virtue lie all the others—honesty, courage, accurate information, the quality of entertainingness. Superficially, the thing may seem to be a mere piling up of absurdities, an astoundingly complex burlesque, a reductio ad absurdum of all criticism. But the more one reads into it the more one finds that an intelligible and workable theory of the theatre lies under all this Rabelaisian grotesquerie, that Nathan knows exactly what he is talking about, that, in point of fact, he knows vastly more about it than any of the other fellows who have talked about it. It is precisely his profound understanding of dramatic principles and his extraordinarily copious knowledge of dramatic literature—it is precisely this unusual equipment that makes him penetrate to the heart of all the current stage shams with so sure a hand. The buncombe of Broadway does not fool him, even when it issues from Harvard University. He has heard it all before—heard it, discounted it, and laughed at it. Such wholesale flubdubbers as George Broadhurst, Augustus Thomas and the late Charles Klein do not arouse his wrath anymore; he merely pokes fun at them. And at Mrs. Fiske. And at Brieux. And at the New York critics. And at the Drama League. And at all the rest of the stock company.


It will be difficult to convince a good many persons that a critic may be profound and yet not solemn, but that the phenomenon may actually occur was proved long ago by the case of George Henry Lewes (the husband of George Eliot) and is proved again by the case of A. B. Walkley, of the London Times. The two things that distinguish Walkley and set him above all the other English dramatic critics of the moment are, first, that he knows a great deal more about the drama than any other of them, and secondly, that he looks upon the theatre as a huge joke, and refuses to get into a sweat over its “future” or to take the mountebanks who make a living by it seriously. So with Nathan. He criticizes with a seltzer siphon—but he knows more about the Continental drama than any other American I can think of. He argues with a bladder on a string—but he usually manages to prove his case. He jabs his walking stick at quacks and zanies—but he is never there when they lunge back. . . . What sport he gets, for example, out of the Broadway Brieuxes and Wedekinds, the Great Thinkers of the Knickerbocker bar! Let one of them pop up with a new and banal “thesis,” and how quickly and how dexterously Nathan lets the gas out of him—what joy there is in the performance! His book’s pages are strewn with corpses. He has done fearful execution upon many a sanguinary field. . . . What a job he would make of it if Beerbohm Tree were an American! . . .


A professional sniffer? A superior creature, too delicate in sensibility for this world? Nay, beloved. We have here no mere college saucy boy. His delight in praising what is genuinely pretty and amusing is quite as great as his delight in mauling what is mere sham and moonshine, and whether it be a shapely leg, a well-wrought scene or a sound piece of acting, he lays on his goose-grease with hearty good-will. But he does not fall into the mistake of regarding a good ankle, a good piece of scenery or a good wig as a drama with ideas. At a musical comedy his eyes are all for the girls, and he protests bitterly against being asked to describe the performance in any other terms. Who cares for the stale jokes of the comedians? The tin-pan music? The gaudy scenery? What people go to see at a musical comedy is a troupe of half-naked baggages under powerful searchlights, and it is this exhibition that Nathan describes and criticizes. And when (as in a Brieux play) the business of the evening is to be smutty, he studies the proceedings with a quite open mind, and discusses them frankly, not in terms of philosophy or jurisprudence or conic sections, but in terms of impropriety. And when, as in the case of English and American imitations of Ibsen, there is nothing going forward on the stage save a vague, half-audible murmuring, an inarticulate gargling with imbecilities, he turns his attention to the audience, and passes judgment upon its manners, odor, social condition and probable intelligence.


No; I am not going to offer any summary of his main critical theories; you will have to find them out for yourself. Nor am I going to reprint a long series of extracts from his book, thus robbing it of its liver and lights; the purpose of this notice is to inflame you with a mad passion to possess it, and so you don’t want to have the fine flavor of it spoiled for you. It is as heterodox in form as it is in content. Some of the chapters run to 20 pages; others are scarcely a page long. Some include long and elaborate arguments; others are no more than groups of epigrams. Some reach such heights of extravagant foolery that you will snort over them like a Puritan at a hanging; others are quite serious. A varied and tasty dose. Something to tickle and stir you up. . . .

Have you a pair of theatre tickets for tonight—to see some fat leading woman enact a seduced maiden of 17? Then by all means trade them in for a copy of “Another Book on the Theatre.” . . .


Health Laws

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/February 8, 1911

Stamping Out Tuberculosis

“Give me $50,000,000 and 10 years’ time,” said an enthusiastic young doctor the other day, “and I’ll make tuberculosis as rare in Maryland as yellow fever.” The gentleman was both too modest and too bold. Not $50,000,000, nor even $10,000,000 would be needed to segregate and guard all the consumptives within the state’s boundaries, and not ten years, nor even eight, would be required to kill or cure them. But it would take many times $50,000,000 and much longer than 10 years to erect a wall around Maryland high enough and stout enough to bar out the touring consumptives of other states. 

In brief, it will be difficult, if not downright impossible, to stamp out the great infections absolutely until the Federal Government takes charge of the work and health laws are made national in scope. Of what use is it for one state to war upon tuberculosis if a neighboring state permits it to rage unchecked? There is constant communication between state and state. The Marylander infected elsewhere comes home to die. Until the national government takes charge of the campaign, or all the states, without a single exception, agree upon a plan of operations and carry it out with equal intelligence and ardor, tuberculosis will continue to take a heavy toll every year.

Smallpox And Yellow Fever

But we have got rid of yellow fever and smallpox. Why not of tuberculosis and typhoid? The cases, unluckily, are not alike. Yellow fever and smallpox are diseases which strike so swiftly and so dramatically that even the most stupid person is quickly filled with fear of them. It is not difficult, under such circumstances, to enforce strict quarantines and to segregate all patients. If yellow fever appeared in Baltimore tomorrow, every patient would be rushed to the quarantine hospital immediately, and no one, save, perhaps, the patients themselves, would make objection. The thing is done as a matter of course whenever a case of smallpox bobs up. 

But tuberculosis and typhoid, being slower in their workings, strike less terror to the popular mind, and so it is more difficult to combat them. If the officers of the local Health Department essayed to drag consumptives and typhoid patients to quarantine, there would be a wall of protest from the ignorant and sentimental, and that wall would be so loud that it would have to be heeded. A state law requiring such segregation could never be enforced. But a national law, it is probable, could be enforced. 

And why? Simply because national laws happen to be made that way. They have the great weight and authority of the government behind them. Their enforcement is in the hands of men who are, as a rule, detached and unsentimental. It is not possible for each separate community to interpret them and modify them as it pleases. They are universal in their application; no man escapes them; the consent of distant and unprejudiced persons is necessary before they may be amended or set aside. A national law is a whole law, a state law is half a law, a city or county law is one-eighth of a law. 

The State and the Consumptive

Our present state laws are making fair progress, against tuberculosis, but they would make vastly more progress if they were a bit more drastic and were enforced a bit more thoroughly. Nine-tenths of them provide for the free treatment of any citizen afflicted with consumption. The theory here is that it is profitable for the state to convert ill and dependent citizens into well and self-supporting ones, and the duty of the state to protect healthy citizens against infection. But the state gives without receiving. No duty, in brief, is laid upon the consumptive. He may, if he has sense, accept the treatment offered and get well. But he also may, if he is an ignoramus, refuse the treatment and drag his way to the grave, a burden and a menace to all about him. 

So long as such ignorant persons are permitted to go at large there will be tuberculosis in the land. What are we to do about them? Educate them? That seems to be the favorite plan of the moment. But will it ever be possible to educate them? Isn’t it a fact that a certain number of human beings in every hundred, say 25 or 30, are utterly and incurably resistant to instruction? How long would our present immunity to smallpox last if we depended upon educating the sort of folk who have that disease? Not long, I am convinced. As a matter of fact, even lawmakers are aware of it and so we do not try to educate smallpox patients, but drag them out by the heels and carry them to some place where they can do no harm. 

Three-fourths of all the cases of tuberculosis in Maryland today show a history, it is probable, of infection through ignorance and carelessness. Among the negroes it is rare, indeed, to find a consumptive who makes any intelligent effort to protect those who must come in contact with him. Among the lower orders of whites the same thing is observed. The ignorant consumptive insists to the last upon his constitutional right to live where and how he pleases, to spit wherever he pleases, to infect whomsoever he pleases. Until that right has been taken away from him, as similar rights have been taken away from the victims of smallpox and yellow fever, tuberculosis will remain a great plague. 

Let me quote a paragraph from the annual report of the Elizabeth McCormick Open-Air School in Chicago—a school founded for the purpose of combating tuberculosis among the children of the poor. The paragraph tells the story of little Frances O, aged 13 years, one of the pupils: 

Frances is one of 13 children who lived in a little frame cottage directly back of the stockyard, where the odor was nauseating. Her father died one year ago of tuberculosis. The visiting nurse had never been able to induce him to take the slightest precautions. He expectorated in the sink and on the floor, and forbade say one of the family to open a window. The only outside air which this household of 15 got at night came through a broken window-glass which they were too poor to replace. 

The Cost of Ignorance

This filthy wretch died, but his ignorance lives after him. Little Frances has tuberculosis at 13. She is growing up broken and inefficient. Until death comes to her relief charity will have to help her to keep alive. Her mother, too, has tuberculosis. No doubt half a dozen of the other children are also infected. What will the family cost the community before it disappears? Perhaps $10,000; perhaps, in the long run, $100,000. And all because one ignorant man exercised his constitutional right to pollute the world.


The Lowden Bill

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/February 9, 1911

Houses For Our Diplomats

The Lowden embassies bill, which passed the House of Representatives Tuesday by a vote of 141 to 29 and is pretty sure to get through the Senate and become a law, will lift a handicap which has weighed heavily upon the American diplomatic service since the early days of the republic. In brief, the bill provides for the erection, at the expense of the Government, of embassies and consular buildings in all of the principal capitals and ports of the world—not elaborate palaces, but simple and dignified structures which will give proper housing to the United States, and enable them to live, on their meagre salaries, in a manner befitting their offices.  

What Uncle Sam Loses

The other first-class powers built embassies and consulates for their representatives long ago. The British Ambassador at Paris, for example, lives in a magnificent house in the fashionable quarter—a house owned and maintained by the British Government—and in addition receives a salary of $45,000 a year. But the American Ambassador at Paris must pay for his own house— and out of a salary of but $17,500 a year. The consequence is that only a very rich man can afford to represent Uncle Sam at the French capital. If he is lucky enough to find a suitable house at all, he must ordinarily pay fully $15,000 a year rent for it. This leaves him but $2,500 a year to pay his servants, lay in coal and victuals, and cut a figure in society. The thing of course, is impossible, and therefore no man who lacks a fat bank account can afford to accept the post. 

Uncle Sam has lost a lot by this parsimony. He has had to send millionaires to Paris, London. Berlin and Vienna—and it is usually difficult to find a millionaire with the proper training for diplomacy. The young men who go into the service as secretaries and attaches are usually barred from the higher ranks, for which their experience well fits them, by the fact that they are not often rich. And a great many other Americans of talents which would obviously be of value to the country abroad are made ineligible by the same lack of private means.

As a general thing house rent is a diplomat’s heaviest expense. If the Government owned embassy buildings at Berlin, Paris, Vienna and London and paid for their unkeep, it would not be impossible, though it might still be difficult, for an Ambassador to live upon his salary of $17,500. But with house rent added it is out of the question, for an Ambassador cannot live in a side street—or, at least, he should not. As a matter of record, more than one American Ambassador has been forced to do so by sheer necessity. This was the case, not so many years ago, in Rome, where the American Ambassador, a poor man, had to be content with a modest apartment. 

Now, it is plainly not fitting for the Ambassador of a great power, even though it be a republic, to live miserably in an apartment. He is expected, by the custom of civilized countries, to move in the society of the capital to which he is accredited, and unless he does move in that society and make friends among persons of influence his usefulness is much depreciated. It must be plain that he cannot do so unless he is in a position to entertain as well as to be entertained. No one wants him to dazzle the natives with his fetes, but he must at least make a respectable appearance in the circle into which his duties throw him.  

Spenders Do Much Harm

The trouble in the past has been that the millionaires sent abroad have entertained so ostentatiously and lavishly that it has been impossible, or, at any rate, extremely embarrassing to send poorer men after them. The foreigners do not know that a wealthy American ambassador pays his own bills. They assume that Uncle Sam is their host, and so when a rich representative is succeeded by a poor one the latter’s modest efforts to entertain seem mean by comparison, and he is set down as a skinflint and boor, and his value to his country falls. All the while he may be a much more able man, and potentially a much more useful man, than the plutocrat he has succeeded.  

In London the American Embassy is now housed in Dorchester House, for which Ambassador Whitelaw Reid pays an annual rental of $45,000. Mr. Reid, fortunately enough, is married to the daughter of the late Ogden Mills, and so he can afford the outlay. The business office of the embassy is located in a dingy office building in Victoria street, for which a rental of $3,000 is paid. All of the other Ambassadors accredited to London occupy houses owned by their governments. The representative of Austria, for example, lives in a fine mansion in Belgrave Square. Austria built it many years ago at a cost of $150,000, and it is now worth fully $500,000. This Austrian Ambassador, with no house rent to pay, gets $40,000 a year. Mr. Reid receives $17,500. 

In Case of Dr. D. J. Hill

In Berlin the British, French, Austrian and Russian ambassadors live in palaces owned by their governments. That of Great Britain was bought in 1871 at a cost of $750,000; that of Austria was bought three years later for $225,000; that of Italy, recently built, cost $240,000, and that of Russia, acquired for $75,000 in 1834, is now worth 10 times as much. The British Ambassador at Berlin receives $40,000 a year and an allowance for entertaining; the French Ambassador, $28,000; the Austrian representative, $31,000, and the agent of the Czar, $40,000. The American ambassador, Dr. David J. Hill, receives but $17,500 and must pay his own rent. Being a man of but moderate means, he finds it necessary to live very modestly and to refrain from general entertaining. In the official society of Berlin he is almost unknown. When he was appointed, it will be recalled, the German government actually entered an unofficial objection to him, on the sole ground that he was not rich enough to keep up his position.

The Lowden bill is designed to put an end to such embarrassments. If it becomes a law and adequate embassy buildings are purchased or built the President will be able for the first time to select diplomatic representatives for their worth and without inquiring into the status of their purses. The result must needs be a decided improvement in the personnel of the service. Men will go into it to make careers and not merely to show off their wives’ diamonds. 


Pinero’s Latest

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/February 10, 1911

“Preserving Mr. Panmure”

One of the most amusing farces in the English language—a farce which constantly skirts the borders of high comedy—is “A Wife Without a Smile” by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero. But when it was produced in 1904, an evil-minded stage manager introduced obscenity of a gross sort into its stage business, and so it made a flat and inglorious failure. That failure seemed to flabbergast Pinero and dry up the wells of his humor. In the past he had done almost as many comedies as serious plays, but thereafter he stuck to the solemn things of life, writing “His House in Order” in 1906, “The Thunderbolt” in 1908 and “Mid-Channel” in 1909. Of sportiveness he carefully fought shy—and for nearly long years.  

Now, however, he has ventured once more into his old field. The first fruit of his return is a place called “Preserving Mr. Panmure,” which had its initial performance at the Comedy Theatre in London a fort-night or so ago. “Preserving Mr. Panmure,” judging by the London reviews, is in the true manner of the early Pinero—of that Pinero who wrote “The Magistrate,” “The School Mistress,” “Dandy Dick” and other immensely funny things of 30 years ago. It is, in brief, pure farce, but it is farce shot through with reality and illuminated by the shrewd philosophy of an old observer of men and their silly ways. 

Who Kissed Josepha?

Mr. Panmure sets the fun going by kissing the beautiful Josepha, governess to his young daughter. It happens in the Panmure country house, and Panmure is so atrociously idiotic and ugly that Josepha gives him a wallop over the head and is for heaving a vase at him. Panmure, quickly seized by remorse, bags pitifully that he be not denounced to his wife, for that wife of his is a moralist of a particularly virulent breed and he fears her just and cannibalistic wrath. Josepha promises, but not until the two have made so much noise at their debate that the whole household is aroused. When Mrs. Panmure rushes in she at once divines that Josepha has had a fearful encounter with some awful man, and Josepha, in fact, is soon forced to confess that she has been kissed. 

But by whom? Panmure has made good his escape, and there are four other men in the house—videlicet. Reginald Stulkeley, M. P.; his private secretary, Talbot Woodhouse; Mr. Hebblethwalte, a doddering ancient, and Mr. Loring, a young jackass. Which of these fellows is guilty? Josepha, having confessed enough to start the hunt, refuses to confess any more. One by one the four men are put on trial by the women, with Mrs. Panmure presiding as chief inquisitor. Only Mr. Panmure, that felonious old goat, is unsuspected. 

Thus the first and second acts go on, with the women cross-examining the men and badgering Josepha to reveal the guilty wretch’s name. In the second act we see poor Josepha on the verge of distraction. The women, and particularly Mr. Panmure, will not give her a moment’s peace. They are determined to ferret out the criminal and punish him, for jealousy has bolstered up their horror at his crime, and so they question Josepha over and over again, and call upon her pathetically to tell the truth. 

Half scared to death, she flies to the men for protection—that is to say, to two of them, Mr. Stulkeley and young Woodhouse. They are in the library, preparing a political speech when she bursts upon them. Her demand is that one or the other of them confess to the crime and thus put an end to the hunt. At the start both refuse in alarm, but Josepha is a very pretty girl, and it is not long before she has them melting. Then enters Mr. Panmure himself—the real offender. Gathering what is going on, he assumes the solemn post of grand inquisitor. The women troop in and the trail is begun all over again, with the evidence pointing more and more toward Stulkeley. The curtain comes down when young Woodhouse, who has begun to view Josepha very admiringly, steps forward and boldly confesses that it was he that kissed her!

The End of the Comedy

In the fourth act we come upon fresh trouble. Stulkeley and Woodhouse are now both wildly in love with Josepha, and each is determined to propose to her. They resolve to draw lots to determine which shall have the first chance. The folded papers put into a tobacco jar and Woodhouse reaches in to draw. His hand is stuck in the jar—he can’t get it out. Stulkeley (the traitor) rushes off at once to find Josepha, and when Woodhouse follows the door is banged in his face. He peeps through the keyhole. Josepha. within, prods him in the eye with a feather. The day is lost: she will wed Stulkeley! 

And then, at the very end, Panmure is denounced by a footman who saw him kiss Josepha—and promptly throws himself upon the mercy of the court. His wife, having no alternative, forgives him and the curtain falls.

The London critics agree that the third act of this piece contains some of the best comedy that Pinero has put forth for years. “For sheer fun,” says A. B. Walkley in the Times, “there is no denying that this third act is as good as anything Sir Arthur in his most farcical moods has yet given us. You must needs roar with laughter—if just a little on the wrong side of the mouth.” But the fourth act shows a falling off, and in other places the play reveals serious defects in detail. For one thing, Panmure is made so hideous that he is rather disgusting. For another thing, the Piety of Mrs. Panmure is ridiculed in a manner that often departs from the canons of good taste. “In his yearning to lash hypocrisy,” says the London Morning Post, “Pinero has gone too far.”

Pinere in this Country

No doubt “Preserving Mr. Panmure” will soon be seen on the American stage. It is the sort of stuff which most of the theatregoers like. Pinero’s most serious plays, at least in late years, have not prospered on this side of the Atlantic. “His House in Order” made only a success of esteem; “The Thunderbolt,” at the New Theatre in New York, did little better; and “Mid-Channel,” which Ethel Barrymore presented, won her more glory than dollars. Meanwhile, it is interesting to observe that an earlier Pinero play, the sentimental “Trelawney of the Wells,” has been lately revived with considerable success. 

Soma day an astute Frohman will revive “The Schoolmistress,” “Dandy Dick” and “The Magistrate” and give “A Wife without a Smile” another chance. Upon that Frohman, unless I err, the dollars will descend in a flood.


Notes for Proposed Treatise Upon the Origin and Nature of Puritanism

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/October 25, 1915


The Puritan Incentive.—The Puritan always tries to make us believe (and often he undoubtedly believes himself) that his stern rules for the conduct of the other fellow are altruistic—that he seeks the other fellow’s advantage against the latter’s will. Cf. prohibition, the laws against horse-racing, vice crusading, u. s. w. This, of course, is a delusion. The Puritan would not actually like it if the other fellow were saved, either here or hereafter. His joy in his own virtue, indeed, lies chiefly in the feeling that it gives him an advantage—that he himself will escape hell whereas the other fellow will go there. Take away hell for the other fellow and Puritanism would lose most of its meaning—and, what is more, neatly all its charm…


Also, the Puritan’s joy in his own virtue is due partly to his belief that such a degree of virtue is enormously difficult to maintain—that the average man is quite incapable of it. Hence the Puritan venerates himself as an artist of unusual talents, a virtuoso of virtue. His error consists in mistaking a weakness for a merit. It is not actually a sign of merit to be virtuous (that is, in the Puritanical sense); it is merely a sign of docility, of lack of enterprise and originality, of cowardice. The average Puritan, once his alleged triumphs over the flesh are forgotten, is always found to be a poor stick of a man. No truly first-rate man ever was a Puritan. No Puritan has ever written a poem worth reading, or a symphony worth hearing, or painted a picture worth looking at. Even in the department that the Puritan has marked out for his own—i. e., that of law-making—he has done only second- and third-rate work. The only genuinely valuable contributions to law that have been made in two thousand years—e.g., the Code Napoleon—have been the work of non-Puritans.


“Calvinism,” said Mark Pattison, “saved Europe.” But from what? From the Renaissance.


The Cult of Law.—The rabble is always intensely moral, it always has the utmost belief in law. This explains the rise of a false sort of great man under democracy—to wit, the glorified lawyer, the soothsayer of the prevailing morality. Bryan, Wilson, the college professor, Roosevelt. A democracy, in the long run, is always controlled by lawyers who actually believe in law, or who at least profess to believe in it. The former are on all fours intellectually with magicians who believe in their own magic—e. g., Christian Scientists. . . . In all great national emergencies, of course, law worship has to be abandoned, or there is swift and irremediable disaster. Lincoln had no belief in law; in fact, he regarded all lawyers with suspicion. His weapon was physical force. Whenever, in fact, anything important is to be done, law must be conveniently forgotten. The Panama Canal business. (Even honor must be quietly shelved. Roosevelt and the treaty with Columbia.)


On Moral Beauty.—The phrase “moral beauty,” despite the respectable authorities for its use, is really wholly meaningless. A thing cannot be both moral and beautiful, for the essence of morality is renunciation and the essence of beauty is enjoyment. As well speak of “self-sacrificing self-indulgence.” There is, of course, such a thing as moral voluptuousness—one observes it, indeed, in all Puritans—but no long exposition is needed to demonstrate that it is related to morality in name only. The Puritan shows his moral voluptuousness, not in the rules of conduct he imposes upon himself, but in the rules of conduct he imposes upon the other fellow. In this business he plays the artist rather than the moralist, for the satisfaction he seeks is not so much that of having refrained from something pleasant as that of having achieved something pleasant—namely, the military conquest of the other fellow. . .

But in general the Puritan is a man whose æsthetic feeling is very feeble. Even in the case we have been considering it shows itself in the primitive form of cruelty, an element not lacking, true enough, in the higher manifestations of the æsthetic spirit, for they all involve the satisfaction of the will to power by forcing recalcitrant agencies to submit to design, but still an element that is usually well concealed by other and more rarefied factors. The Puritan can never imagine beauty as a thing in itself, an end in itself. Even music, the purest form of beauty, he apprehends only as a sort of uproarious reinforcement of moral precepts—a rhythmic hammering, as it were, upon the conscience.


Another Illusion.—The notion that the Puritan is more virtuous than the other fellow is an illusion produced by the fact that the Puritan, by having control of law-making in the Anglo-Saxon countries for 300 years, has managed to make crimes of most of the acts agreeable to the other fellow, while allowing a full legality to most of the acts agreeable to himself. In themselves, many characteristic Puritan acts are far more dangerous to civilized order and decency than the characteristic acts of such favorite butts of Puritan attack as gamblers, saloonkeepers and even prostitutes. If the Puritan laws prevailing in the average American city were suddenly repealed and the code of any European country—e. g., France, Italy, Russia or Germany—were substituted for them, fully a half of the persons under indictment for misdemeanors would be liberated, and a good many popular moralists and examples-to-the-young would be jailed. . . . In France, for example, it would be quite impossible for a group of smutty old boys to form a private organization for spying upon the private acts of their fellow-citizens: the police would quickly suppress the verein. In Italy or Russia, such a clown as the Rev. Dr. Billy Sunday would be jugged as a public nuisance. And in Germany the average Sunday-school cornetist, bruising the tympani of honest folk on Sunday mornings, would be condemned to the chain-gang…


Morality, like its antithesis, the love of beauty, is an intensely jealous mistress. It tries to dominate and monopolize all situations. Thus, the Puritan feels that he is immoral when, for a single moment, he forgets morality—i. e., when he acts naturally and honestly, instead of according to his painful, artificial rules. All works of art seem immoral to a Puritan for this reason: they make him forget, in spite of himself, that he is moral, even that such a thing as morality exists. So viewed, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is quite immoral. It teaches nothing. It imposes nothing. It makes one regret nothing. The Puritan conscience, feeling this instinctively, has tried to make it moral by reading moral messages into it—by making it either triumphant battle music or the clergy of a conqueror. Beethoven himself, tainted by the puerile moralizing of post-Reformation Germany, himself gave color and credit to this damphoolishness. . . . But one recalls with a snicker that he could never quite make up his mind just what it meant. Once it was one thing and then another.


A Definition.—One may define Puritanism quite briefly, and yet fully. It is the theory that every human act must be either right or wrong, and that 99.9 per cent. of them are wrong.


Note the first part of the definition: that every act must be either right or wrong. This is almost the whole story. A Puritan is simply one who is haunted by moral ideas, a man beset and tortured by the hosts of conscience. He cannot imagine a human act that is morally inert. Even such purely biological phenomena as eating, drinking and walking take on moral significances in his sin-stuffed head. It is not only foolish to eat too much, but also a sin. The man who drinks ale with his chop will go to hell. There should be a law against taking walks on the Sabbath.


Twins.—At the bottom of Puritanism one always finds envy of the fellow who is having a better time in the world. At the bottom of democracy one finds the same thing. This is the cause of a fact commonly observed: that the Puritan is usually a democrat, and vice versa.


The Revival of Wrath.—All the historians of Puritanism call attention to its dependency upon the Old Testament. Its effect in Europe, in truth, was to revive the Old Testament, and in particular the Old Testament Jahveh, the God of Wrath. The whole spirit of Puritanism was and is in direct conflict with the New Testament. The very ministry of Christ was a crusade against the Puritans of His time—i. e., the Pharisees. His memorable description and denunciation of them, recorded in Matthew, xxiii, fits the modern Puritans without the change of a word. It is, therefore, no wonder that the Puritans, in their efforts to make Christianity better (that is, more cruel, more satisfying) do not hesitate to throw Christ overboard. Their discussions of the miracle at Cana. Their attitude toward sinners in general, and the scarlet woman in particular.


American Puritanism.—One of the most ludicrous errors prevailing in the United States is the notion that American Puritanism is an exclusively New England product. The truth is, of course, that the worst Puritans of the day are in the South and the Middle West (not forgetting a polite bow to the Pacific Coast). . . . One hears much gabble about the Cavalier spirit in various Southern states—e. g., Virginia. The truth is that very few actual Cavaliers ever settled in the colonies, and that the few who did come never got out of sight of tidewater. The Puritans seized Virginia, kicking out Governor Berkeley at the same time that they seized England, chopping off the head of Charles I. The Church of England, in Virginia, has always been extremely low church. . . . Today it would be difficult to name a single man of Cavalier origin and tradition—i.e., a gentleman by ancestry—who is in public life in Virginia. The Commonwealth has been seized by the rabble, which is always puritanical. Imagine George Washington voting for prohibition!


One of the curious flowers of Puritanism is the circus-horse preacher, the prima donna evangelist. . . . An evangelist is a ticket speculator outside the gates of Heaven. . . .


The worst foe of Puritanism is the practical joking of the gods. . . . Who ever heard of a Puritan who could resist a pretty woman?


Sunday-school: The first refuge of scoundrels.


. . . . . Puritanism . . . . a scheme for climbing into Heaven on the bare backs of sinners.


Puritanism will remain impregnable so long as democracy prevails, but the moment the latter yields to environmental pressure it will go to pieces. Meanwhile, the more plainly Puritanism can be hooked up with obvious extravagance and imbecility—that is, the more plainly it can be demonstrated that the mental processes of its great prophets and gladiators are identical with those of cornfield negroes—the easier will be the business of hatcheting it when its time comes. It is the capital merit of Dr. Sunday, et al., that they make this identity unmistakable and undeniable. Once Sunday has “saved” a city, its understanding of the Puritan theories for which he stands is vastly more accurate than before. The anthropoid majority of such a city may continue whooping for him, and for the puerile pulpiteers who attempt feeble imitations of him, but the civilized minority have been made aware of the precise nature of his balderdash, and awakened to the menace it presents to civilized, orderly, efficient and honest government.