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Mark Twain > Roughing It > Chapter XLVIII

Roughing It

Chapter XLVIII

The first twenty-six graves in the Virginia cemetery were occupied by
murdered men. So everybody said, so everybody believed, and so they will
always say and believe. The reason why there was so much slaughtering
done, was, that in a new mining district the rough element predominates,
and a person is not respected until he has "killed his man." That was
the very expression used.

If an unknown individual arrived, they did not inquire if he was capable,
honest, industrious, but--had he killed his man? If he had not, he
gravitated to his natural and proper position, that of a man of small
consequence; if he had, the cordiality of his reception was graduated
according to the number of his dead. It was tedious work struggling up
to a position of influence with bloodless hands; but when a man came with
the blood of half a dozen men on his soul, his worth was recognized at
once and his acquaintance sought.

In Nevada, for a time, the lawyer, the editor, the banker, the chief
desperado, the chief gambler, and the saloon keeper, occupied the same
level in society, and it was the highest. The cheapest and easiest way
to become an influential man and be looked up to by the community at
large, was to stand behind a bar, wear a cluster-diamond pin, and sell
whisky. I am not sure but that the saloon-keeper held a shade higher
rank than any other member of society. His opinion had weight. It was
his privilege to say how the elections should go. No great movement
could succeed without the countenance and direction of the saloon-
keepers. It was a high favor when the chief saloon-keeper consented to
serve in the legislature or the board of aldermen.

Youthful ambition hardly aspired so much to the honors of the law, or the
army and navy as to the dignity of proprietorship in a saloon.

To be a saloon-keeper and kill a man was to be illustrious. Hence the
reader will not be surprised to learn that more than one man was killed
in Nevada under hardly the pretext of provocation, so impatient was the
slayer to achieve reputation and throw off the galling sense of being
held in indifferent repute by his associates. I knew two youths who
tried to "kill their men" for no other reason--and got killed themselves
for their pains. "There goes the man that killed Bill Adams" was higher
praise and a sweeter sound in the ears of this sort of people than any
other speech that admiring lips could utter.

The men who murdered Virginia's original twenty-six cemetery-occupants
were never punished. Why? Because Alfred the Great, when he invented
trial by jury and knew that he had admirably framed it to secure justice
in his age of the world, was not aware that in the nineteenth century the
condition of things would be so entirely changed that unless he rose from
the grave and altered the jury plan to meet the emergency, it would prove
the most ingenious and infallible agency for defeating justice that human
wisdom could contrive. For how could he imagine that we simpletons would
go on using his jury plan after circumstances had stripped it of its
usefulness, any more than he could imagine that we would go on using his
candle-clock after we had invented chronometers? In his day news could
not travel fast, and hence he could easily find a jury of honest,
intelligent men who had not heard of the case they were called to try--
but in our day of telegraphs and newspapers his plan compels us to swear
in juries composed of fools and rascals, because the system rigidly
excludes honest men and men of brains.

I remember one of those sorrowful farces, in Virginia, which we call a
jury trial. A noted desperado killed Mr. B., a good citizen, in the most
wanton and cold-blooded way. Of course the papers were full of it, and
all men capable of reading, read about it. And of course all men not
deaf and dumb and idiotic, talked about it. A jury-list was made out,
and Mr. B. L., a prominent banker and a valued citizen, was questioned
precisely as he would have been questioned in any court in America:

"Have you heard of this homicide?"


"Have you held conversations upon the subject?"


"Have you formed or expressed opinions about it?"


"Have you read the newspaper accounts of it?"


"We do not want you."

A minister, intelligent, esteemed, and greatly respected; a merchant of
high character and known probity; a mining superintendent of intelligence
and unblemished reputation; a quartz mill owner of excellent standing,
were all questioned in the same way, and all set aside. Each said the
public talk and the newspaper reports had not so biased his mind but that
sworn testimony would overthrow his previously formed opinions and enable
him to render a verdict without prejudice and in accordance with the
facts. But of course such men could not be trusted with the case.
Ignoramuses alone could mete out unsullied justice.

When the peremptory challenges were all exhausted, a jury of twelve men
was impaneled--a jury who swore they had neither heard, read, talked
about nor expressed an opinion concerning a murder which the very cattle
in the corrals, the Indians in the sage-brush and the stones in the
streets were cognizant of! It was a jury composed of two desperadoes,
two low beer-house politicians, three bar-keepers, two ranchmen who could
not read, and three dull, stupid, human donkeys! It actually came out
afterward, that one of these latter thought that incest and arson were
the same thing.

The verdict rendered by this jury was, Not Guilty. What else could one

The jury system puts a ban upon intelligence and honesty, and a premium
upon ignorance, stupidity and perjury. It is a shame that we must
continue to use a worthless system because it was good a thousand years
ago. In this age, when a gentleman of high social standing, intelligence
and probity, swears that testimony given under solemn oath will outweigh,
with him, street talk and newspaper reports based upon mere hearsay, he
is worth a hundred jurymen who will swear to their own ignorance and
stupidity, and justice would be far safer in his hands than in theirs.
Why could not the jury law be so altered as to give men of brains and
honesty and equal chance with fools and miscreants? Is it right to show
the present favoritism to one class of men and inflict a disability on
another, in a land whose boast is that all its citizens are free and
equal? I am a candidate for the legislature. I desire to tamper with
the jury law. I wish to so alter it as to put a premium on intelligence
and character, and close the jury box against idiots, blacklegs, and
people who do not read newspapers. But no doubt I shall be defeated--
every effort I make to save the country "misses fire."

My idea, when I began this chapter, was to say something about
desperadoism in the "flush times" of Nevada. To attempt a portrayal of
that era and that land, and leave out the blood and carnage, would be
like portraying Mormondom and leaving out polygamy. The desperado
stalked the streets with a swagger graded according to the number of his
homicides, and a nod of recognition from him was sufficient to make a
humble admirer happy for the rest of the day. The deference that was
paid to a desperado of wide reputation, and who "kept his private
graveyard," as the phrase went, was marked, and cheerfully accorded.
When he moved along the sidewalk in his excessively long-tailed frock-
coat, shiny stump-toed boots, and with dainty little slouch hat tipped
over left eye, the small-fry roughs made room for his majesty; when he
entered the restaurant, the waiters deserted bankers and merchants to
overwhelm him with obsequious service; when he shouldered his way to a
bar, the shouldered parties wheeled indignantly, recognized him, and--

They got a look in return that froze their marrow, and by that time a
curled and breast-pinned bar keeper was beaming over the counter, proud
of the established acquaintanceship that permitted such a familiar form
of speech as:

"How're ye, Billy, old fel? Glad to see you. What'll you take--the old

The "old thing" meant his customary drink, of course.

The best known names in the Territory of Nevada were those belonging to
these long-tailed heroes of the revolver. Orators, Governors,
capitalists and leaders of the legislature enjoyed a degree of fame, but
it seemed local and meagre when contrasted with the fame of such men as
Sam Brown, Jack Williams, Billy Mulligan, Farmer Pease, Sugarfoot Mike,
Pock Marked Jake, El Dorado Johnny, Jack McNabb, Joe McGee, Jack Harris,
Six-fingered Pete, etc., etc. There was a long list of them. They were
brave, reckless men, and traveled with their lives in their hands. To
give them their due, they did their killing principally among themselves,
and seldom molested peaceable citizens, for they considered it small
credit to add to their trophies so cheap a bauble as the death of a man
who was "not on the shoot," as they phrased it. They killed each other
on slight provocation, and hoped and expected to be killed themselves--
for they held it almost shame to die otherwise than "with their boots
on," as they expressed it.

I remember an instance of a desperado's contempt for such small game as a
private citizen's life. I was taking a late supper in a restaurant one
night, with two reporters and a little printer named--Brown, for
instance--any name will do. Presently a stranger with a long-tailed coat
on came in, and not noticing Brown's hat, which was lying in a chair, sat
down on it. Little Brown sprang up and became abusive in a moment. The
stranger smiled, smoothed out the hat, and offered it to Brown with
profuse apologies couched in caustic sarcasm, and begged Brown not to
destroy him. Brown threw off his coat and challenged the man to fight--
abused him, threatened him, impeached his courage, and urged and even
implored him to fight; and in the meantime the smiling stranger placed
himself under our protection in mock distress. But presently he assumed
a serious tone, and said:

"Very well, gentlemen, if we must fight, we must, I suppose. But don't
rush into danger and then say I gave you no warning. I am more than a
match for all of you when I get started. I will give you proofs, and
then if my friend here still insists, I will try to accommodate him."

The table we were sitting at was about five feet long, and unusually
cumbersome and heavy. He asked us to put our hands on the dishes and
hold them in their places a moment--one of them was a large oval dish
with a portly roast on it. Then he sat down, tilted up one end of the
table, set two of the legs on his knees, took the end of the table
between his teeth, took his hands away, and pulled down with his teeth
till the table came up to a level position, dishes and all! He said he
could lift a keg of nails with his teeth. He picked up a common glass
tumbler and bit a semi-circle out of it. Then he opened his bosom and
showed us a net-work of knife and bullet scars; showed us more on his
arms and face, and said he believed he had bullets enough in his body to
make a pig of lead. He was armed to the teeth. He closed with the
remark that he was Mr. ---- of Cariboo--a celebrated name whereat we shook
in our shoes. I would publish the name, but for the suspicion that he
might come and carve me. He finally inquired if Brown still thirsted for
blood. Brown turned the thing over in his mind a moment, and then--asked
him to supper.

With the permission of the reader, I will group together, in the next
chapter, some samples of life in our small mountain village in the old
days of desperadoism. I was there at the time. The reader will observe
peculiarities in our official society; and he will observe also, an
instance of how, in new countries, murders breed murders.

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Index Index

Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Chapter X
Chapter XI
Chapter XII
Chapter XIII
Chapter XIV
Chapter XV
Chapter XVI
Chapter XVII
Chapter XVIII
Chapter XIX
Chapter XX
Chapter XXI
Chapter XXII
Chapter XXIII
Chapter XXIV
Chapter XXV
Chapter XXVI
Chapter XXVII
Chapter XXVIII
Chapter XXIX
Chapter XXX
Chapter XXXI
Chapter XXXII
Chapter XXXIII
Chapter XXXIV
Chapter XXXV
Chapter XXXVI
Chapter XXXVII
Chapter XXXIX
Chapter XL
Chapter XLI
Chapter XLII
Chapter XLIII
Chapter XLIV
Chapter XLV
Chapter XLVI
Chapter XLVII
Chapter XLVIII
Chapter XLIX
Chapter L
Chapter LI
Chapter LII
Chapter LIII
Chapter LIV
Chapter LV
Chapter LVI
Chapter LVII
Chapter LVIII
Chapter LIX
Chapter LX
Chapter LXI
Chapter LXII
Chapter LXIII
Chapter LXIV
Chapter LXV
Chapter LXVI
Chapter LXVII
Chapter LXVIII
Chapter LXIX
Chapter LXX
Chapter LXXI
Chapter LXXII
Chapter LXXIII
Chapter LXXIV
Chapter LXXV
Chapter LXXVI
Chapter LXXVII
Chapter LXXIX

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