By the time Mark Twain (formerly Sam Clemens) made it to San Francisco in the mid 1860s, people had begun referring to the city as the “Paris of the West.” Mark Twain would have appreciated the double entendre.
On the one hand the city was gaining traction as a worldwide cultural center. It was growing exponentially and becoming more ethnically diverse. There was major investment in the arts, parks and education. The famous cable cars were being built. Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson were a few of the literary luminaries Twain might have bumped into. But “Paris of the West” was also meant sarcastically, referring to the city’s infamous dark side.
The nine-block area known as the “Barbary Coast” was San Francisco’s red light district frequented by sailors, gold miners and vagabonds longing for female companionship. Prostitution, gambling houses and opium dens were rampant. According to Benjamin Estelle Lloyd’s Lights and Shades of San Francisco, “Dance-halls and concert-saloons, where blear-eyed men and faded women drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation, are numerous.”
Patrons gambled with being shanghaied; passed out, drugged or bludgeoned, only to wake up in the hold of an evil-smelling, rat-infested ship and forced into years of slave labor. It would have been a perfect classroom for Twain to observe detestable characters like Huck Finn’s villainous father, “Pap.”
But young Twain and friend Steve Gillis were experienced newspaper men, and George Barnes, editor of the Morning Call newspaper (now the San Francisco Chronicle) hired them both. Up until this time Twain was used to taking “liberties” with the truth in order to tell a more appealing story. The problem was, Barnes hired Twain to be a street reporter who stuck to the facts. There was to be no “embellishment.” Twain was expected to dig up news, which generally included the police beat, the courts, city government, schools, theaters and anything else he thought to be “newsworthy.”
“It was fearful drudgery, soulless drudgery, and almost destitute of interest,” he remembered. “It was an awful slavery for a lazy man.”
So how does a boy with a fifth grade education transform into a literary giant? Young Sam Clemens worked as a typesetter for brother Orion’s local newspaper. Printing in those days was accomplished by assembling blocks of letters in trays to form words and sentences, both of which are fundamental to the craft of writing. Journalism was a lot less formal in those days. No one worried about copyrights, and much of what appeared in papers was “borrowed” from other publications. Without realizing the good it was doing him, Twain grew up reading and writing and selecting the best of his own and others’ writing for publication.
Editor Barnes quickly realized that Twain was not only miserable, but completely out of his element. Even though he told Twain he had great creative writing potential, that was it for the Morning Call. Twain was out of a job.
Many years later, in his autobiography, Twain remembered the bittersweet experience: “It was the only time in my life that I have ever been discharged, and it hurts yet — although I am in my grave.”
Next he went to work for the Californian, a weekly paper considered to be more “literary.” Twain was to write one article per week, and was paid $50 per month. Even though he was much happier than he had been writing for the Morning Call, there was still a legendary humorist inside of him anxious to take the stage.
Artemus Ward had met Twain in Virginia City before coming to San Francisco where they became friends and spent a week together drinking and having a merry time. Ward was the stage “personna” created by Charles Farrar Browne, known at the time as a popular “lecturer.” Using the pseudonym Artemus Ward, Browne first submitted humorous stories to a variety of East Coast publications including Punch, Plain Dealer and Vanity Fair. What we might call a standup comedian today was known as a “lecturer” in Twain’s day, and Artemus Ward was a sensation. Abraham Lincoln was such a fan that he often opened cabinet meetings reading his material.
Ward had gone back East, but he kept in touch with Twain in San Francisco. Ward recognized Twain’s potential as a humorist and encouraged him to send his writing back East where he would help get it published. He also planted a seed that “lecturers” made a lot more money (in those days) than writers, a notion that appealed to Twain. But all of this would have to wait, because youth, testosterone and questionable judgement were about to intervene.
Friend and newspaper colleague Steve Gillis had accompanied Twain to San Francisco, and the pair were regular customers at a number of notorious saloons. Twain was not known for brawling or violence, but friend Steve Gillis was a scrapper.
Big Jim Casey was the proprietor of a saloon where, on this particular day he was giving a man a vicious beating. Standing up for the weaker man, Steve Gillis leapt into the fray, which enraged big Jim Casey. “Why don’t you try me,” challenged Gillis.
According to The Sagebrush Bohemian: Mark Twain’s Wild Years by Nigey Lennon, Casey then locked the front door to the saloon and snarled at Gillis, “Now, Mister, since you’ve butted in without being asked, I’ll finish the job on you!” When Casey lunged, Gillis smashed him over the head with a beer pitcher, which ended the festivities promptly. Gillis was immediately arrested for assault and battery and hauled away to jail.
The next day Casey’s busted head was no better, and some speculated he would next be dispensing liquor on the other side of the Pearly Gates. Since it wasn’t looking good for Steve Gillis, he and Twain concocted a bail-jumping scheme. Twain would sign for the $500 bond, and he and Gillis would “disappear.” Gillis headed back to Virginia City, and Twain was invited to hide out in Jim Gillis’ mining cabin (Steve’s older brother) in the Motherload mining country in the Sierra foothills, a place called “Jackass Hill.” Mark Twain was on the lam!
Next installment: Jackass Hill, yarning, a hidden English scholar, Byron, Dickens, Shakespeare and a jumping frog.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine