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  • Mark Twain Reports the Hornet Disaster
  • Gary Scharnhorst

One of the most riveting episodes in Mark Twain biography details his role in publicizing the survival of the captain, two passengers, and twelve crewmen of the Hornet in the spring of 1866. On May 3, en route from New York to San Francisco, the famed clipper ship burned and sank in the mid-Pacific. After a voyage of forty-three days and four thousand miles, one of its three lifeboats finally touched land on June 15 at Laupahoehoe, a fishing village on the north shore of the big island of Hawaii. The first reports of survivors arrived in Honolulu, two hundred miles distant, on June 21; and Mark Twain, in the Sandwich Islands as a special correspondent of the Sacramento Daily Union, appended the news to his June 22 letter to the paper, which was subsequently printed, in the absence of a telegraph cable between the Islands and the mainland, in its July 16 issue. Twain interviewed several of the men on June 24, the day they arrived in a Honolulu hospital,1 and worked all that night on a dispatch about their ordeal. As he explained over thirty years later in his essay “My Début as a Literary Person” (1900), later incorporated into his Autobiography:

I took no dinner, for there was no time to spare if I would beat the other correspondents. I spent four hours arranging the notes in their proper order, then wrote all night and beyond it; with this result: that I had a very long and detailed account of the “Hornet” episode ready at nine in the morning, while the other correspondents of the San Francisco journals had nothing but a brief outline report—for they didn’t sit up. The now-and-then schooner was to sail for San Francisco about nine; when I reached the dock she was free forward and was just casting off her stern-line. My fat envelope was thrown by a strong hand, and fell on board all right, and my victory was a safe thing.2 [End Page 272]

Writing to his mother and sister a couple of days later, Twain predicted that if his “account gets to the Sacramento Union first, it will be published first all over the United States, France, England, Russia and Germany—all over the world, I may say.”3 And, in Twain’s telling, that was exactly what happened. His “complete report” of the catastrophe and the extraordinary endurance of the men, splashed across three columns on the front page of the Union for July 19, made quite a “stir” and “was telegraphed to the New York papers” by the head of “the Pacific bureau of the ‘New York Herald.’”4 When Twain returned to California, according to his version of events, he presented a bill “for ‘special’ service on the ‘Hornet’ matter of three columns of solid nonpareil at a hundred dollars a column” which the proprietors “in their jolly fashion” agreed to pay.5

This account in turn has been enshrined in legend. As early as 1887 George Barnes, Twain’s former boss at the San Francisco Morning Call, credited him with scooping his rivals by publishing “the first news of the terrible misfortune” of the Hornet, a tale so “graphic” that “the whole reading world thrilled with pity.”6 In a sketch of his life written in collaboration with his nephew Samuel Moffett in 1899, Twain bragged that the scoop was “one of his greatest feats of ‘straight newspaper work.’”7 According to Albert Bigelow Paine, Twain’s official biographer, the young reporter “gave the public the first detailed history of the terrible Hornet disaster and the rescue of those starving men.”8 Twain’s modern biographers have hewed the same line. Effie Mona Mack averred in 1947 that Twain’s “scoop” was “telegraphed everywhere.”9 Albert E. Stone, Jr., asserted in 1961 that Twain’s dispatch was “picked up by the New York Herald’s West Coast correspondent, telegraphed across the nation, and reprinted everywhere, thus assuring Twain’s scoop.”10 Even more recently, Andrew Jay Hoffman claims that Twain’s report was “carried by wire across...


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