RENO, Nev. (AP) - The story of Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ hasty departure from Virginia City in the spring of 1864 has been stretched and massaged for much of the 150 years since it happened.
The legend has it that Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, had to light a shuck off the Comstock or face prosecution for violating the Nevada territory’s law against dueling after he challenged rival editor James Laird to a duel.
What’s left are dueling theories and compelling an artifact of “the duel that never happened” a rusted, fire-damaged piece of pistol, which has been in the collection of the Nevada Historical Society for more than 100 years.
The gun is on display along with other Clemens family artifacts including a cigar butt sent by his daughter at the historical society in Reno and it will be shown in a segment of the History Channel program “Mysteries at the Museum,” which starts a new season this week.
Christine Johnson, curator of artifacts at the historical society, said the gun itself is a good story and, while it can’t be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that it once belonged to Clemens, it also cannot be proven that he didn’t own it.
“We know it’s an 1858 Remington, which is the right timeframe,” Johnson said. “The people that are known to have touched it, we have the record from 1910 of who gave it to who and why, it seems pretty solid. We can’t prove it’s not his gun. That’s the fun part of this particular story.”
According to his autobiography, Sam Clemens was in in charge of the Territorial Enterprise during his editor’s absence in May of 1864 and ended up in a heated back-and-forth with James Laird of the rival Union newspaper.
“He was hurt by something I had said about him some little thing I don’t remember what it was now probably called him a horse-thief, or one of those little phrases customarily used to describe another editor,” Twain wrote in his autobiography.
The feud escalated to the point where one challenged the other to a duel (some stories say Twain issued the challenge, others say Laird did so.) It was set to take place at 5 a.m.
The story is that Clemens wasn’t much of a marksman. He said in his autobiography that when he and his second, Steve Gillis, set up a rail from a fence against a barn door to practice shooting, not only could he not hit the rail, but he couldn’t hit the barn door.
As luck would have it, Gillis shot the head off a bird “no bigger than a sparrow” just minutes before Laird and his second arrived for the duel. When it was asked who shot the bird, Gillis said Clemens had done it from 30 yards.
“The second took Mr. Laird home, a little tottery on his legs, and Laird sent back a note in his own hand declining to fight a duel with me on any terms whatever,” Twain wrote in his autobiography. “Well, my life was saved by that accident. I don’t know what the bird thought about that interposition of Providence, but I felt very, very comfortable over it satisfied and content. Now, we found out, later, that Laird had hit his mark four times out of six, right along. If the duel had come off, he would have so filled my skin with bullet-holes that it wouldn’t have held my principles.”
Sam Clemens left Virginia City on May 29, 1864, leaving the gun he’d practiced with in the possession of his “Enterprise” co-worker and friend, Dan DeQuille.
The pistol remnant came into possession of the Nevada Historical Society in 1910 coincidentally, the same year Mark Twain died.
It came from Joseph Conboie, a well-known Virginia City resident, who, among other business interests, was the town’s undertaker. Conboie served on the first board of museums for the state of Nevada and was acquainted with Jeanne Wier, who founded the Nevada Historical Society in 1904.
Conobie donated numerous artifacts to the historical society over several years, including the pistol remnant, which he had gotten from J.E. McKinnon, who was the lessee of the Territorial Enterprise at the turn of the 20th Century. Conobie said the pistol had been reduced to a burned remnant in Virginia City’s great fire of 1875. DeQuille had recovered the pistol remnant from the charred remains of the fire. He gave it to McKinnon shortly before his death in 1898.
The historical society’s Johnson said there is more research to do to improve upon the provenance of the piece. In the meantime, it can be viewed inside the “Prominent Nevadans” case, along with a pipe, cigar butt, a bonnet that belonged to Mark Twain’s mother, and other Clemens family artifacts.
“This is a cool story,” she said.
Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, https://www.rgj.com
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