Sam Clemens, the Genzu Knife That Keep Giving


For years, even as a child, I wondered how long or if ever the people of Virginia City, Nev., knew that Sam Clemens and Mark Twain were the same people. The short answer is that Sam Clemens walked into a saloon and came out as Mark Twain.

And like those Genzu knife commercials of late-night television and childhood,”…but wait, there’s more!”

Clemens always claimed his nom de plume of Mark Twain came from his Mississippi riverboat years. Clemens said he “laid violent hands upon” the pen name after the death of riverboat Capt. Isaiah Sellers, who had used it in writing up riverboat news.

The term ‘mark twain’ means two fathoms of water.

It first appeared in a letter written to the editor of the Territorial Enterprise and published on February 3, 1863. However, Sellers was still alive at the time.

Clemens was hired by the Territorial Enterprise officially in August 1863 after reaching Virginia City in September 1862.

The Sellers story was accepted and published in “The Adventures of Mark Twain” by Albert Bigelow Paine in 1912. But in 1938, in “Mark Twain’s Western Years,” historian Ivan Benson questioned the story, saying “…there was ‘no original Mark Twain’ other than Samuel Clemens himself…”

He added, “Neither the name Mark Twain nor any single reference to Samuel Clemens occurs in the Sellers Journal…”

Meanwhile, Ernest Leisy, writing in 1942 for American Literature, added to the case. He searched New Orleans newspapers and found no use of “Mark Twain.”

Both reached the same conclusion; Sellers never used the name while Clemens worked the riverboats.

However, Lesy did find that Clemens had parodied a Sellers letter in the New Orleans Daily Crescent in 1859, signing it “Sergeant Fathom.” Leisy posited that Clemens “choice of the name ‘Fathom’ gave rise in his mind to the term used for the water sounding Mark Twain and that only in this remote, indirect way was he indebted to the redoubtable Isaiah Sellers.”

Five years later, Effie Mona Mack brought attention to an article in the Eureka Daily Sentinel of Eureka, Nevada. In 1877, editor George Cassidy, who had lived in the Virginia City area during the time Clemens wrote for the Territorial Enterprise, characterized Clemens as a bohemian.

Cassidy and other writers of the Sagebrush School gathered at a saloon on B Street owned by John Piper. He recalled Clemen’s habit of ordering two drinks at once and having both marked on a chalkboard behind the bar.

Recalling Clemens habits, Cassidy said he found backstory to the nom de plume to his riverboat days “too thin.” Shortly after the printed recollection, the Daily Alta California published Clemens upbraiding and redoubling his debt to Sellers for the pen name.

Paul Fatout, in his 1964 book, “Mark Twain in Virginia City,” believed the Cassidy version of the story, finding additional support for the saloon origin in another newspaper. An 1866 Transcript article published in Nevada City, Calif., backed his belief up, stating Clemens took his “regular drinks” at Johnny Doyle’s saloon.

“Well, ‘Mark,’ that is Sam, d’ye see, used to run his face, bein’ short of legal tenders…used to take two horns consecutive, one right after the other, and when he comes in there and took them on tick, Johnny used to sing out to the barkeep, who carried a lump of chalk in his pocket and kept the score, ‘mark twain,’ whereupon the barkeep would score two drinks to Sam’s account — and so it was, d’ye see, that he came to be called ‘Mark Twain.’”

The Transcript article confused Johnny Doyle, who owned a saloon in Dayton, with John E. Doyle of Virginia City. In 1865, John E. Doyle killed a man in self-defense at his own Doyle and Goodman’s saloon on C Street, Virginia City, which the Daily Union reported on March 14, 1865.

The article reminded readers that Doyle was the same barkeep for the Magnolia, which Doyle owned in Sacramento in early 1863. The newspaper report of the Doyle saloon shooting may have triggered the memory of Clemens in the 1866 Transcript.

Another story of Clemens’ drink habits came from a friend, Thomas Sawyer of San Francisco. Immortalized in later works by Clemens, Sawyer was a credible source of memories of the author’s time in “the city that Virginia silver built.”

In an 1898 interview, Sawyer recalled visiting Twain in Virginia City, where the pair frequented a saloon owned by Tom Peasley.

One night, barkeep Larry Ryan served them two cocktails, expecting Clemens to pay. Instead, Clemens held up two fingers, pointed to the slate, and said, “Larry, mark twain.”

When Ryan told owner Peasley about it in the morning, Sawyer recalled, “Peasley thought it such a good joke that he told all the boys, and after that Sam wuz dubbed ‘Mark Twain.’”

That Virginia City is the likely birthplace of the pen name is illustrated further in January 1864, in an article referring to Clemens as “Mark Two.”

In her 1990 book, “Mark Twain; The Bachelor Years,” Margaret Sanborn wrote: “Clement T. Rice, the Unreliable, reported the affair for the Daily Union…Last night a large and fashionable audience was called out to hear a message delivered by the Mark Two — otherwise called Twain.”

Clemens left Virginia City on May 29, 1864.

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