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“The Best of the Season:” Mark Twain’s Indiana Lectures

"America's Best Humorist," Mark Twain. Lithograph by Joseph F. Keppler, 1885. Library of Congress.
“America’s Best Humorist,” Mark Twain. Lithograph by Joseph F. Keppler, 1885. Library of Congress.

From James Whitcomb Riley to Kurt Vonnegut, Indiana is well-known for its literary heritage. This heritage developed, in-part, through personal appearances, where authors read from their works and shared new material with audiences. Of the lecturers, one of the most successful during the Gilded Age was Mark Twain. Born in Missouri as Samuel L. Clemens, Mark Twain became one of the late-19th century’s most popular and acclaimed authors. Alongside his successful career as a novelist and cultural critic, Twain crisscrossed the country, regaling packed theaters with stories, readings from new written material, and plain-old good jokes.

Map highlighting Mark Twain's lectures in the Midwest. Mark Twain Project.
Map highlighting Mark Twain’s lectures in the Midwest. Mark Twain Project.

One of his first visits to Indiana as a lecturer was January 4, 1869, when he performed a reading of “The American Vandal Abroad.”  As reported by the Indianapolis Daily Sentinel:

We caution our readers not to forget the treat prepared for them this evening by the Library Association. Mark Twain, one of the real humorists of the day, will deliver his lecture entitled “The American Vandal Abroad,” and his merits entitle him to a large audience. The lecture will be delivered at Metropolitan Hall, and reserved seats may be secured without extra charge at Bonham’s Music Store.

Mark Twain, circa 1860-1880. Indiana Memory,
Mark Twain, circa 1860-1880. Indiana Memory,

While the exact content of his performance from that night was not reported, he had repeatedly given the lecture through 1868-69, and a compiled version was published by literature scholar Paul Fatout, in his book, Mark Twain Speaking. In this lecture, Twain referred to the “American Vandal” as someone who “goes everywhere and is always at home everywhere . . . His is proud and looks proud. His countenance is beaming. He does not fail to let the public know that he is an American.” Twain’s lecture, like his broader work, represents an American voice that spoke to the Midwest, especially places like Indiana.

Indianapolis News, January 1, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, January 1, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1872, Twain returned to Indiana and gave a lecture sharing snippets from his then-upcoming work, Roughing It. According to the Indianapolis News, Mark Twain gave his lecture at the Y.M.C.A. Association hall on January 1, 1872, at a cost of 50 cents at the door, 75 cents for reserved seats (what a bargain!).  As the News reported:

Mark Twain, the noted humorist and author, lectures here to-night [sic] on “Passages from Roughing It.” Mr. Twain has a national reputation and should appear before a hall of people; besides the Y. M. C. A., under whose auspices he lectures, are in absolute want through lack of means. Let Association Hall be crowded to-night [sic].

This lecture was a marked departure from “Vandal,” both in style and in subject. Twain shared with audiences his experiences out west, from camping in the outskirts of Carson City, Nevada to riding colt horses and getting in duels.

Terre Haute Evening Mail, January 6, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Terre Haute Evening Mail, January 6, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Twain’s stories were printed in newspapers during his time in Indiana in 1872 as well. For example, the Terre Haute Evening Mail published an article entitled “Mark Twain on His Travels.” Among the witty stories than were shared by the Mail, this one is golden:

When we got to Rochester I called for a bowl of bean soup. I send you the receipt for making it: “Take a lot of water, wash it well, boil it until it is brown on both sides; then very carefully pour one bean into it and let it simmer. When the bean begins to get restless sweeten with salt, then put it in air-tight cans, hitch each can to a brick, and chuck them overboard, and the soup is done.”

The above receipt originated with a man in Iowa, who gets up suppers on odd occasions for Odd Fellows. He has a receipt for oyster soup of the same kind, only using twice as much water to the oyster and leaving out the salt.

However, not everyone was taken with Twain’s sardonic lectures. The Indianapolis People wrote that “It is the decided opinion of all we heard speak of Mark Twain’s lecture that it read better than it was spoken.”

George W. Cable. Library of Congress.
George W. Cable. Library of Congress.

When Twain returned to Indiana in 1885, he came with a traveling lecture partner. George W. Cable, novelist of the southern-creole experience and an influence on William Faulkner, shared selections from his novels while Twain shared early pages from Huckleberry Finn as well as stories like “The Golden Arm.” Twain and Cable couldn’t have been more different. Twain was described by the Indianapolis Sentinel as “awkward and lanky” whereas Cable was more reserved. As Fatout observed, Twain often bristled as Cable’s religiosity and rigorous commitment to formality while Cable scoffed at Twain’s unorthodox and scattered disposition. To get a sense of their differences, review this blurb from the Indianapolis News: “Mr. Cable eats chocolate ice cream at midnight, after his readings, and still lives. His yoke-fellow, Mark Twain, hurls his bootjack at St. John, and uncorks a bottle or so of pale ale.”

Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 7, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 7, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Nevertheless, their joint appearance at Plymouth Church in Indianapolis, Indiana on January 7, 1885 was greatly lauded. The Indianapolis Sentinel reported that their performances was “the best of the season” and the Indianapolis News wrote that it was “one of the finest audiences that could be gathered.” The Greencastle Times even reported that efforts were underway to bring the two over to Greencastle to perform (alas, it was not to be).

Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 8, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 8, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

That evening, Twain shared with the audience his short story, “Dick Baker’s Cat,” a short tale about a special cat who had a propensity for mining. Here’s a short snippet from the story:

‘Gentlemen, I used to have a cat here, by the name of Tom Quartz, which you’d ‘a’ took an interest in, I reckon—, most anybody would. I had him here eight year—and he was the remarkablest cat I ever see. He was a large grey one of the Tom specie, an’ he had more hard, natchral sense than any man in this camp—’n’ a power of dignity—he wouldn’t let the Gov’ner of Californy be familiar with him. He never ketched a rat in his life—’peared to be above it. He never cared for nothing but mining. He knowed more about mining, that cat did, than any man I ever, ever see. You couldn’t tell him noth’n’ ’bout placer-diggin’s—’n’ as for pocketmining, why he was just born for it.’

The rest of story involves a hilarious scenario where the mining-savvy cat gets stuck in a quartz shaft, which explodes, and he flies out of there all covered in soot and his whiskers burned off. It was exactly the kind of zany, improbable yarn that Twain was so gifted at and the audience at Plymouth Church agreed.

Twain’s and Cable’s appearance would be the last time they would appear together in Indiana and Twain’s last lecture in the state. Over the next 20 years, Twain continued to travel the county and the world, going so far as India and New Zealand, to share his lectures and stories. His last known lecture, according to the Mark Twain Project, was a reading for Mary Allen Hulbert Peck on the Island of Bermuda on March 27, 1908. Mark Twain died on April 24, 1910 at the age of 74 from heart failure, at his home near Redding, Connecticut. An obituary in the Plymouth Tribune complimented Twain’s success as a novelist, humorist, and lecturer. It also cited the loss of much of his family, particularly his daughter, and friends as one of the main reasons for his passing.

Plymouth Tribune, April 28 1910. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, April 28 1910. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Reflecting on what was referred to as the “American style” of humor, Mark Twain shared his thoughts to a reporter from the Detroit Post, later reprinted in the Terre Haute Express:

“Is the American taste for humor still growing, in your opinion?”

“Yes, I think so. Humor is always popular, and especially so with Americans. It is born in every American, and he can’t help liking it.”

“Is it true that the American style of humor is becoming very popular in England?”

“Yes, the liking of American humor over there has become immense. It wakens [sic] the people to new life, and is supplanting the dry wit which formerly passes for humor. American humor wins its own way, and does not need to be cultivated. The English come to like it naturally”

In his lectures in Indiana and elsewhere, Twain exhibited the type of natural humor “born in every American” that characterizes the American cultural identity.

Mark Twain, 1907. Library of Congress.
Mark Twain, 1907. Library of Congress.

Lew Wallace and the Circassian Girl Hoax

an_odalisque_joseph_douglas

Enlightened 21st-century cruisers and abusers of the internet know the term “gone viral”: a video or tweet, often based on totally bogus handling of the facts, skyrockets to global popularity in days or even hours.

But viral news is as old as news itself.

In the early 1880s, Indiana’s great novelist and war hero, General Lew Wallace, author of the bestselling Ben-Hur, got caught up in one of the more trumped-up tales of nineteenth-century journalism — a story which, it turns out, has an incredibly bizarre “cousin” today, reverberating in the deadly chasms of fantasy that cut through the majestic sierras of the World Wide Web.  So beware, fellow climber: Lady Eros and the Yellow Journalist still get together.

The mildly erotic tale begins around 1883, when Lew Wallace was a well-known American public figure.  To quickly recap his bio: son of Governor David Wallace of Indiana, the “militant romantic” had served in the worst battles of the Civil War; sat on the trials of the Lincoln conspirators and Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born Confederate commander of Andersonville prison; fought as a Juarista general in the Mexican Army during the French invasion of 1865; and as Territorial Governor of New Mexico, he helped reign in the outlaw Billy the Kid.

Slowly propelled to greater fame when the novel Ben-Hur came out, Lew Wallace  went to Constantinople in 1881 as U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire.  The general and his wife, writer Susan Wallace, were ardent Orientalists. Yet Ben-Hur, set in Palestine, was published a year before they ever saw the Middle East, its description based on research in the Library of Congress.  Now, the couple traveled around the eastern Mediterranean.

During his four years as an American diplomat in Constantinople, the Hoosier writer became close friends with Ottoman Sultan Abdül Hamid II — though Wallace famously became “the first person to demand that the sultan shake his hand.”  When Grover Cleveland was elected U.S. President in 1884, Wallace’s term ended.  Abdül Hamid tried to get his friend to stay on and represent Turkish interests in Europe.  Wallace, instead, came home to Montgomery County.


       feb14lewwallace      Sultan Abdul Hamid II


Lew Wallace Autobiography

(Lew Wallace described watching a Turkish infantry and Circassian cavalry drill with the Ottoman Sultan in his Autobiography, published in 1906.)


The gossip mill, however, was already rolling years before Wallace sailed home to the States.  As early as September 2, 1882, the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail reprinted a dramatic story from The Wasp, San Francisco’s acerbic satirical weekly perhaps best-known for its lurid political cartoons attacking Chinese immigration to the West Coast.  (The Wasp has been called California’s version of Puck and was staffed by extremely talented, if racist, illustrators.)

“An Unwelcome Present” was syndicated in other papers as far away as New Zealand and often got subtitled along the lines of “What the General’s Wife Thought of the Sultan’s Present.”

As far as I can tell, the tale first originated in the pages of The Wasp on August 5, 1882, where it ran under the title “That Present.”  What I find especially fascinating is that the magazine’s editor from 1881 to 1885 was no less than the sardonic Hoosier cynic Ambrose Bierce, whose Devil’s Dictionary had its genesis as a column in the California weekly.

Ambrose Bierce in Civil War

Like Wallace, Bierce fought at the terrifying Battle of Shiloh in 1862, serving as First Lieutenant in the ranks of the Ninth Indiana Infantry.  During his days as a journalist, Bierce also worked for William Randolph Hearst at The San Francisco Examiner.  To sell papers, the newspaper giant “routinely invented sensational stories, faked interviews, ran phony pictures and distorted real events.”


The Wasp August 2 1882

(Collections of the California State Library at www.archives.org.)


Did Bierce pen some “yellow journalism” about Lew Wallace and a Turkish harem girl?  I wouldn’t put it past him.  The Wasp’s  editor was one of the biggest misogynists of his day and took constant swipes at women.  To me, “An Unwelcome Present” sounds like one of Bierce’s tales or epigrams about the diabolical battle between the sexes, which he always portrayed as just slightly less gory than the bloodbath he and Wallace survived at Shiloh.  In any case, the gossipy piece about his fellow Hoosier got published on Ambrose Bierce’s editorial watch.

Here’s the whole comic tale as it appeared on the front page of the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail:

An Unwelcome Present (1)

An Unwelcome Present (2)

An Unwelcome Present (3)

Writer and poet Susan Wallace, who grew up in Crawfordsville and married Lew in 1852, had no reason to fear her husband would take up with a concubine.  Yet Circassian beauties were all the rage during the long heyday of Orientalism.

The exotic Circassian mystique had been around for many decades.   Inhabiting the Caucasus Mountains at the eastern end of the Black Sea near Sochi (the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics), Circassians were hailed by 19th-century anthropologists as the apogee of the human form.  “Circassophilia” churned out many exotic myths about these people in Europe and America.  During the Enlightenment, the French writer Voltaire popularized a belief that Circassian women were the most beautiful on earth, “a trait that he linked to their practice of inoculating babies with the smallpox virus.”  In the 1790s, the invention of the so-called “Caucasian” race occurred when Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, one of the founders of physical anthropology, compared the anatomy of the beautiful, martial Circassians of what became North Turkey and southern Russia with the rest of humanity and categorized the mountain folk as the least “degenerate” humans.

Yet by the time of Wallace’s tenure in the Middle East in the 1880s, these tough mountaineers had been subdued by the Russians and Ottomans after long years of bloody warfare.  Legends about dazzling Circassian beauties abounded even as Circassia itself disappeared from the map.  One popular story went that the main source of wealth for fathers in the region was their breathtakingly beautiful daughters, whom they sold off to Turkish slave markets, though as writer in The Penny Magazine thought in 1838, Circassian women were “exceedingly anxious to be sold,” since life in a Turkish harem was “preferable to their own customs.”  In Constantinople, they were highly prized in harems — not to be confused with Western prostitution.  American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lydia Maria Child devoted a chapter to Circassia in her 1838 History of the Condition of Women.


Circassian Cream

(Women from the Caucasus were known for their luxuriant hair and fueled idealized notions of female beauty in the West.  So-called Circassian hair oils, dyes, and creams were enormously popular at the time of the American Civil War.)


circassian women 2

 (A photo of actual Circassian beauties around 1880.)


The horrible trade in female slaves from the Caucasus was alive and well in the mid-1800s, when an alleged glut in the market led to their devaluation.  Good timing for American circus mogul P.T. Barnum.  In May 1864, he wrote to one of his employees, John Greenwood, who had traveled to Ottoman Cyprus to try to buy a Circassian girl on Barnum’s behalf.  Over a year after the Emancipation Proclamation in America, the circus owner wrote:

I still have faith in a beautiful Circassian girl if you can get one very beautiful. But if they ask $4000 each, probably one would be better than two, for $8000 in gold is worth about $14,500 in U.S. currency. So one of the most beautiful would do. . . But look out that in Paris they don’t try the law and set her free. It must be understood she is free. . .  Yours Truly, P.T. Barnum

Barnum’s fascination with acquiring and exhibiting women in his shows took on the elements of a personal erotic and racial fantasy.  Though most were “local girls,” as newspapers knew, Barnum billed his “Circassians” as escaped sex slaves and “the purest specimens of the white race.”  Figments of Barnum’s imagination, these women joined the ranks of the dime-show freaks, part of the offbeat spectacle of bearded ladies, sword-swallowers, and snake-handlers that drew in paying crowds.  Barnum’s harem girls enhanced their hair with beer to create a farfetched “Afro” look — exterior representations, can we say, of the crazy fantasies in Barnum’s own head?


Circassian Girl - Matthew Brady New York 1861

(Daguerreotype of a “Circassian beauty” by Matthew Brady, New York, circa 1861.  These intentional freaks dressed in the very opposite attire of their modest Central Asian “sisters.”)


Circassian Girl ad

(A major feature of the post-bellum American sideshows, Barnum’s racial and sexual fantasies showed up on postcards, cigarette advertisements, and fliers.  An impressive gallery of “Moss-Haired Girls,” as these women were called, has been collected online at Sideshow World.)


Terre Haute Weekly Express September 22 1869

(A trainload of “freaks” came through Terre Haute in 1869.  The group included the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, who had once toured the world but finally settled down in North Carolina.  Indiana State Geologist E.T. Cox, who had been hoaxed once, rode with them.  The conjoined twins, who married Southern women and whose sons fought for the Confederacy, did a European tour with P.T. Barnum in 1868.)


Jasper Weekly Courier August 10 1900

(Jasper Weekly Courier, August 12, 1900)


Obviously, this was not the kind of Circassian girl alleged by some gossiper or “yellow journalist” to have been given to Lew Wallace in Turkey.

On the eve of his return to America, the General tried to clear things up with the press.  The Indianapolis Journal carried this twist in the story on June 30, 1884:

Lew Wallace - That Circassian Girl - Indianapolis Journal June 30 1884

The website of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville gives a slightly different perspective altogether:

As his tour of duty as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the Ottoman Empire came to an end in 1884, Lew Wallace was offered a number of gifts from his friend, Sultan Abdul Hamid II. These included Arabian horses, jewels, and works of art. As a representative of the government of the United States, Wallace graciously declined these expressions of friendship and gratitude. According to legend, as Wallace closed his office and packed his residence, the Sultan was able to secretly include the painting called The Turkish Princess, some elaborate carpets and a few other items in the shipping crates. The crates were delivered to Crawfordsville before Lew and Susan returned home. These items sent by the Sultan remained undiscovered by Wallace until he was back in Crawfordsville and opened the crates. The Turkish Princess, said to be one of the Sultan’s daughters, remains one of the highlights of the Study.

Wallace’s biographers Robert and Katharine Morsberger add a further footnote: “Malicious gossip-mongers claimed that the sultan had also provided Wallace a Circassian slave girl for his carnal pleasures and commiserated with Susan Wallace on her husband’s alleged concubine.  Both the sultan and the American minister had too much honor and mutual respect for such an arrangement.”


Lew Wallace Stuy

(The Turkish Princess, by Austrian Orientalist painter Leopold Müller, is the real Circassian girl and hangs in Wallace’s study in Crawfordsville to this day.)


Now are you ready for the big twist?

While researching this story, I discovered that “Circassophilia” is alive and well out in cyberspace.

When I stumbled across a striking painting of a Circassian beauty and a couple of attached photos on one website, I read the claim that this was no less than the “Gwaschemasch’e Kadın Efendi,” thirteenth wife of Turkish Sultan Abdül Hamid, friend of our own Lew Wallace.  I would not have blamed the General if he’d taken notice of this great beauty.

Many websites, none of which looked legit, echoed this claim.  If what the anonymous folks who clutter the internet with re-posts wanted to be true was true, this stunning Circassian woman was not just the Sultan’s wife, but an occult priestess who dabbled in fertility rituals.

One photo shows her offering some kind of sacrifice at the Neolithic Mnajdra temple in Malta in 1906.  A documentary (totally fake) gives more alleged footage of “Princess Gwaschemasch’e” sporting pagan symbols painted on her body at this  ancient Maltese fertility temple.  Another photo shows the same woman with her mother in Paris in the 1890s, and a drawing of a Turkish building in flames bears the (highly convenient) caption: “Fire at Çırağan Palace (1910) — Gwaschemasche’s childhood home was completely destroyed, resulting in the loss of many priceless cultural artifacts including Gwaschemasche’s manuscripts.”  The “princess,” we’re told, even contributed to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a few decades after Wallace came back to the Midwest.


Circassian Girl painting

(The “Mother of Gwaschemash’e,” whose identity is cooked-up in a viral internet hoax, was based on a real 1876 painting by Jean-Léon Gerome, “Veiled Circassian Woman.”)


Turns out this is (or was) one of the biggest cyber hoaxes on the web. Perhaps thousands of internet users have been duped, especially on Tumblr.  A website apparently dedicated to exposing it, Circassian Voices, carries the fantastic title: “The Gwaschemasch’e Hoax: Cult of Circassian Eroticism, Neopaganism, Sisterhood of Jihad, South American Hooligans, and E-manipulation.”  Another supposed watchdog website, Knowing the Junsui, which stopped posting in 2009, will take you deep into the realm of what looks to me like a sprawling internet game, involving fabrication beyond even the usual tampering with Wikipedia and basic Photoshopping.  Circassian Voices points out a YouTube video created by a “hooligan” group in Santiago, Chile, Las Santas Guerreras de Gwaschemasch’e (“Holy Warriors of Gwaschemasch’e” — note the feminine guerreras), then suggests the whole thing might have been deliberately concocted by female Chechen warriors.  Sounds like a Jorge Luis Borges story to me!

But I’ll let you unravel all that.  Too bad Lew Wallace isn’t around to clear things up.  Alas, even the General might not be much help:

Indianapolis Journal June 30 1884

(Indianapolis Journal, June 30, 1884.)